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Gazing Down the Other Side
2005: The Year in Music

by Tim McMahan


 


For the first time since '99, a cloak of boredom has fallen over the world of indie rock. Look, it couldn't go on forever.


There seemed to be no end in sight.

But then again, we all knew it would be hard to beat everything that happened in '04. Bright Eyes took the national stage right next to The Boss, and Saddle Creek made a mark on the indie charts with The Faint, The Good Life, Son, Ambulance, Broken Spindles, Beep, Beep and Now It's Overhead. And for the first time, a proliferation of non-Creek Omaha bands got much-deserved attention from "other" labels, including Statistics, The '89 Cubs, The Bruces, Simon Joyner and Little Brazil. With '05 knocking on the door, the only direction we were headed was up.

But to everyone's surprise, something changed. The breeze shifted oh so slightly, and for once, the world began spinning just a little bit slower. By the end of the year, whispers of "Hey, did we just peak?" could be heard in the clubs and record stores. Indie music fans were quietly humming Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"

For the first time since '99, a cloak of boredom has fallen over the world of indie rock. Look, it couldn't go on forever. Everything happens in cycles, right? You can only run full tilt for so long before you run out of breath and fatigue takes over your body… and your mind. If '04 was the year that Omaha (and indie) broke into the national consciousness, '05 was the year that indie (and Omaha) began to run out of steam.

It didn't start out that way, at least not for Bright Eyes. The much anticipated double release of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn crashed onto the record charts atop a wave of national publicity that hasn't been seen in these parts since Frazier/Stander in '72. Newsday used the tired ol' "New Dylan" line, while Time declared Bright Eyes' main man Conor Oberst "Indie Rock's Dark Prince." When the charts came out at the end of January, Wide Awake was No. 10 while Digital Ash was No. 15. Combined first-week sales of both discs exceeded 100,000. Impressive by anyone's standards.

But underneath the hype for I'm Wide Awake, there were snickers for Digital Ash. Fans and critics said the electronic-flavored CD tried too hard and lacked the depth of its understated, elegant other.


 

Then there was the tour.

While an undeniably popular ticket, the combined Bright Eyes-Faint Tour exposed a few more chinks in ol' Conor's armor. More than a few people -- and a whole lot more music critics -- left the venues thinking that The Faint got a better look at the ball and knocked it out of the park. Instead of complementing each other, the combination highlighted subtle deficiencies. Oberst's music was boring compared to The Faint's, while The Faint's was downright stupid compared to Oberst's. In a bare-knuckle fight between "thinking" and "dancing," dancing wins every time.

Oberst would lick his wounds and go out on a "greatest hits" follow-up tour that got the critics back on his side. But had the damage already been done? For the first time, a crack (though oh so slight) appeared in the shiny veneer. And it wasn't the only one. Oberst's Team Love record label -- created out of frustration with a Saddle Creek bureaucracy that kept decisions moving at a snail's pace -- rolled along in '05, signing acts as diverse as Dave Dondero, Jenny Lewis and former Shudder to Think frontman Craig Wedren. Meanwhile, Creek puttered forward, riding the Bright Eyes wave for all it was worth. Creek's new acts -- Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink -- were repackaging of an already-held commodity (Azure Ray). Then in July, Creek signed San Francisco sea-shanty-rock duo Two Gallants -- an addition that left most label followers scratching their heads.

Still, there were a number of bright spots for Creek. After years of watching from the sidelines, local favorite Criteria was invited into the fold -- a smart addition. Then there was the deal struck with the City of Omaha that made way for the construction of Slowdown -- the label's office/bar/music complex that had been left for dead after a citizen revolt the year before.

But even with 11 respectful releases in '05, Saddle Creek seemed to be running in place. They weren't alone. Indie music as a whole lost its spark last year with no clear direction in sight. After the ass-rape of '60s garage punk and '80s post-new wave dance music, indie seems to be in a holding pattern, with all of the usual suspects coasting on their laurels. Death Cab for Cutie's new one? We've heard it before. Critic darlings Sleater-Kinney? '90s Grunge meets tired heavy metal. New Pornographers? More like old Beatles.

But here's the rub: Whereas your typical indie nerd has grown weary of hearing the same old jangling guitar and warble-voiced confessions, the big boys at the big labels are just now discovering that there could be something more out there than the latest American Idol contest winner or recently paroled thug-life hip-hop act. "Yeah," the suits say chomping their cigars, "maybe these indie kids are onto something. Let's sign 'em."

And quicker than you can say "massive sell out," the big labels are becoming indie-fied, driven by buzz generated from overheard tracks on The OC or hot soundtrack fodder from the latest hip indie film. And while all this might give indie music more exposure than ever dreamed possible, those of us who have always followed college music are now in for a repeat of the last five years, only on a grander scale. Translated: Death Cab for Cutie was great… back when We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes came out five years ago.

Or maybe I'm the only one getting tired of indie. It wasn't all bad last year. In fact, here are my 10 favorite releases from '05 (in no particular order):

 


Win a copy of the Lazy-i Best of 2005 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.


 

  • Spoon -- Gimme Fiction (Merge) -- Dark and theatrical, this is Britt Daniel's most thought-out collection of late-night rockers.
 
  • Beck -- Guero (Interscope) -- A return to Mellow Gold's def suburban beats and (L.A.) street sensibilities. It's about time.
 
  • Bright Eyes -- I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek) -- Conor Oberst's folk-rock opus will stand as a career high-water mark.
 
  • Eagle*Seagull -- self titled (Paper Garden) -- Eli Mardock is Lincoln's version of Win Butler singing songs that fly (like an eagle) from cute to majestic.
 
  • Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty) -- A choir of indie slackers led by a Little Prince in a Cubs ball cap sing lullabies to Jacksonville, Decatur and Chicago. Go White Sox!
 
  • Okkervil River -- Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar) -- One of the most thoughtful and emotionally powerful folk-rock bands on the indie circuit today, this could be their best.
 
  • Low -- The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop) -- Forget the old, creepy séance music; as they get older and wiser they only rock harder… and better.
 
  • Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink -- Solo albums (Saddle Creek) -- I refuse to pick a favorite. Both are better than anything they've done together. Now imagine the possibilities.
 
  • Of Montreal -- The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl) -- Weirdly electronic, weirdly retro, or just plain weird, it's impossible to deny their bouncing, infectious beats.
 
  • Criteria -- When We Break (Saddle Creek) -- Pure FM back-break indie rock floating on Stephen Pedersen's soaring bird-call melodies and the stutter-step, boot-on-your-neck, five-beat rhythms that have all the subtlety of a drunken waltz on meth.
Bettie Servert at Sokol Underground Feb. 16.
   

Sufjan Stevens at Sokol Underground Sept. 20.

Now let's talk about those rock shows. The best moments of '05:

  • Bettie Serveert, Feb. 16 , Sokol Underground -- They surprised anyone who expected the lighter, poppier approach heard on Attagirl, instead unrolling a mammoth cloud of guitar noise centered around the axe-wielding histrionics of Peter Visser, looking like a Dutch version of Thom from Queer Eye. The most frequently heard comment: "That lead singer looks awesome for someone who's 42." Very hot indeed.
  • Son, Ambulance, Feb. 18, Joslyn Museum. By far the best Son, Ambulance performance I've ever seen in spite of playing in a room with the acoustics of a mausoleum. The boominess in some cases enhanced big breaks and made "Sex in C Minor" feel like a well-orchestrated symphony of noise.
  • United States of Electronica, March 7, O'Leaver's -- By the end of their set the area by the band was crowded with sweaty white people trying to groove to the band's good-time music. Hey, I was dancing too... in my head.
  • Low, March 18, Sokol Underground. The hubby-and-wife team of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk continue to amaze me with their pitch-perfect, brokenhearted harmonies -- the element that, for me, makes Low one of the most poignant and affecting bands going these days.
  • The Silos, March 23, O'Leaver's. Every aspect of the trio's performance was honed to pure perfection right down to the drummer -- a rhythmic god, a super-realistic portrait of precision, a wunderkind of dynamics so freakish in talent that the crowd just stared in awe.

  • Mercy Rule / Frontier Trust, April 16, The Brothers. Seeing them on stage again was a thrill for everyone. Oh sure, it was great to see Gary Dean Davis and Bill Thornton playing the old favorites again, but Mercy Rule... well, it may never happen again.
  • Matson Jones, June 17, O'Leaver's. They took their songs up, down and sideways, at one time barreling forward like a train wreck before dropping to a hush -- just their vocals and cellos sawing away.
  • The Wilderness, July 3, O'Leaver's. Lead singer James Johnson, looking like David Cross but with (a little) more hair, did a weird T'ai Chi-style slow-motion dance, at one point wrapping himself around a post and lying on the ground pounding his palms to the floor.
  • Ladyfinger, Sept. 9, O'Leaver's. In spite of their fleetness, Ladyfinger has an unmistakable knack for finding the head-bobbing groove in the rhythm section, bass and chop guitar, blending it all into a very dark brew.

  • Sufjan Stevens, Sept. 20, Sokol Underground. The pompoms weren't mere props. Stevens and crew began four or five songs with well-choreographed cheers, complete with arm signals and spirit fingers for this pep rally for-rah for ol' Illinois.

  • Dios Malos, Oct. 22, O'Leaver's. You knew it was going to be special when, during the pre-set sound check frontman Joel Morales improvised piano fills to New Order's "Temptation" playing on the juke box, while their opener sported the organ chords of Zeppelin's "All of My Love" before turning into a Dios original, sort of.
  • Cursive, Nov. 5, Sokol Underground. Playing in front of a sold-out $2-a-ticket crowd, Cursive brought their A-game, dipping deep into the catalog for what was an inspired set right down to their all-Cindy Lauper encore.
  • Bright Eyes, Nov. 11, The Orpheum. As impressive as the stars was the gorgeous venue itself. Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst came out serenaded by a harpist, before being joined by two drummers, Mike Mogis on electric guitar, a trumpet, and bass, playing a set that included selections from throughout his career.

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Published in The Omaha Reader Dec. 28, 2005. Copyright 2005 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


In a bare-knuckle fight between "thinking" and "dancing," dancing wins every time.