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Whereto, Indie Rock

Our critic examines Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Quasi and Unwound to answer the question: Is Something Invisible Gone?

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The guitar is unmistakable. Neil Young's reverberating six-string dinosaur roar. But it's not Neil Young. It's Doug Martsch of Built To Spill. "Something is wrong, something invisible is gone," he laments, lyrically considering his own plight as an aging indie-rock guitar god in relation to the baby-boom rockers like Young who, despite his name, is still going at it despite being--let's admit the facts--old.

Ah, indie rock: the last great guitar-driven welling up of that underground pop dream of teenage utopian Nirvanic alternatives to the dominant musical order. Buddy Holly's glasses on everybody's faces. A Fugaziastic all-ages, $5-cover-charge approach to live gigs. The catharsis of shared, slam-dance spazdom. A microphone thrown to an audience who knows the words better than the almost-famous singer. Punk rock shows in back alleys and abandoned storefronts. Sacrificial body leaps into drum kits and amp stacks. Scenes, but not too many scenes. 'Zines, but not too many 'zines. Flannel, flannel, and more flannel. Ripped jeans. Gatherings of the local Society of Lonely Outcasts.

What happened to it all?

Indie rock peaked in the early and mid-'90s (in the Triangle as much as anywhere). But while indie rock is far from gone, its core spirit has departed, or so claims Michael Azerrad in his new book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991. As Azerrad points out, what once existed as a loose network of innovative bands and local scenes that lurked beneath the radar of mainstream '80s America, eventually became the paradoxically named "alternative rock" that thundered from every commercial rock radio tower for a brief time in the early '90s.

Certainly, as Azerrad notes, the industry boundaries that define indie rock have grown murkier. Even a brief glance at the record-company affiliations of a small selection of "indie" bands coming to the Triangle this fall will reveal that. Built to Spill (at the Cat's Cradle, Monday, Sept. 24) and Modest Mouse (at the Cradle, Thursday, Sept. 27) remain on major labels (Built to Spill on Warner Brothers; Modest Mouse on Epic). By contrast, Quasi (at the Cradle, Sunday, Oct. 7), and Unwound (at the Cradle, Sunday, Sept. 16) remain on the venerable indies Touch & Go and Kill Rock Stars, respectively.

But is the spirit of the music truly gone? As Doug Martsch posits, is something that used to be invisibly present--that magical quality of music where it could blast out a space for independent thinking and living, demanding that listeners seize the moment and become active in their own lives--really absent now? And what can the latest albums by these groups--all four from the Great Northwest, the locale credited for spawning (like a school of determined, battling-the-current salmon) the '90s alternative explosion--tell us about indie rock past, present and future?

Built to Spill always kept its distance from the grunge hoopla. The band is from Boise, Idaho, after all, even though its leader, Doug Martsch, spent time in infamous Seattle. As its title suggests, Ancient Melodies of the Future tries to build links between the glory days of classic rock and the indie explosion of the last decade. Some tracks, like the aforementioned "The Host," sound like a bucking Crazy Horse. Others, like "Happiness," feature Martsch's slide-guitar pyrotechnics. The opening track best displays Built to Spill's willingness to let the classic-rock freak flag fly, but with a healthy dose of sheepish self-deprecation. Over guest musician Sam Coomes' (Quasi) distorted electric piano, Martsch seems to reflect on Built to Spill's odd success: "This strange plan is random at best."

Built to Spill survives the aging process with self-deprecation. By contrast, Modest Mouse seems more interested in exploring self-loathing. The trio's new EP, Everywhere and His Nasty Parlor Tricks, collects tracks from the vinyl-only release Night on the Sun--three new recordings and one remix of songs from the group's last full-length, The Moon and Antarctica. The EP features Isaac Brock's stark, surreal lyrics and his haunting vocal style, which almost always makes him sound like he's mumbling out loud. Modest Mouse presents indie rock not as a conversation addressing the lost dreams of classic-rock baby boomers but as an inward interrogation. "You're hopelessly hopeless; I hope so for you," Brock sings--as much to himself as to anyone else--on the song "Night on the Sun." Even the uptempo "You're the Good Things" turns into a kind of self-flagellating plea to do better, as it speeds up into a rallying cry at its conclusion. Even when, as the title of one song on the EP notes, there is "So Much Beauty" in Modest Mouse's world, "It can make you cry."

Modest Mouse makes a compelling case for indie rock's ability to examine the soul without completely moving into self-absorption. And when they do turn mopey, they create a community of mope, which is better than no community at all.

Compared to Modest Mouse, Unwound is less melodic, more moody, dark and dissonant, more experimental. But their latest album, the sprawling double-disc, Leaves Turn Inside You, has a similarly compact, intensive focus on the self--only here the self is cast adrift on waves of soaring sound. Thanks to Brock's vocals and his group's tunefulness, Modest Mouse seems to split in two and examine itself from the outside. Unwound, by comparison, draws the listener into the dream murk of inner-consciousness. But like the electric guitars that shoot laser beams across the song "One Lick Less," Unwound burns holes through this complex interior. "Once I was alive, it took me by surprise. Then I realized I was paralyzed," screams Justin Trosper on "Look a Ghost." If Modest Mouse mopes with graceful humility, Unwound rages against the alienating forces that seem to imprison and police from within. Still, the group winds up echoing sentiments close to that of Modest Mouse on the song, "October All Over": "Sometimes, you'll laugh so hard you'll cry," Trosper sings.

If Modest Mouse mopes eloquent and Unwound wails at the alienating mysteries of the subconscious, Quasi finds a way to do both. Divorced couple Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss (he formerly of Heatmiser, with Elliott Smith; she the drummer for riot-grrrl heroines Sleater-Kinney) continue to obsess in the prettiest ways over how things got ugly between them. On "The Sword of God" they sing, "I'm an old baboon; you're a Barbary ape: Two different creatures with a similar shape." Coomes' aching melodies and rocking electric piano fuse with Weiss's expressive drumming--as someone once said about The Band's Levon Helm, she can make you cry playing a beat--as the duo makes quips and jabs at each other and those around them. There's solidarity in their wit and obvious musical bond, a solidarity that overcomes the bitterness of breakup and the pain of their mini-battle against that of the larger gender wars. Laughing and crying with the rest of these bands, Quasi sings lyrics that confirm the indie-rock search for that something invisible, for the continued vitality of rock music. The lyrics serve as a kind of Declaration of Independents. It's an indie-rock message worth taking into the new millennium:

You don't have to be a pro to play.

You might believe it's just a delusion

Or you might think it's real.

You don't have to overcome your confusion--

You only have to feel. EndBlock

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