Before the dust from the last presidential election had settled, it was possible to hear a whisper of perverse optimism about the potential cultural aftermath of a Republican victory. "Remember the '80s," bright-eyed advocates of the avant-garde reminded themselves. The blossoming of art and culture formed in resistance to the unabashed conservatism of the administration? Could it be possible that a new Bush era could mark the dawn of another such renaissance?
For the time being the waited-for glories resulting from the fund-cutting policies of the current administration might seem slow in coming. But at the very least, there have been fresh stirrings in the world of rock and roll: bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes bringing new energy, and new media attention, to what can perhaps best be described as the non-mainstream scene. Legions of eager fans have demonstrated that there is a viable market for bands capable of combining meaty music with a well-thought-out marketing twist.
Even more encouraging is the growing presence of bands that defy easy categorization, but still manage to sell out shows. Groups such as the Polyphonic Spree and the Trachtenberg Family Slide Show Players, appearing separately in the Triangle this week, have managed to win a national following despite lacking MTV-friendly clips or even, in the case of the Trachtenbergs, an album in stores. Both groups bring to the stage an infectious, "let's-put-on-a-show!" energy that is charming, accessible and, maybe even a little subversive.
Onstage, the Texas-based Polyphonic Spree looks more like a gospel choir than a rock band. The 24 (or maybe 25; in interviews even the band doesn't always seem to know for sure) members of the Spree appear dressed in floor-length white robes and wreathed in beatific smiles. A 10-person choir is joined by a cast of musicians that includes two guitarists, a bass player, a harpist, a flautist and someone who plays the theremin. The band seems to make no effort at all to be cool. The singers shake their heads, they clap their hands, and when the spirit moves them, they pogo ecstatically up and down.
This display of innocent pleasure is part of what makes the Spree's performances so delicious, but the players aren't music-industry tyros. The band was formed by the remaining members of Tripping Daisy after the death of the lead guitarist in 1999. This earlier band, a sympathetic psychedelic pop group, had already demonstrated its faith in the power of simple, optimistic lyrics. The Spree takes this to a new level, crafting elaborately banal songs about sunshine (noteworthy because, as the song claims, "it makes me shine") and hope ("celebrate," they urge, "soon you'll find the answer"). On the group's first album, The Beginning Stages of ... , this refusal to have a sophisticated or pretentious message gives their simple lyrics an uneasy profundity, as though they were communicating a message in code. In "Soldier Girl," the sweet-voiced choir shares their longing for women in uniform. "I've found my soldier girl," the voices report; then, sighing: "she's so far away."
If the Polyphonic Spree rely on the power that lies in collective conviction, the other act to visit the Triangle this week can be seen as an illustration of one of the cardinal principles touted by our current administration: the importance of family values. The story of the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players is a celebration of ingenuity, of grit and determination, along with a generous helping of simple dumb luck.
The birthplace of the Slideshow Players was Seattle, a city teaming with frustrated musicians not unlike Jason Trachtenberg, who until a couple of years ago eked out a living as a dog-walker. One day, his wife Tina came home from a thrift store with an old slide projector still loaded with images of a family's forgotten memories. That night, Jason composed his first song suite, "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959," weaving a musical narrative around the banal images of Cold War couples on vacation at Mt. Fuji. By the time then-6-year-old daughter Rachel joined the act, first as harmonica player and later as one of indie rock's hottest drummers, the show was a smash. Eventually the West Coast scene got a little too small, leading the family to relocate last year to New York City where they became the toast of the town (or at least of the hipster enclave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
The slides are the bait for the Trachtenberg show, but the real hook is Rachel. Now 9, she has been profiled in the New Yorker and appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Spin magazine ran a chart comparing her to another noted pig-tailed drummer, Meg White of the White Stripes. In interviews the home-schooled Rachel sounds poised and confident; at shows, she dominates the stage, singing and making witty banter with her father. (Tina runs the slide projector and makes the band's charming Buck Rogers-influenced costumes.)
The Trachtenberg Players have recently recorded a CD, but Vintage Slide Collections for Seattle, Vol. 1 is available only on their Web site (www.slideshowplayers.com) or at shows. (Disappointingly, on the album Jason replaced his daughter with veteran drummer Mike Musburger of the Fastbacks.) Schtick aside, their music has been compared, favorably, to White Album-era Beatles, with happy, jangley tunes and silly, storytelling lyrics.
Like the Polyphonic Spree, the Trachtenbergs compose songs of almost surreal banality; "OPNAD Contribution Study Committee Report, June 1979" relies on an internal presentation at the McDonald's headquarters for both its visual and textual narrative. But maybe, given the current climate of synthetic pop stars and unreal reality series, the flaunting of banality is not a completely apolitical position.