Word on the street is indie rock is dead — or at least indie rock made by sad white males is dead. It’s certainly felt that way for a while, hasn’t it? MTV’s David Turner was tapping into something real when he dismissed the uninspired new releases from Brooklyn buzz bands Porches and DIIV while praising Frankie Cosmos and Waxahatchee, two of the many female-fronted acts whose vision has injected DIY rock with a needed jolt of fresh perspective. Indie rock is clearly not dead — look at what’s happening in Philadelphia — but depressive caucasian bros have long been the least exciting thing about a genre that has long been cultural shorthand for depressive caucasian bros. Be it the many veteran indie acts who’ve lost a step or the litter of derivative progeny failing to fill their shoes, most of the scenes that have come to comprise “indie rock” in the public imagination feel stale. Even going pop, long the standard maneuver for an influx of new ideas, has become a cliché in its own right. Within the cul de sac that is post-gentrification indie rock, the need for a new way forward is real. In spirit, Turner is on point.
In practice, it’s trickier. Although indie rock is still regrettably a boys’ club, thankfully, necessarily, the genre has gotten more diverse in recent years. In that way it’s already found a way forward: A new range of voices will inevitably lead to a new range of sounds. Hopefully it will continue to expand its demographic reach, which has to happen if indie rock is to continue on as anything besides a country club. Yet the genre is also becoming more inclusive in terms of style — specifically, the once-maligned emo subgenre has become too vital to ignore — and when you take those bands into account, it seems that even sad white male indie rock has discovered its lifeline. In a Stereogum cover story two years ago, I floated the idea that the emo-driven DIY scene is one of the last musical frontiers that’s both indie and rock, and that its flourishing community of bands are moving beyond Braid worship into genuine innovation:
It certainly sounds like indie rock. Emo has become the best refuge for those turned off by indie’s longstanding flight from guitar-driven rock music toward synthesized pop. At a time when most guitar-based music sounds retro by default, those seeking inventive new guitar-based rock are most likely to find it among this new wave of emo bands… if the new emo scene bears the sonic influence of its ’90s forebears, it also shares that era’s penchant for sonic exploration.
At the time, I observed and appreciated the phenomenon, noting the ambitious sprawl of The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die (later perfected on 2015’s epic Harmlessness) and the jazzy pop-rock delights of A Great Big Pile Of Leaves. But in the last couple years, I’ve come to really believe in emo’s creative renaissance after becoming obsessed with a pair of releases that I love more than any rock album in years. Last year it was Sorority Noise’s Joy, Departed, which pumped fresh life and urgency into classic tropes. This year it’s Pinegrove’s Cardinal, which feels like something entirely new. Both bands played a handful of SXSW events yesterday, and I witnessed each unit in action for the first time. Both sets were inspiring.
First up was Sorority Noise, closing out Brooklyn Vegan’s afternoon party on the indoor stage at Cheer Up Charlies. It’s a tight space that can’t possibly hold more than a couple hundred people, which makes it an ideal arena for Sorority Noise’s uplifting combustion. With scraggly hair extending beyond his ballcap, a bearded Cam Boucher led his cohorts through 30 minutes of triumphant rock music that joyously indulged in all the genre’s most bombastic ingredients — even guitar solos! Adam Ackerman shamelessly shredded throughout and even went full Eddie Van Halen at one point, hoisting his instrument skyward as he unleashed a rapid-fire finger-tapping spree. The crowd mirrored his unbounded jubilation, thrashing and bouncing along to every song without missing a lyric. This was a party, a religious experience, and a workout routine all at once.
I tried to take notes at first, but by the time they barreled into “Nolsey,” the anthem that sold me on the band in the first place, I got caught up in the blast radius and gave myself over to the kind of exhilaration I rarely experience at concerts anymore. On a purely musical level, the way they fused DIY and arena rock elements was glorious; they wielded power chords and vocal harmonies and cleverly self-deprecating lyrics with such profound force that for the first time in 15 years it didn’t matter that Weezer fell off.
But there were reasons for all this contagious exhilaration that run deeper than the music’s pure explosive power. Boucher made the stakes plain at the end of the set, introducing “Using” with a monologue about how he used to be suicidal and he wants everyone to know their life has value. Joy, Departed is stuffed with words about that subject, and the kids at Cheer Up Charlies seemed to know every one of them by heart. Around the time the whole room was howling “I stopped wishing I was dead,” indie rock seemed very much alive.
That night I attended Dirty Dog Bar to see Pinegrove play Run For Cover’s official showcase. This was my most anticipated event of SXSW because, much to my surprise, Cardinal has become my obsession in the early months of 2016. The first time I listened to the album, I enjoyed its it well enough, but every subsequent listen drew me further in until the band’s unique blend of emo and alt-country became the default soundtrack for every day.
Like Sorority Noise’s Boucher, Evan Stephens Hall is one of the great lyricists of our time. And like Boucher, he channels deeply relatable experiences into smart turns of phrase without letting the wordiness turn into clumsiness. Every lyric matters, and none of them get in the way. On “Old Friends,” he’s sentimental about human connection: “I should call my parents when I think of them/ I should tell my friends when I love them.” On “New Friends,” he’s cynical about the same subject, approaching a party full of strangers with a tongue-in-cheek “What’s the worst that could happen?” The six songs in between artfully fumble their way between the impulse to sulk and the desire to press on.
Pinegrove have chosen the latter option in regard to their sound. Even if Hall didn’t deliver so many gut-punch turns of phrase, the band would be endlessly fascinating for moving past mere emo and arriving at a subtle convergence of styles I’ve never encountered before. There is an emo undercurrent to it, the feeling of twilight diary entries scrawled against melancholy chord changes. And there’s a lightweight twang that reminds me of Jay Farrar or Jason Molina without ever diving headfirst into country. There’s even a trace of Toad The Wet Sprocket or something, though I might just be saying that because 3/4 of Pinegrove’s members were wearing shorts on stage.
Emo, country, mid-’90s VH1 pop-rock: I realize none of these are particularly reputable styles among an indie rock audience, but what this band does with them is unbelievably potent (and anyhow, indie rock has always evolved by subsuming previous taboos). Their magnetism took on new dimensions on stage at Dirty Dog, slinging quirky asides between songs and toying with their song structures in a way that reminded me of Wilco. Without much more than a few open chords, Hall’s easy drawl, and the occasional ripping guitar lead, Pinegrove built up an emotional swell that felt like some kind of future — maybe not the way forward, but one of many possible corridors for a genre that seems ready to stave off death for now.