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2004: The Year in Music

by Tim McMahan


Once upon a time -- oh, it seems like forever now, but it was only four years ago -- no one had ever heard of the Omaha music scene. Sure, we've always had our share of great bands -- most of them are still around today -- but no one outside of our tiny, dusty, little state knew who they were.

My, how things have changed. Last year national media attention on Omaha bands -- or more accurately, Saddle Creek Records bands -- became commonplace to the point of ho-hum. "Did you see that cover story on Conor in the new issue of Blender ?" Um, yeah. Nice picture. Is it me or is he getting taller? "Who's that arty looking guy with the thick glasses standing next to The Faint's merch table?" Oh, just another geek from The New York Times doing a slice-of-life piece on Omaha. "Did you see Cursive's new video on MTV2 Sunday night?" *yawn* I TiVo'd it, but still haven't had time to watch it.

These days you can't open a copy of Rolling Stone or SPIN or Magnet without seeing a feature, review or "behind-the-scenes" glance focused on a Saddle Creek artist. It's all become rather blasé, really. The national attention reached its current apex this past fall, when photos began surfacing of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst in all his sweaty glory slinging a guitar next to none other than "The Boss" -- Bruce Springsteen -- as part of the Vote for Change tour, which also included other such notables as Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and Bonnie Raitt. For the first time since Nirvana, an indie artist had broken through to the mainstream, albeit for one fleeting, and ultimately, pointless event. For a lot of people 'round these parts, it wasn't Conor Oberst standing up there next to John Fogarty, Michael Stipe and The Boss; it was Omaha.

Saddle Creek Records artists deserved all the attention they got in 2004. If 2002 was the year that "The Creek" broke from its regional banks into the river of national consciousness (gack!), 2004 was the year that the label effectively galvanized its position as the standard bearer of all that's right with indie music, thanks to critically hailed releases by The Faint, The Good Life, Son, Ambulance, Broken Spindles, Beep, Beep and Now It's Overhead, not to mention the tireless roadwork by everyone else on the label.

Where does the label go from here? Well, with two new Bright Eyes CDs cocked and ready to fire in January -- along with a joint Bright Eyes / Faint tour planned for this summer -- something tells me that the only place Creek is headed is up. Better watch out for those major-label vultures, boys.

 

But there's more to The Omaha Scene than just Creek, right? For the first time last year non-Creek bands actually began sharing the national spotlight with music they released on other prominent indie labels. At the top of the list was Statistics (a.k.a. Denver Dalley), who spent most of 2004 touring the U.S. and Europe supporting his critically hailed Jade Tree Records releases. There was The '89 Cubs' remarkable debut on Portland's Slowdance Records, Little Brazil's catchy slice of indie-rock released on Mt. Fuji, The Bruces' (a.k.a. Alex McManus) tuneful, career-defining LP The Shining Path on Misra, and Simon Joyner's return to full stride with Lost with the Lights On released on Jagjaguwar.

That said, it's no surprise that half the albums on my list of top-10 favorites for '04 are from Omaha bands. Without further ado (and in no specific order):

 


Win a copy of the Lazy-i Best of 2004 Compilation CD! All you have to do is e-mail me (tim@lazy-i.com) with your name and mailing address and you'll be entered in the drawing. Hurry! Deadline's Jan. 17! Check out the track listing.


 

  • American Music Club -- Love Songs for Patriots (Merge) -- After a five-year absence, Eitzel and company have re-emerged in brighter, more hopeful terrain.
 
  • The Arcade Fire -- Funeral (Merge) -- More than an homage to Talking Heads, Funeral is a guitar-chiming, dance-inspired, angular celebration of life's strange mysteries. Breakthrough album of the year.
 
  • The Good Life -- Lovers Need Lawyers (Saddle Creek) -- A six-song musical soundtrack, a mini Hedwig collection of tunes suited for performance in full costume by a cast of characters playing out a story set in Tim Kasher's reluctant home town of Omaha.
 
  • Kite Pilot -- Kite Pilot EP (self-release) -- They break the mold with their earthy, far-away take on pop that combines classic indie with a hint of lounge. Best new local band of 2004.
 
  • Morrissey -- You Are the Quarry (Attack) -- Mr. Brokenhearted is back and sassier than ever. This return after seven years away spawned the single of the year with "Irish Blood, English Heart."
 
  • The Faint -- Wet From Birth (Saddle Creek) -- Surrounded in a swirl of strings and a forest of beats, this all-out dance raver is the funnest thing Saddle Creek has ever released.
 
  • Kings of Convenience -- Riot on an Empty Street (Astralwerks) -- Simon and Garfunkel harmonies are combined with a Latin lilt to create unforgettable pop you can't help but dance to.
 
  • Son, Ambulance -- Key (Saddle Creek) -- Saddle Creek's great forgotten genius gives us another volume from the soundtrack to his life, done up as hook-filled, psychedelic pop.
 
  • The '89 Cubs -- There Are Giants in the Earth (Slowdance) -- Angular, arch and angry, The Cubs take a tradition forged by Cursive to an even more personal place.
 
  • Comets on Fire -- Blue Cathedral (Sub Pop) -- When it isn't revved up, vamped up, geared up heavy metal, it's bright-light space rock of the most trippy kind.

Radio 4 at Sokol Underground Sept. 25.

It's also no coincidence that a lot of these bands played the best live shows in '04. Here's the list:

  • Criteria, Jan. 20, The Ranch Bowl. Criteria closed out Day 2 of The Reader's "Road to Austin" showcase, by playing a set so loud and powerful, dead fish floated to the surface of nearby ponds. They proved once again that they're the best non-Creek band in the area. Strike that: They're as good or better than most of the Creek bands, too.
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs, March 5, Sokol Auditorium. A sold-out night highlighted by Karen O's skin-tight dress and Nick Zinner's (a.k.a. Edward Sissorhand's) buzzsaw guitar.
  • The Everyothers, March 9, O'Leaver's -- About 15 people were lucky enough to catch these unknowns when they dropped by on their way to SXSW. Pure Spiders from Mars-era Bowie meets T. Rex meets Cheap Trick.
  • My Morning Jacket, May 18, Sokol Underground -- Shaggy rock star Jim James may have the most gorgeous voice in the business -- brilliantly soulful cutting right through his band's huge, huge sound.
  • Sebadoh, Aug. 21, Sokol Underground -- It was just Loewenstein and Barlow with recorded drums, but for the 200 or so on hand, it was like the second coming of Elvis.

  • Radio 4, Sept. 25, Sokol Underground -- So what if they're a disco reincarnation of The Clash? The five-piece did their best to get everyone's rump shaking
  • The Faint, Oct. 4, Sokol Auditorium -- You knew walking into the hot, sold-out crowd that this was probably going to be the show of the year, and it was.
  • The Street Urchins, Nov. 14, The 49'r. In full glam make-up, these guys burned it up with pure, simple American rock, and there's nothing wrong with that. A must-see the next time they're in town.
  • The Arcade Fire, Nov. 29, Sokol Underground. Canada's most-hyped band sounded even better than their CD -- not bad, when you consider it's being called the album of the year.

All-in-all, 2004 was a pretty good year for music… especially if you lived in Omaha. Which leaves me thinking: If Omaha is the new Seattle, who will be the next Omaha?


For the first time last year non-Creek bands actually began sharing the national spotlight with music they released on other prominent indie labels.

 
     

So what else happened on the Big O in '04?

  • The most interesting and amusing local music news story from a venue standpoint was, of course, the saga of Slowdown -- the proposed music hall/bar/office space to be owned and operated by Saddle Creek Records. The location couldn't have been more conveniently located, for me anyway -- it was going to be built right where I currently wash my car, at 1528 N. Saddle Creek Road in the heart of the Metcalf Park neighborhood. The $1.5 million project would have been an indie music heaven, boasting both a small bar for more intimate performances by lesser-known acts as well as a music hall that could handle anywhere from 400 and 700 people, depending on who you asked. The only problem: There was nowhere for those 700 people to park. The plan began to crumble for Creek's Robb Nansel and Jason Kubel during a town-hall style neighborhood meeting where frightened old women could be heard sobbing and angry young homeowners could be heard muttering through clenched teeth "Over my dead body." Jason and Robb took the high road and dropped their plans, with promises by the Omaha City Council to help them find a better location -- a search that has been going on for more than two years.

  • Slowdown would have been a feisty addition in an already healthy live music scene that continues to be dominated by Sokol Auditorium and Sokol Underground at 13th and Martha, Omaha's indie music "ground zero," booked and promoted by Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson of 1 Percent Productions, arguably the scene's second most influential duo. In the past year, O'Leaver's at 1322 So. Saddle Creek Rd. has emerged as the most important small venue for local and national touring shows, and Mick's in Benson has become a hotspot for acoustic singer-songwriter fare. The once-mighty 49'r, however, has relegated its live music to only once a week, and The Ranch Bowl -- the subject of takeover and closedown rumors throughout the year -- continues to hang on with hopes of re-emerging like a phoenix from the ashes.

  • Omaha radio was as abysmal as ever in 2004, but there was a slight glimmer of hope on the horizon. Was that a Faint song I heard sandwiched between the usual goon rock programming on 89.7 The River? Was that an Azure Ray song they played after the latest Slipknot disaster? Is a local radio station finally starting to figure out that there might be something to this whole "Omaha music scene" bug-a-boo that's been going 'round the national press? No, not really. Other than The River's slight contributions and the addition of their new indie music show during the gutter hours of 11-1 a.m. on Sundays, Omaha radio continues to be as bad as the radio in every other metropolitan market in the country. Praise be the i-Pod.

  • Print coverage of local music hasn't changed much, either. The City Weekly continues to battle The Reader in the ongoing "alternative newspaper" wars, but sports only a couple music columns and some CD reviews. Somehow, The Pulp keeps hanging on, though it lost its best music writers this year to a new music weekly rumored to launch in early 2005. Meanwhile, Niz Proskocil continues to soldier on at the great, gray Omaha World-Herald, despite the fact that the Go! weekly entertainment guide now apparently targets Qwest Center patrons -- which means lots of articles on this week's craft show or county fair talent like Bette Midler. God bless Niz for trying.

  • Maybe the most significant local music story of 2004 has been the emergence of quality home recording studios. It used to be that bands had to go to Warehouse or Presto! Studios if they wanted to record a quality album. No more. Homemade recordings from bands such as Kite Pilot, The Mariannes, Mal Madrigal, Little Brazil, Criteria, Fizzle Like a Flood, and a dozen others have proven you don't need to drop a load of cash to make a professional sounding CD. What's it mean for the future of the recording industry? You'll just have to wait for my annual "Predictions" article to find out…

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Published in the Omaha Reader Dec. 29, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

 

Blueprint of the
proposed Slowdown complex, exterior view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is a local radio station finally starting to figure out that there might be something to this whole "Omaha music scene" bug-a-boo that's been going 'round the national press? No, not really.