Washington City Paper

Dec. 26, 2003 –
Jan. 8, 2004



Arts in Review 2003

Songs of Praise

Me and the Major Labels

Last year I opened this piece with an anecdote from Bonnaroo, an independently promoted jam-band festival in Tennessee that drew 70,000 people and was advertised strictly via the Internet. So it seems only appropriate to make it a tradition: At this year’s Bonnaroo—same MO, 10,000 more attendees—the festival’s publicist cornered me to ask a favor. He was holding a press conference with one of the day’s performers, and he was worried the forum would be dominated by representatives of publications such as High Times—which for some reason he thought might not impress Mr. James Brown.


And so it was that I found my Spin-contributor self with the guy from Rolling Stone and the dude from USA Today, all of us desperately trying to think of soft-ball questions for Soul Brother No. 1. My contribution was to tell Brown that, like him, a lot of the bands performing made a point of owning their own publishing and recording rights, and to ask him whether that was the smartest business decision a young artist could make. In a response that touched on the importance of a good education, SARS, Iraq, music at ballgames, and the meaning of life, Brown made one coherent point: “There is no record business,” he said. “So whatever they are telling you is jive. That makes entertainment a little unstable.”

This from a man who would take out an ad in Variety the very next month announcing his impending divorce and calling it a “show business decision”—and then spend the rest of the year appearing on talk shows with his wife denying they’d ever planned to split. But you needed only to look at the music-biz story of the year—the iTunes Music Store—to see that Mr. Excitement was onto something. CD sales declined for like the bazillionth straight year, and I didn’t interview a single major-label artist who saw record sales as at all relevant to his income. For the big-timers, records are loss leaders, projects around which they can build tours and other tie-ins—which is how they make their real money.

Indie artists don’t have that luxury, and I think that’s probably the only useful distinction between most big and small labels at this point. Every single record I’ve chosen as an indie release below was put out by a company that sends out advance copies, hires publicists, and is generally run as a business, not a labor of love. If the records matter most, it’s because, at least until this iTunes thing levels the playing field some more, the records are all these people have. And if you think there’s something wrong with that, what you’re telling me is just jive.

Here are 10 records that probably made their creators at least a little bit of money this year:

10. Ruckus, Galactic. Produced by Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, this New Orleans jam band’s bid for indie cred is Exhibit A in my wife’s campaign to prove my taste has declined beyond all aid. But Ruckus shows that magic happens when the urge to wank is channeled instead into creating a heart-fibrillating groove. Freud would’ve called it sublimation; I call it sublime.

9. Exit English, Strike Anywhere. I’m with Michael Little on this one: Most current punk rock is way too much like church. I humbly suggest that if you’re still outraged by Little’s suggestion that D.C. music is boring, please head down I-95 to Richmond. You’ll still feel superior, but you’ll dance more.

8. The Rosebuds Make Out, the Rosebuds. If you think three “yeah”s are always better than one, then you need to hear this North Carolina trio absolutely rip it up garage-style on “Kicks in the Schoolyard.” Trust me: It’ll shorten the life of your Previous button.

7. Gallowsbird’s Bark, the Fiery Furnaces. This is the kind of Americana that Europeans eat with a spoon: rollicking, bluesy accounts of la vie bohème delivered with tongues so far in cheek that it’s a wonder these Brooklynites can sing at all. Gets more wonderful every time I listen, too.

6. Electric Version, the New Pornographers. When Neko Case croons, “Nobody knows the wreck of a soul the way you do,” she could be singing the epitaph of head Pornographer Carl Newman. My only complaint is that the album’s almost too much of a good thing: The sheer quality of its world-weariness can be tough to take for 46 minutes. Still, that didn’t stop me from listening to “The Laws Have Changed” 20 times in a row when I first got this.

5. Happy Songs for Happy People, Mogwai. Hey, space rockers: Mogwai hasn’t been a Slint soundalike for years, and on this one the lads show they can shake the clouds as deftly as they can tickle the dandelions. There’s no Elvish, either.

4. Worse for the Wear, the New Amsterdams. Side projects that don’t suck, Part 1: As a Get Up Kid, Matthew Pryor has never convincingly expressed who he is; as a New Amsterdam, Pryor is very much his own man—a guy who loves touring but misses his family, a Midwesterner freaked out by Paris Hilton, a rock ’n’ roller who takes drugs only when they ensure punctuality. Turns out he likes the Beatles, too.

3. Give Up, the Postal Service. Side projects that don’t suck, Part 2: As frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard has never broken the good-but-not-great barrier; as the voice of this dance-music collaboration with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, he oozes charisma, confidence, and humor, singing about getting schooled by ex-lovers sick of his boy-rock shit—and being freaked out by Paris Hilton.

2. Hearts of Oak, Ted Leo/Pharmacists. A virtuoso amalgam of a Catholic education, a passion for politics, an unpredictable falsetto, and extreme stereo separation, this album sent me to the dictionary more than once. (“Abjure” is not a rock ’n’ roll word, Ted.) But it sent me into a completely unwatchable fit of dancing more often. I want to have kids so I can embarrass them by loving this album long after I’m supposed to stop liking poppy punk.

1. Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle and Sebastian. I want to kiss Trevor Horn for waking Stuart Murdoch up to the fact that he’s the reason anybody ever liked Belle and Sebastian in the first place. Democracy, schmemocracy: As long as Murdoch can reference Thin Lizzy, eviscerate an ex-bandmate, and make fun of himself for being a “little lost sheep” all in the same song, he’ll remain the king of indie.

—Andrew Beaujon

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