This Is It

Now hear this: PopMatters’ own bring to the surface a dozen under-the-radar musicians who are sure to blow your mind and your speakers. Do yourself a favor and take a listen to these acts, at home or in concert, before everybody else does.

Label: Omnibus Records
From: San Francisco
Speed! The pace of present life can never be less than swift. From streaming zeroes and ones on the broadband spectrum to the tightly compressed, ephemeral thrills of chart music, rapidity is the theme de rigueur of popular culture. Thankfully, San Francisco’s Cave-Ins prefer the wider breadth of possibilities afforded in slowing down. The quartet’s debut, Gridfarce by Lamplight (Omnibus Records) is a stunning rendering of time gracefully unfurling.

The Bay Area band — helmed by symbiotic songwriters Luke Top and Matt Popieluch with bassist Rob Williams and recently added drummer Jason Quevar — composes languid arrangements that betray their very sophistication. Popieluch’s baritone crackles like vinyl as it answers or coalesces with Top’s honeyed voice. The duo’s lingering, bittersweet reveries drift amid warped echoes and lysergic tones. The rhythm section doesn’t set the tempo as much as provide further hues to color the duo’s compositions, already dense with an ample palette of timbres and textures culled from diverse instruments such as banjos, organs, pianos, xylophones and kazoos, not to mention guitars filtered, picked, plucked and strummed with mellifluous ingenuity.

One can detect traces of the solemn serenity of the Velvet Underground post-Cale and the inventive intricacy of the Beach Boys, or even peripheral similarities with such contemporaries as the Beachwood Sparks, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the bulk of the Elephant 6 stable. But the Cave-Ins’ unvarnished, erudite ease is, in many ways, removed from the polished pastiche, genteel finesse and/or academic zaniness of these peers. Few bands can match the tender poise, not to mention invention, of these young men. For a full flesh presentation, catch the band on their brief East Coast tour in late July/early August and/or on their regular appearances along the West Coast. Swooning is guaranteed.
         — Bernardo Rondeau

Label: Self-Starter Foundation
From: Chicago
Back in December of last year, I was trashing a pile of CDs in the back of the University of Chicago newspaper room — an area affectionately known as “the stack”. Generally speaking, the stack is where all the shitty Slipknot clones and bad punk tribute albums go to die, but every now and then, a good record slips through the cracks and into jewel case hell, never to be seen or heard from again. But for some reason, as I was shoveling them by the handful into a garbage bag, the Detachment Kit CD caught my eye. Its minimalist cover looked out of place. They Raging. Quiet Army, the album was titled. I flipped it over. The band was signed to Self-Starter, home of Clem Snide and formerly, Les Savy Fav.

When I popped it into the CD player, my suspicions of a clerical error were confirmed. Certainly, the band was unknown and this was their debut album, but there was nothing amateurish about the Detachment Kit’s execution — peppered with smart references to post-punk and indie’s hallowed past. The Pixies are perhaps the most obvious comparison, but Pavement’s stuttering melodicism and Les Savy Fav’s relentless throttle are also integral parts of their sound. By the time I got to the hyper-kinetic anthem, “Dead Angels Make Slow Sound”, I knew I had a winner.

Since that happy accident in December, I’ve seen the band perform live twice. They’re a little rough around edges and sometimes in their eagerness to get the crowd going, their enthusiasm can feel a bit forced. Furthermore, their material isn’t exactly groundbreaking. But compared to other bands with only one album and 40 shows behind them, The Detachment Kit has one hell of an auspicious start.
         — Jon Jay Garrett

Label: Soul Dump
From: Athens, Georgia, by way of Alabama
At a time when the utterance from many corners of the music world is “rock is dead”, the Drive-By Truckers have refuted that proclamation by releasing their masterpiece, Southern Rock Opera, the best rock ‘n’ roll album since the Black Crowes’ Amorica (1994). The Georgia-based quintet is irreverent, erudite, heroic and defiant in delivering paeans to rock legends (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young), observing the everyday joys and sorrows of being a perennially touring band, and decrying the corruption, racism and interpersonal tensions that plague America. Since 1996, their music has strutted its own path: a powerful blend of punk spirit and roots rock passion far more visceral than anything else being marketed as such today. The band’s shows are sprawling marathons of arresting feedback, Dixie-fried etiquette and finely rendered portraits of flawed humanity. Bandleaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are great storytellers in the rich tradition spawned by the Southland that bred them. These musicians’ reckoning with what it means to be southern inside a miscegenated culture at the crossroads, a diehard rock believer amidst soulless pop, is some of the most awe-inspiring art to appear in any medium for a good while. The Truckers write odes to their “Road Cases” so you can bet y’all will have plenty chances to catch ’em throughout the year. Lest you remain un-swayed, let their words speak for them: “Ronnie and Neil Ronnie and Neil / Rock stars today ain’t half as real / Speaking their minds on how they feel / Let them guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil.”
         — Kandia Crazy Horse

Label: unsigned
From: Toronto
When Lindsay Fitzsimmons makes her way to the stage, the audience quiets down and applauds her presence. She pushes her mouth towards the microphone and utters “hi”, with a smile. Her guitar strumming paints a melody in the background with each stroke, while her voice leads the way to a beautiful place. Halfway through her opening song the audience has fallen silent and everyone feels some sort of magic coming from the stage. With one lonesome voice and a single guitar, Lindsay has the ability to hypnotize almost any audience.

With having played piano for over 15 years, and having sung just as long, Lindsay is no amateur to music. She has more training than some of the artists we worship and love to this day, and she’s only 20. With influences mainly from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Lindsay stresses herself on lyrics being the most important thing in her music. When one sits down and listens solely to the lyrics, it is almost unbelievable how well she writes. Combining wit, imagery, love and politics, Lindsay often leaves the audience dumbfounded, searching for more meaning.

Lindsay frequents the open mic nights at Free Times Café and Oasis in Toronto. Her stage presence is simple: a greeting, an introduction of each song title, and a thank you to conclude. Rather than explaining each song and its meaning, Lindsay allows the listener to interpret for themselves. As one man once put it: “I was so captivated, then she was finished.”

With her recent five-song EP release titled Lindsay, Lindsay Fitzsimmons gives you only a glimpse of her undeniable talent.
         — Matt Snider

Label: Evil Evil
From: Toronto
Describing your band’s sound as “gay folk church music” may seem like a pretty weird statement, but it all makes perfect sense when you hear any one of Toronto’s Hidden Cameras gorgeously uplifting soft pop songs in the live arena.

Basically a vehicle for singer/songwriter Joel Gibb to flesh out his acoustic musings, the Hidden Cameras are made up of, at last count, 10 people, including balaclava and underwear-clad go-go dancers.

The self-financed Ecce Homo longplayer, released through the Evil Evil label, garnered much critical acclaim in the influential local Toronto newspapers and earned them the Eye magazine “Rising Star of 2001” award at the tail end of last year.

Comparisons with Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian will be obvious, but the Cameras aren’t one-dimensional copyists by any stretch of the imagination. Projecting Gibb’s intelligent, witty lyrics at live stage shows, Sunday school style, is one way to guarantee crowd sing-alongs, and playing in churches also makes sure of some positive word of mouth support. Although the band’s sound on their scratchy debut doesn’t match the joyous nature of their live performances, the songs still shine through.

Gibb promises a fuller sounding sophomore effort. “I want it really lush and grand,” he confirms. “Four of us are initially going to the studio, and then we’re going to add horns, strings, the harp, a choir and a church organ. I think it’ll be a lot of friends who come by to help. We’ll get 10 people together for some soft humming or something.” Judging by the band’s silence that has descended for the most part of 2002, they must be working hard to capture the sound that Gibb feels his songs deserve.
         — Adam Weight

Label: Mute/Blast First
From: New York
For a good band in New York City, it’s a jungle out there. Home to one of the world’s most hype-irific media machines, NYC musicians with even a modicum of talent are gobbled up like defenseless prey, savored briefly, then quickly shooed along the proverbial digestive track. But Liars, a gifted foursome of former Los Angeles punksters, have the ferocity to bite back. Their 2001 Gern Blandsted release, They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, takes an electromagnetic spin on post-punk, punctuates it with curious gizmos and whirring gadgets, and works it up to a tremor that’s off the Richter scale. Making the mayhem: Aaron Hemphill’s razor-sharp, thrill-seeking guitar lines; Pat Noecker’s booty-shakin’, ballistic bass; Ron Alberton’s punching drums, (with jabs that could take down Ali); and the psychotic rage of Angus Andrew’s vocals, wound around crazed yet crafty lyrics. And on stage, Liars break all the rules and then some. Constantly touring with other indie pearls like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars have perfected a stage persona that’s part theater, part asylum, and 100% glorious catastrophe. Before their rabid an ever-growing fan base, these guys devolve into feral beasts, and play with charged reflexes that are nothing shy of animal instinct. Indeed, Liars are one of a handful of New York groups that are welcome to the jungle.
         — Devon Powers

Label: Polyvinyl
From: Philadelphia
Beneath his band’s trademark washes of achy string and horn arrangements, Matt Pond is just one sensitive guy strumming an acoustic guitar. His gulping voice cracks at every other turn, and he plays as if his life depended on it. But thankfully, his approach is not plagued with the embarrassing schmaltz of coffeehouse folk or melodramatic emo. And while there is that swelling baroque prettiness, he’s not necessarily a Burt Bacharach for the indie rock set. Often, his deft avoidance of those predicted pitfalls is just as impressive as the craft comprising The Green Fury, Pond’s third album. It’s his band’s debut effort for Polyvinyl, an Illinois label that’s home to such hip acts as Rainer Maria and Mates of State. Pond’s previous two records, Measure and the I Thought You Were Sleeping EP, were released on Philly’s File 13 label, where many area players share projects. Although a native of New England, Matt Pond has come to be so admired in Philadelphia that the PA after his name has become a shining badge of local pride. Pond may be edging closer to the big leagues now, but he is still our city’s singular underground pop maestro. Extended touring — with the new Polyvinyl single This is Not the Green Fury in hand — should soon bring MPPA to your neck of the woods. And just by looking at the marquee, you’ll know where he came from.
         — Doug Wallen

Label: Pattern 25
From: Seattle
If you stole off into the woods at twilight in pursuit of the deepest emotions orchestrated at the unknown core of your heart, complicated by the turbulence of American society, chances are you might discover the Sanford Arms playing there. Forget grunge — the ’90s are way over, and the advent of the twenty-first century and the corporatization of the world commands a style of music that is far angrier than that dwindling musical style that Seattle has become known for. Lead singer Ben London, who writes all the music, exposes listeners to a lush and ethereal wonderland of sounds tinged with the delicate indie sensitivity of the Stone Roses, the watery sounds of Luna, and the acoustic brilliance of The Connells. I shit you not — this band will be the counter-option to The Strokes within one year.

Of course, London’s endeavors are not solitary. Guitarist Harris Thurmond, bass player Jeff Wood, drummer Rob Dent, and Rob Witmer (accordion, keys) combine their talents to create a symphony that not only saturates the space within any room, but transforms it into a dreamy experiment in sound and emotions. Formed by London in 1998, the band spent over three years recording its brilliant debut, Too Loud for the Snowman on Pattern 25 Records. A mellow soundscape in its own right, the songs are bolder than anything I have heard in this city for years. “Permanent Wires” fuses Bowie-esque vocals with a collage of spacey sounds and guitar rifts, while “Granted” is beautifully melds London’s voice with fluctuating, harmonious electric and acoustic guitars. Other highlights on the album include the darkish “Science and Industry” and “Red Vine”, which is nostalgic of the fab pop sensibility of Scottish band Belle and Sebastian with guitars that loudly articulate themselves.

There is no doubt in my mind: Sanford Arms will put Seattle music back on the map of culture.
         — Rahul Gairola

Label: Hopeless
From: St. Paul, Minnesota
Imagine if the Human League woke up in Seattle circa 1991, with a fistful of trucker speed to sustain them. Imagine if the Gang of Four’s passions extended only to crosswalks, jumpsuits, cheerleaders, and droids. Imagine Father Guido Sarducci as a garrulous mime and a stalwart bassist. Imagine a teal-colored wig that looks like a monstrous feather duster, perched proudly on the head of one of the most enthusiastic and beautiful guitarist/shouters you’ll ever see. Imagine music that dares you not to start jumping up and down. Rock ‘n’ roll will never be boring as long as there are enterprising and enthusiastic folks like St. Paul’s Selby Tigers to keep everyone on their toes. Their first record Charm City (2000) is a good place to start digging their infectious monotone Romper-Room anthems. But definitely don’t miss their latest, Curse of the Selby Tigers (also on Hopeless Records), in which Arzu D2 injects her shouts with just enough Kate-Bjelland gravel and Westerberg whiskey that you’ll wonder if they’ve invented an entirely new genre. “Droid punk”, let’s call it. When she trades lines with her husband/guitarist Nate Grundahl or drummer Dave Gatchell, it’s like sipping Turkish coffee while trapped inside a giant voltmeter. Of course, you must also see them live to fully appreciate their strangeness and enthusiasm. But in the mean time, punch them in the face with your lips, and buy their new album.
         — Mark Desrosiers

Label: Zuma
From: various about north of England

In parallel universe at a crossroads somewhere in the northwest of England, the Verve met Liam Gallagher and argued over Led Zeppelin — The Shining could well be the product of this.

A band that has Simon Jones (bass) and Simon Tong (guitar/keyboards) from the Verve slashing guitars over the incendiary vocals of a cloned Liam Gallagher is an irresistible legacy of the Britpop days. Add to that, the fact that they have been hanging out and jamming with John Squire (ex of the Stone Roses) and you get a smoldering Frankenstein’s monster from the rubble of the mid 1990s.

The sound is big, sweeping and anthemic and singer Duncan Baxter has a love him or hate him swaggering arrogance. Some have said that this is the way that the Verve should have gone after their Northern Soul album, before Richard Ashcroft found love and went all strings and ballads on us, but it would be clumsy to dismiss then as merely, ahem, standing on the shoulders of giants.

From Led Zeppelin to the Who right up to the ’90s balls-out cock-rock of Northern England, the Shining have studied their past and could soon be smashing through with a mad-eyed singer and one of the most incendiary axemen in the business. Here’s Johnny indeed.
         — Matt Pomroy

Label: Kill Rock Stars
From: Detroit, Michigan
The White Stripes may be getting all the out-of-town ink, but a very different Detroit band is poised to take the world by storm. Founded in 1998, Slumber Party play moody, atmospheric rock with echoes of the Velvet Underground, Slowdive, and Spiritualized. An all-female quartet with miles of style and stage presence, they’re the local opening act of choice when indie rock royalty like Belle and Sebastian and Yo La Tengo (to whom they lent some wicked backup vocals for “Emulsified” last New Year’s Eve) hit the Motor City. They’re also movers and shakers in the current Detroit rock scene, with various members running labels and putting in time with Universal Indians and Jack White pals the Von Bondies. Slumber Party’s deal with mega-indie label Kill Rock Stars could provide them with the exposure they’ll need to achieve the level of success that more straight-ahead rock groups like the Donnas and Kittie have demonstrated is out there for female bands tackling usually male-dominated genres. So if you see Slumber Party making a cameo in the next Freddie Prinze howler or co-hosting a segment on MTV2, don’t be surprised (well, be a little surprised). It’s about time the upper echelon of Detroit Rock City got some female faces and a whole lot of reverb.
         — Christine Di Bella

Label: Orange
From: Cincinnati, Ohio
If all the robotic pop on the radio has you running to your copy of Nuggets for consolation, Cincinnati’s Thee Shams might be just what you need. Midwestern cities have been hiding great garage rock bands for years, and if the recent success of Detroit’s White Stripes is any indication, the rest of the country might finally be ready to listen. In fact, a wise minority is already raving about Thee Shams: They were named Best Local Unsigned Band in Cincinnati on a poll and made writer Greg Beets’ 2001 Top Ten list in the Austin Chronicle.

Thee Shams’ first CD, Take Off, is sweat-drenched, blues-based rock at its finest, with thrashing drums, sloppy guitar licks, bass lines like a thumping heart after an all-night hump, and Zach Gabbard’s attitude-fueled yelping, which brings to mind a young Van Morrison. During their live shows, drummer Keith Fox channels the chaotic spirit of the more famous drummer named Keith, while bassist Chad Hardwick plays the cool heartthrob and guitarist Adam Wesley jumps around looking like a spastic, bespectacled Ed Begley, Jr.

While they’re usually stuck as a warm-up act playing to barely-there crowds, Thee Shams seem to pull in a few more converts each time they visit Chicago. With any luck, their sexy, sleazy brand of ’60s-style rock will soon have throngs of fans bumping and grinding at every sold-out show.
         — Charlotte Robinson