Ever since I first heard the term ‘indie rock,’ there’s been something about it that I don’t like. Other terms — blues-rock, space rock, glam rock, roots rock — give you some idea what the music sounds like. Indie rock just tells you about the business ideals of its artists and fans. It’s a non-musical way to describe music and it calls into question whether self-proclaimed indie fans like the stuff more for the indie or for the rock. The sheer mediocrity of many indie icons suggests that perhaps owning these CDs is about as important as owning a pair of black plastic glasses or Converse All-Stars, a suggestion borne out in my own experience by the number of indie rock kids who can’t be bothered with the Stones, Dylan, or even the Beatles. One in particular lives in infamy in my mind for scoffing at the idea of buying Pet Sounds because it was ‘so obvious.’
The problem with that ignorant little prick was that he couldn’t stand the thought of being associated with anything that didn’t announce with perfect clarity his superiority to the unlearned masses. If it wasn’t a badge of elitism, he wasn’t interested. I hate every last music fan like that, and it’s hard not to think of him when I look at Deep Elm’s This is Indie Rock: The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard. Then again, Deep Elm always puts such care into their compilations that I’m inclined to believe that the title of this release is a sly acknowledgement of indie stereotypes. These are the folks, after all, who put out a comp for youth suicide prevention, so it’s not a stretch to guess their collective heart is in the right place and that this album is an honest attempt to introduce to the world 12 artists that they simply think are good.
How sweet in theory, but how spotty in practice. As with indie rock in general, the artists collected here share an aversion to anything sounding too ‘commercial’ without also sharing an ability to make interesting music. Coming from Deep Elm, it’s unsurprising that a lot of the songs here sound at least vaguely emo/screamo. Dino Velvet’s “Weekend Warriors” begins as an exemplar of this approach before quickly embodying everything terrible about it. With a grating lead singer who appears to think that the only way to communicate emotion is by shredding his larynx into the microphone, Dino Velvet is not one of the best bands you’ve never heard: they’re one of the bands it’s best to never hear. None of the other artists featured on This is Indie Rock make quite such a negative impression, but many of them make no impression whatsoever. Decent hooks are hard to come by, as is any emotion besides malaise. For stretches that go on far too long, there’s not a whole lot to be impressed by.
It’s a shame, then, that there are some genuine gems cursed with a context far worse than they deserve. Throat, hailing from Ireland, turns in a laudable performance with “Saturday”. Nothing about it will revolutionize rock as we know it, but it has enough energy and smarts to make innovation look overrated. Leaving Rouge pulls off the same trick with “Rooms”, a lovely melancholy rocker that demonstrates an assured sense of craft, something doubly welcome since it washes out the taste of Dino Velvet. But the towering standout of This is Indie Rock, and perhaps the only track that justifies the subtitle, is Joanna Erdos. Her piano ballad, “Silver and Gold”, sounds at once familiar and new. She’s personal without sounding private. Her wonderful, expressive voice — stretching from soulful moan to sweet breathiness — sounds like someone you can’t quite identify, which buttresses the impression that she has done plenty of homework. Best of all, she doesn’t sound like the sort of artist that would put someone down for wanting to buy Pet Sounds. That makes me like her plenty.