If there’s a driving ethos to the ragtag band of artistic brothers and sisters that make up the nebulous genre called “indie rock”, it’s a persistent shared yearning for a sense of community. Perhaps this desire for belonging defines all musical and cultural subcultures, but it’s particularly strong in the indie community. Hippies and hipsters share more than just a prefix; they share a totalized fuzzy liberal-utopian vision of all people (or at least all the right people) united in a loose collective of artistry and common social purpose. Without this universal fellow-feeling, indie rockers are little more than educated, snobbish wankers with nice clothes and expensive haircuts. With it, they’re poets and dreamers and revolutionaries. They hold the tremulous zeitgeist in their sweaty palms, stroking it gently like a beloved kitten. Or so the prevailing theory holds.
Perhaps what was so appealing about the now-defunct duo Death from Above 1979 was the lack of concern for the prevailing ideology of the indie community apparent in their music. There was the indie posturing and the DIY aesthetic and the disco-rock beats and the remixing (though Jesse Keeler was likely more responsible for the latter), sure. And Sebastien Grainger could occasionally slip into universal pleading here and there (“hold on, children”, he wailed desperately on “Black History Month”). But DFA 1979 cared less for forging a tightly-knit enlightened consensus than they did for getting naked, sweaty, and nasty. Their aggressive heavy-metal abandon startled those most used to indie’s mannered eccentricity, and their confident sexuality had a tendency to catch critics of the genre off-guard. They produced one very sexy, nearly-flawless record and then stomped off into the shadows, like a Neutral Milk Hotel for randy leather enthusiasts.
Four years after their only LP and two years after their ignominious break-up, Keeler is still fiddling with computers in MSTRKRFT, and Grainger has released his solo debut with his band, the Mountains. And though Grainger reserves a nod or two for the libidinous noise that defined his old band (the horrid “Niagara” is the one that comes immediately to mind), most of his gestures are aimed at gaining the approval of the indie populists who seem poised to welcome him with open arms.
This focus is not necessarily unbecoming to Grainger’s unique talents. Prospective indie anthems like “American Names” (“you’ll never have a place to call home”) and the propulsive “Love Can Be So Mean” are under the spell of their own handcrafted grandeur even as they are under the shadow of Broken Social Scene, a dark mass which so many products of Toronto’s active indie scene are helpless to evade (“I Hate My Friends” is similarly umbraged). If Grainger’s frantic wail is the glue that holds the makeshift contraption together on these tracks, however, its excesses are a powerful anti-adhesive elsewhere. “Darkness / I think you know better than me / Show me how to see” is hardly the lyrical high point, but other moments in the overproduced, oversung, overwrought mess that is “(I Am Like a) River” are even lower. “Love is Not a Contest” proves succinctly that Grainger is no piano crooner, but fortunately some keys and drums get righteously pounded before it ends. Album-closer “Renegade Silence” may seem to be the most logical progression from DFA that Grainger has on offer here, but it winds up as another tedious attempt at blue-eyed disco soul from a genre that has produced some pretty tedious ones already.
Between the lines, though, Grainger repeatedly expresses gurgling dissatisfaction with the community that he is making so many overtures towards courting. If the song titles alone are any indication, he both hates his friends and wants to meet new ones. But on closer inspection, he has little insight to offer into either indie scenes or into the direction they could be heading. In the midst of “Meet New Friends”, the most superficially grand of Grainger’s many attempts to be grand, what is the underlined, emphasized refrain? “Get out”. Is Sebastien Grainger urging us to find our elusive, repressed inner selves by being social butterflies, or is he just telling us to fuck off? I’m not sure he’s even sure, and, furthermore, I’m not certain which would be preferable.