I’ve said it before (well, if you caught me in my cups and pontificating windily, anyway) and I’ll say it again: Detroit’s rock ’n’ roll scene could pimp-slap any comers. But let’s all put our money where our mouths are. (Bad image. Sorry.) Anyhoo…
Why should sports-talk radio have all the fun with barstool arguments?
Quarreling over brews about the Wings’ chances for another Cup run is so played, eh? What about the classics? Stones vs. Beatles. Does anyone besides Julian Cope really give a rat’s ass about Can and Neu!? Is Dave Matthews still the gateway drug to jam band hell? Or are the kids just mainlining Phish these days? These are the questions that can close the place or get fists-a-flyin’.
But just to show you we’re not total rock snobs here at ZPHQ, we’ll meet you halfway. This week, we’re pitting against each other the two most hyped music scenes to come out of the Midwest since the Great Chicago Post-Rock Explosion got all our fingers inkstained lo those half-dozen years ago. Just off the coast of Iowa lies Omaha, Neb., home of Bright Eyes, Saddle Creek Records and a gang of sensitive middle-American indie folk who have been steadily encroaching as of late on Detroit’s hype hegemony. Worse, the “one-branch” incestiousness of the Nebraska crew’s family tree makes the surprisingly small Detroit scene look like a mighty and ancient oak (OK, maybe a robust birch). Let’s take a position-by-position look at the teams, shall we?
The starting five:
Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst vs. White Stripes/Jack White
Position: Point Guard
These dudes and their bands are responsible for distributing the ball, er, spotlight, and there’s not a helluva lot left to say you haven’t already heard. They bask in the glory of victory and take the heat when their team tanks. And, let’s be frank here: They’re the franchise players for both teams without whom the whole hype house of cards falls apart. Tellingly, both of these bands are led by raven-haired chick-magnets who wet their feet around the tender age of 14. Oberst started as a jangly, whiny neo-folkie wunderkind (hence the “New Dylan” shite). The diary mewlings that launched a thousand feature stories, if you will. White started as a drummer backing the country-rock shenanigans of Goober & the Peas. And, like many, many, many a Detroit drummer, he soon abandoned the skins for a more spotlight-friendly turn at the six-string.
Oberst’s celebrity chic factor hit a new high recently when he made his way through the Winona turnstile. Still, the kid’s got a long way to go in this department, with the Whites (Jack in particular) whiling away the hours with A-listers Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Loretta Lynn, Jack Black, Beck and on and on.
Bottom Line (sales): Elephant: 619,000; Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground: 89,000
Advantage: White Stripes/Jack White
Von Bondies vs. Cursive
Position: Power Forward.
These are the little brother bands to the headline-grabbing proper stars.
Ironic, then, that pretty much everything Oberst is as a songwriter seems owed to Cursive main man and scene stalwart Tim Kasher. Cursive’s latest rekkid, The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek), was gushed over by critics, but despite that was actually a damn good, disturbing journey to the center of Kasher’s neuroses. That Kasher and company’s fingerprints are all over the Omaha zeitgeist is likely of little consolation when the royalty checks roll in.
But still, it’s better to have been there from day one and still make a living than to work the angles trying to stay in the picture as a monied Johnny-come-lately.
Which brings us to the parallel Detroit universe of the Von Bondies. Given a production and publicity leg-up from White, the coed quartet have used the momentum to bring their limited blooz-rawk palette to a surprising number of admirers in the UK and one in the United States in particular — Seymour Stein — who inked ’em to a rumored seven-figure deal on Sire. They’re now wrapped up in the studio discovering the kind of production magic worked by ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison that still has the words “Verve” and “Pipe” on the lips of teen record-buyers everywhere. Their latest, Raw & Rare, finds them a little too in debt to the 313 garage blueprint as drafted by Bantam Rooster, White and Misters Tyner, Smith and Kramer; too Nuggets to make it out of the garage ghetto now that the spotlight operators are busy searching the landscape.
Bottom Line (sales):Von Bondies Lack of Communication: 5,900; The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek): 30,000.
Electric Six vs. the Faint
Position: Shooting Guard.
These are the flashy glory boys. The combined razzle-dazzle of these electro-dance-friendly outfits keeps their hometown team rolling in endorsement capital. They are de rigueur name-drop fodder for scribbling wags ranging from New York Times hype-watcher-of-record Neil Strauss to young Eddie Cranston in Poughkeepsie who just discovered the joys of blogging.
What’s the Frequency?
The Faint reinvented themselves two years ago as an electroclash-straddling neo-new wave brigade replete with skinny-tie Goth-Christ-posing “angularity.” The results were stunning. No Doubt took ’em under their wing and the subsequent face time with the Top 40 set coupled with the timely bandwagoneering spelled near-certain crossover. But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs got to the cash first and the Faint may have to resort to being a respectable blip in Little Suzie’s future memories of her “first big concert.”
Last year the Wildbunch reinvented themselves as the Electric Six and became a bona fide left-field phenomenon in the UK. (Two singles in the top five within six months is bona fide.) They’re playing the same fucked-up dance-metal arch-ironic rock they have for the last six years, only now they’re on the Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle soundtrack, playing European and Japanese festivals and foisting videos featuring baby-oil-lathered singer Dick Valentine dressed up as Abe Lincoln on the world. Oh, and half the original members bolted from the fold. High drama = ink. Quasi-gay videos = ink. “Hip in the UK” = ink, ink, ink … for now.
The Faint Danse Macabre (Saddle Creek), 2001: 49,000
Electric Six Fire (V2), 2003: 8,100
Advantage: Draw (but the homer in me says E6)
The Dirtbombs vs. Desaparecidos
If you’re in the paint, get prepared to get fucked wit’ with these outfits.
The out-and-out rockers in the bunch, quasi-supergroups both and not far away from one another in the record bin, either.
Desaparecidos is fronted by Oberst in his “political rocker” mode. In this stance, Oberst is prone to spew-scream such unimaginative hubris-of-the-young drivel as “I sold some shit I’m savin’ up/we can get the house next to the park/we’ll pay for everything” to conjure the kind of midlife, midmarriage consumerist angst that he can’t begin to imagine. It’s precious and arrogant and funny. But the trite is, admittedly, tempered by max riffage. And if the fans get riled up behind this band, watch out. So there’s that.
Meanwhile, the Dirtbombs, Detroit rock’s version of Daryl Dawkins (aka Chocolate Thunder) get busy shattering backboards by tackling classic and obscuro soul and mangling the shit out of it in a two drums, bottom-heavy squall. Raw power, indeed, and the while the wily vets that largely comprise the Dirtbombs may not have the flash or their Husker counterparts, they play position ball better than most and can really fuck with the head of unsuspecting rookies. The jury’s still out on how much momentum the Bombs can maintain (indeed, build) with their next long-awaited LP.
Bottom Line: Desaparecidos Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek) 2002: 27,000
The Dirtbombs Ultraglide in Black (In the Red) 2001: 6,700
Brendan Benson vs. The Good Life
Position: Small Forward
Everyone loves the comeback kid, and Benson is the ultimate indie-rock comeback kid du jour. His back story and $8 would buy an import copy of NME if he didn’t write such goddamned perfect introspective pop songs that find Benson in turns exquisitely bummed and sadly optimistic.
Throw in a Saturn commercial, cacophonous muso caterwauling about his back-from-the-majors-graveyard album Lapalco, and a couple well-placed cover tunes in the White Stripes ouevre and Benson’s got ample reason to let the sweet conquer the bitter (at least until it comes time to write the next record).
Meanwhile, The Good Life (the name ironically cribbed no doubt from Nebraska’s state motto) is taking a bleak, yet no less media-lauded route to redemption. Yet another musical outlet for Kasher, this time paired with Omaha production kingpin Mike Mogis and his brother AJ — both late of Lullaby for the Working Class (who proved a worthy nemesis for the Volebeats in the Downer Americana category of the great 1998 Omaha vs. Detroit Band-o-Rama). You get the feeling that the city of Omaha would outlaw the use of the word supergroup as the tight-knit little circle renders it meaningless. But I digress. These are the bitter pills and if they were gobbled up by other writers, they’d be a fatal shock to the system. But
Kasher brings his visions back from the graveyard at dusk and tells us all about ’em.
Brendan Benson Lapalco (Star Time International) 2002: 11,300 sold
The Good Life Black Out (Saddle Creek) 2002: 6,000 sold
Advantage: Brendan Benson
Jim Diamond vs. Mike Mogis
Look on any record to come out of either city and you’ll find these producers’ names on it. Seriously. Now, with Diamond about to take the helm of his own record label and Mogis already an integral part of the Saddle Creek empire, this is a coaching duel to watch. And neither of them, by all accounts is, as Seinfeld would have it, a Sven Jolly either. Each is a cagey veteran of tours, breakups and downturns in the creative economy and has managed to eke out a living making sometimes shitty bands sound good, and sometimes great bands simply sound as great as they can be. And they both have cool names too.
Italy Records vs. Saddle Creek Records
Coming into this battle royal, Italy Records had been stagnant for months, relying on White Stripes 45 reissues to span the gap as Dave Buick took his little label and morphed it into the Young Soul Rebels label/store. ( It just opened in the CPOP gallery. Shouldn’t you really go and see what’s so young, soulful or rebellious about it?)
Meanwhile, Saddle Creek is providing not only some kind of a living for its core constituency, but an example of how the indie-label tradition might be continued in this downloaded world. Their records sell to the kids to whom the majors can’t market and they straddle that oh-so-thin line between “mine” (indie-cred) and “theirs” (sellout). Oh, the kids just love ’em.
Advantage: Saddle Creek
The Final Score from Flyover Country? Detroit 3, Omaha 2 (with two draws).
Let the couch burning begin!
(BTW, in the interest of fueling an intracoastal feud of Biggie and Tupac proportions, we’ll be sending this to the respective Omaha Music Illuminati for their no doubt fiery retort. We’ll keep you posted).
Let the postgame fisticuffs commence.
For your edification and further debate bait, all sales numbers were provided by Nielsen-SoundScan.Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org