Brooklyn may have been the cradle of the majority of indie rock this decade, but NYU was the breeding ground, where big ideas in the Village turned into the biggest sounds coming out of Williamsburg. This pipeline of ideas to music is arguably the most important of its kind since the Berkeley-Frisco pipeline of the 60s, but the current economy threatens to destroy this pipeline as we know it. Case in point: before Thursday night’s concert of Apache Beat, Marnie Stern, A Place to Bury Strangers and Ra Ra Riot at NYU’s Kimmel Center, I was planning to go to my favorite East Village pizza place, which my friends and I had been to not a month earlier. I got downtown to find it had boarded up with a lease sign since my last visit. NYU is arguably the cultural center of the ironic generation, and they said irony was supposed to die after 9/11, but 9/11 only shut down business in downtown Manhattan for a few days. In reality, irony dies along with the checking accounts of those under 30. Hell, even in its exceedingly lame expressions, such as the recent student occupation of the NYU Food Court, is a telling sign that a storm is brewing
That climate made an interesting backdrop to the collection of hot shit indie acts at the Kimmel Center Thursday night. Even among a crowd of undergrads who had previously been the archetype of bitter, indifferent pomo students, you could sense a dread for the future that I had not seen in much less jaded venues less than a year ago. There were still the required batch of walking stereotypes, but there were more people standing in the front with forlorn looks in their eyes, desperate, for the first time in a long time, to have music that actually meant something to their lives. As a result, the sense of opportunism that came with Apache Beat was as forgivable as it was almost certainly unintentional.
Apache Beat formed in 2006, and the series of coincidences that have worked out in their favor since them are so remarkably prep this band for a breakthrough that you almost expect there was a sinister backdoor marketing meeting somewhere. Musically, the sound like the Long Blondes, a band that everyone loved in 2006 but met broke up after their second album flopped last summer. In terms of looks, however, you have a guitarist in Philip Aceto who lifts his wardrobe straight from Interpol circa 2002; every female and gay man in New York wanted to sleep with Interpol in 2002, but now Interpol has alienated their fan base and seen their critical love deteriorate after a deeply misguided switch to the major labels around the same time Apache Beat formed. Meanwhile, they have a frontwoman who dares you to see how long you can go without making a Karen O. comparison; now as the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs turn to electro-pop, there’s a void left among straight out rock bands for exotic looking frontwomen who are too cool to show you their eyes. Enter Ilirjana Alushaj. Those are three demands where Apache Beat is poised to dominate after opening for an impressive list of indie bands over the past two years. At the very least, it helps that their songs are decent, too.
My main interest in the evening was in act 2 of 4, Marnie Stern, who after two albums is one of the most unprecedented, original acts to emerge in rock n roll this decade. On her studio work, Stern is the prototypical guitar nerd; mathematical to the point of OCD, nerdy beyond her NYU roots, and still able to have fun while delivering some of the most bone-shattering guitar tracks you’ve heard in ages. Live, without the aid of overdubs or studio trickery, her performance more a display of her virtuosity, as well as her non-musical personality. Drunk when she got there, Stern maintained a cockiness and propensity to lewdness on stage that more resembles a cocky pitching phenom than a Jagger-like rock n roll swagger. Of course, Stern’s promise doesn’t entitle her to shit, but it helps that she plays guitar with skill unseen in a mainstream-ish rock act unseen at least since Buckethead, if not Eddie Van Halen himself. The fact that this decade’s most exciting new guitarist is a woman also has an undeniable significance; even in the best female rock acts, ability to play was never as much of an emphasis; to that end Marnie Stern is closer to L7 and later Sleater-Kinney in terms of her convention-defying ability to rock hard. With Stern on stage, you saw a small but significant pack female music nerds clearly paying attention in the front. With any luck, some of those women will form great bands of their own, taking Stern’s lead of overlooking the physical briefly to let your work with an instrument speak for itself.
I had not heard A Place To Bury Strangers before Thursday night other than as a name circulating in Pitchfork circles; the band has recently signed to Mute; but stupidly confusing Mute and Merge, I assumed I was hearing some power pop or twee band. Instead, I saw possibly the loudest band I’ve ever heard save for Motorhead, and one of the most dangerous performances I’ve ever seen. Once I saw that they were noise rock; I was expecting to be disappointed by yet another sorry excuse for a neo-No Waver. At first, I was disappointed by their shoegazing (in the literal sense; their sound has much more in common with Throbbing Gristle, Scratch Acid and early Sonic Youth than MBV), but fascinated by their sonic complexity and no-holds barred approach to playing. Eventually, I realized that APTBS was actually engaging brilliant in one of the few ways to stay dangerous in today’s climate; when every word of crowd talk is treated with a deep suspicion of irony or cynicism, the best way to show your not joking is to bleed the kids ears out. Turning the room pitch black and playing silent horror movies helped the cause; as did the fact that bassist Jonathan Smith is the first new urban indie rock musician I’ve scene in years who actually had muscles. With the lights out and the music blasting to the point where my ears are still ringing a day later, there was no way you could talk back to this band; even if you could, since they weren’t talking to you, you’d fear getting the shit kicked out of you. In fact, I was constantly checking to see if the back door was still open lest, APTBS pull a Genesis P-Orridge and musically terrorize me. The fans of Ra Ra Riot left as soon as the first distortion pedal was hit, but the crowd still got bigger, and by the end was completely won over. Moral of the story, learned yet again the hard way: never dismiss a band simply because Pitchfork likes them more than most other people.
Right before Ra Ra Riot took the stage, the audience got notably gayer (I say that as pure description). More troubling than the classic NYU gender-bending was the return of all the problems of self-indulgent, flaccid indie rock with Ra Ra Riot as the de facto headliner. Each of the previous three bands had convinced you, in one manner or another, to challenge your assumptions about rock, indie rock, and music’s place in society. Ra Ra Riot’s only really showed concern when they briefly feared they had lost one of their tambourines. I had assumed Marnie Stern would have won obnoxious comment of the night by that point, but Ra Ra Riot vocalist Wes Miles took the cake with commenting on how he had previously been touring with other people’s gear, and he was glad to be back in New York and reunited with his “stuff” (paging Tyler Durden). In previous years, a comment like that, and music as pleasant and happy-go-lucky as Ra Ra Riot’s, would be seen as fun, lighthearted escapism from the largely boring major label world. Now, when most people in the audience can barely afford a guitar, let alone an electric cello, and are trading more in bitterness than pleasure-seeking, Ra Ra Riot seems like an excessive, onerous lark, especially in contrast with what had come previously. Ra Ra Riot was the only band of the bunch that had anything resembling “hits,” which they played to their fans content. To me, the only redeeming part of their set was seeing the first successful attempt by an American band to rip off the Jam. When the clock passed 11, long after A Place to Bury Strangers had passed that number on the volume dial and with the day job looming, I was seriously tempted to leave early, not doing so out of a sense of journalistic responsibility. Ultimately, it wouldn’t have made a difference, unlike the newer wave of aggressive indie bands that I had seen previously, there was nothing Ra Ra Riot would have done to surprise me.
Click here to view a photo gallery of the show.