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2002: The Year in Music
or
Emoha Rising

by Tim McMahan


If 2002 is remembered for anything 'round these parts, it will be known as the year that Omaha -- and Saddle Creek Records in particular -- emerged as the center of the indie/emo rock world.

There's that word again: Emo. It's been plaguing indie rock since the early '90s when bands like Rites of Spring and Fugazi invented it and Sunny Day Real Estate refined it. But these days, Emo means something completely different than it did back when it connoted a style of hardcore punk that actually sported melody. Today, emo is identified with a brand of confessional-style indie rock where the writer tears his heart out and slaps it down on stage for everyone to see. Today's emo performers are the bastard children of Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens -- heartbroken, slightly intoxicated, disenfranchised youth who so desperately want you to feel their pain.

No artist wanted the term applied to their music in the '90s and no one wants it applied to them today. Why? Because in addition to being a simplistic categorization that herds no-talents like Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carraba in with truly gifted singer-songwriters like Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, saying your music is "emo" is kind of like saying that you're a wuss who can't get over your last breakup. Add to that the emo fashion drones -- those pasty, thin guys wearing T-shirts two sizes too small with perennial bedhead -- and you've got yourself a rather sad movement.

The tired industry joke these days is that Omaha has been renamed "Emo-ha," thanks in great part to the national success of Saddle Creek Records' artists. You couldn't pick up a magazine in 2002 without reading an in-depth, investigative piece about "the Omaha music scene." Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Spin, Jane, Shout NY and Seventeen are just a few of the mags that have written about our great city's emerging talent, rarely if ever mentioning any band outside the Saddle Creek stable. Even yours truly was interviewed about "what's happening in Omaha," but whenever I brought up a non-Saddle Creek artist, it was as if I were speaking in Portuguese. If it wasn't Creek, they didn't care, even though Omaha bands like Neva Dinova, Race for Titles, The Movies, The Monroes and Fizzle Like a Flood all produced solid recordings that rival anything on that fabled label.

 

The under-the-radar radar was already locked on Omaha way before Bright Eyes' masterpiece, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground, brought singer-songwriter Oberst acclaim as the second coming of Bob Dylan. For years Saddle Creek bands The Faint, The Good Life, Desaparecidos and Cursive have drawn attention to Omaha thanks to constant touring and consistently heartfelt albums that sport their honest songwriting style.

In fact, the thread that runs through all Saddle Creek performers' music is that their songs aren't written to "move units" but to exorcise their deep-rooted emotional demons. Keep in mind while you're busy calling Omaha the "next Seattle" that you could add up all the sales of all the Saddle Creek Records releases since the label was born in '93 and it still wouldn't equal the number of CDs Creed or Eminem or Shania Twain sold in a single week. Call your uncle in Hinkle, Oregon, and ask him if he's heard of Conor Oberst and he'll wonder if you meant Conan O'Brien -- he's never heard of the guy, and that's the way it'll be until Saddle Creek performers make it onto commercial radio, VH1 or Access Hollywood. Which could be any day now...

 

The other big "trend" in indie rock wasn't "electro-clash," "alt-anything" or "fill-in-the-blank core" music, it was the welcome return of NYC garage-style bands. Smaller acts like Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs caught some national acclaim, but it was the less-interesting bands The White Stripes and The Strokes who made indie acceptably hip to an MTV audience tired of pre-processed boy-band fluff and misogynistic grunt-rock acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit.

At the end of the day, 2002 was a relatively unremarkable year in rock, indie or otherwise. What with the deification of The Osbournes (and that hideous blowfish, Kelly), the spastic noise of Andrew W.K., Avril Lavigne's faux-punk musings, Christina Aguilera's porn worship and the media's insistence that Eminem is the second coming of Elvis -- Emoha ain't looking too bad.

That said, here are my 10 favorite CDs of 2002:

 

At the end of the day, 2002 was a relatively unremarkable year in rock, indie or otherwise.


  • Okkervil River -- Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See (Jagjaguwar) . The Austin, Texas, combo's music is rural and slightly southern, more backwater than wheat field, with a nod toward slow bluegrass and dustbowl folk. Consistent songwriting from track to track makes this my favorite CD of '02.
 
  • Bright Eyes -- Lifted or The Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek) -- Effortlessly crosses the threshold between folk and rock, indie and pop, and poetry and prose. It is both a journal of stark reflection and an honest comment on the world singer/songwriter Conor Oberst feels powerless to change.
 
  • Bright Eyes / Britt Daniel -- Home Vol. IV split EP (Post-Parlo Records) -- Recorded in Conor Oberst's Omaha basement studio, the four-song EP's stripped-down production features the artists playing together on songs that are better than anything off their respective 2002 full-lengths.
 
  • Yo La Tengo -- Nuclear War (Matador) -- The CD EP contains four versions of the indie darlings covering Sun Ra's "Nuclear War," including one featuring a children's choir gleefully chanting "It's a motherfucker." Priceless.
 
  • Jack Hayter -- Practical Wireless (Absolutely Kosher Records) -- The acoustic folk outing by one of the guys in the UK pop group Hefner is a humble stunner.
 
  • Interpol -- Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador) -- Despite the fact that they're blamed for the re-emergence of Joy Division-style nihilistic gloom rock, no other '02 release is as entrancing or hypnotic.
 
  • Rilo Kiley -- The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek) -- Front-woman Jenny Lewis comes from the Jenny Toomey / Aimee Mann school of perky, personal singer/songwriters whose sweet, mature voices emote honesty without shortchanging the rock.
 
  • Pedro the Lion -- Control (Jade Tree) -- A driving masterpiece of pure indie rock melded with a dreadful message that is unforgettable. When it lightens up, the music pops, though the message stays consistently bleak.
 
  • Linda Thompson -- Fashionably Late (Rounder) -- The better half of UK folk legends Richard and Linda Thompson breaks a 17-year silence with a collection of heartfelt, desolate folk janglers.
 
  • The Good Life -- Black Out (Saddle Creek) -- Drenched in hooks, electric guitar, hand-claps and click-bleep-snaps of electronic drums, the follow-up to the band's other-worldly debut continues in the same melody-driven vein that makes The Good Life such a departure from frontman Tim Kasher's more abrasive, angular effort, Cursive.

 

 

There were scads of others that almost made the list, including Sigur Ros, Beck, Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Low, Hot Water Music, Spoon, Doug Martsch, Desaparecidos, Race for Titles, Tom Waits, Silkworm and more. With three out of the 10, it was a banner near for Saddle Creek Records. And the label's timing couldn't have been better.

Last year was the quietest in the past decade for indie rock, with only Wilco, Interpol and The Flaming Lips making noticeable waves in this smallest of ponds. Meanwhile, people are whispering about a rising tide of indie rock in the wake of a sugar-pop-music backlash. I'll believe it when I see it.

So what else other than Saddle Creek happened in Omaha music in 2002? Never has the scene been more in flux:



People are whispering about a rising tide of indie rock in the wake of a sugar-pop-music backlash. I'll believe it when I see it.



Omaha indie rock fans have nothing to complain about, with more venues and promoters then ever hustling to book nationally touring indie bands.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Let's start with the ever-changing, ever-evolving Omaha club scene. Last year saw the end of the legendary Cog Factory, the emergence of One Percent Productions, the rise and fall of The Junction and Farnam St., the continued flat-line of The Music Box, and the possible reincarnation of The Ranch Bowl. As the dust settles, it looks like One Percent will be the leader in 2003 having already booked Interpol, God Speed You Black Emperor, The Prom, Low and Har Mar Superstar through March.

    Meanwhile, the good folks at Saddle Creek Records --who've booked a lot of shows at Sokol Underground -- have begun to lose interest. These days they're only booking shows for bands that are handled by Ground Control, the agency that books for Creek bands nationally. Rumor has it that Saddle Creek is feverishly looking to open a new venue if they can only find the right location. The wild card in the equation remains The Ranch Bowl, which recently came under new management. Will they target the same older-crowd mainstream acts as their arch rival The Music Box or make a push toward the indie-style bands that One Percent is booking? Only time will tell.

    That said, don't count out the also-ran clubs of The 49'r, Sullivan's, Broker's and Trovato's, all known to host smaller-drawing indie artists or the surprise Creek show. At the end of the day, Omaha indie rock fans have nothing to complain about, with more venues and promoters then ever hustling to book nationally touring indie bands.

 

  • Neva Dinova, Race for Titles, The Movies and The Carsinogents were the most promising non-Saddle Creek acts in 2002. Neva Dinova saw their debut full-length re-released after they signed with respectable indie label Crank! Records, while Race for Titles' debut came out on Redemption, a West Coast label with Omaha ties. Both bands will open for Cursive when the band goes out an a national tour to support the March 4 release of their new full-length, The Ugly Organ (Neva Dinova will open through the first half of January; Race for Titles will take over from mid-January through the first week of February). Though alt-twang-rock quartet The Movies released a strong debut last spring, the band called it quits just a few months later. Horror-billy specialists The Casinogents continued to reign as Omaha's best live performers last year and is the band to watch in '03 as they finally release their new full-length CD recorded last spring at Lincoln's Presto! Studios. If these guys ever get out on the road, they could be huge.

    Other bands to watch in '03 include tractor-punk faves The Monroes, Lincoln drum-and-guitar duo The Lepers, Doug Kabourek's hand-made ensemble Fizzle Like a Flood, former Good Life and Desaparecidos bassist Landon Hedges, math-rock trio Fromanhole and prog-art combo The Quiet Type.

 

  • Maybe the most depressing non-event of 2002 was the continued sad state of Omaha radio. The irony of Saddle Creek Records' success is that while the label's bands enjoyed a strong national following, they could not be heard on the radio in their home town. Omaha radio continues to be an embarrassing wasteland of stations that program nothing but EZ listening, middle-of-the-road "alternative", Freedom Rock, Top-40 schlock, teen pop and Goon Rock. For a town that sports two universities with significant Division I sports programs, it's absurd that there isn't one true college/underground radio station available on the FM dial. Hell, there isn't even a weekly 2-hour indie rock program scheduled late night on the weekend anymore. Sadly, nothing in the tea leaves indicates that the air waves will change anytime soon.

 

  • The media that covers Omaha music was shaken up in November when the city's two alternative weekly newspapers, The Omaha Weekly and The Reader, merged into a new paper with the ridiculous (though temporary) name of The Omaha Weekly-Reader. Only time will tell if editor John Heaston continues the Weekly's strong music focus. While The Reader was better designed and distributed, The Weekly was consistently better written. The merger should be a boon for musicians, venues and promoter who will no longer have to split their time and resources between two papers.


  • Meanwhile, The Omaha World-Herald continues to attack the same market as The Weekly-Reader with its Thursday A&E supplement, Go! Music reporter Christine Laue keeps beating the drum for local music, but doesn't seem to get the support she deserves from the World-Herald's advertising staff, who do a lousy job selling the paper. If the advertising continues to be thin, will the great, gray Herald keep Go! afloat? Just like when they canned their Sunday Entertainment magazine, the old guys who run the Herald won't know what they had until it's gone.

  • And a new contender joined the crowded world of Omaha publishing last fall. The slick, well-photographed and well-designed Medium Magazine launched its premier issue in November and promises to begin monthly publication in January. The first issue featured a big, fat headshot of Conor Oberst right on the cover -- surely a sign that they value local music, right? Well, the jury is still out -- though it was mighty purdy, there wasn't much to actually read in the premier issue, and with the Reader/Weekly merger, finding advertisers could be difficult. Regardless, word has it Medium is fully funded for at least a year.

 

So will Saddle Creek enjoy continued emo-leadership status (an oxymoron if there ever was one)? What will next year's big music trend be? Who will die in '03 and what other ridiculous predications will this writer come up with? You'll just have to wait to find out.


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Posted January 1, 2003. Published in the Omaha Weekly-Reader January 3, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.