Depending on your point of view, suburban indie guitar rock is either in crisis or healthier than ever. The cynical take would see this most brainy and self-aware of musical genres as a dying star, something once hot and bright that's lost its fire. Or, to hop to an uglier metaphor, as an artistic family that has inbred for so many generations — young middle-class white males making records about records they listen to by young middle-class white males — it's now riddled with deformities like affectation, predictability and sheer tiredness. That's the dark assessment. A rosier view would say that we're decades deep into crunching, clanging angularity honoring ingenious post-rock forefathers like Mission of Burma, Jawbox and Pavement — and those moves are still going strong — and that's evidence of this music brand's now-classic status.
Emerson said that ambition is in proportion to talent, and that the height of a mountain peak depends on the width of the base. I'm not calling the Word Play's talents into question — they've mastered the nimble rhythms, prickly guitar play, and general tone of lyrical and musical abstraction necessary to make any good indie rock album tick — just their ambition. There is a general beige-ness to How I Became Illustrated that begs the question "What do these guys care about?" The record officially comes recommended if you like the Buzzcocks, Modest Mouse and Sebadoh. Of those, the Word Play has the most in common with the latter's muted harmonic palette and shy baritone melodies. There is a truth to such restraint, of the artist keeping it real (how much of our safely cubicled, Urban Outfitted lifestyles truly have anything in common with the epic, blinged-out vaingloriousness of most top 40?). And yet, there is a rich history being drawn on here of thirstier bands with fires under their asses questioning, with foaming mouths, the numbing affects of suburban life. Does an excess of modesty really do that history justice?
The worth of an entire music culture shouldn't get heaped on one band's shoulders, of course. But How I Became Illustrated — a pleasing, well-arranged and subtle album that will make a fitting soundtrack to the lives of the hoodie class — is as good excuse as any to ask ourselves what we want out of music. Some bands just want to write songs, drink beers, jam late, fix the van, do shows. I get that. But I can't help but wish the Word Play wanted a little bit more.
Daniel Johnson writes about music for Metro Times. E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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