Are *these* bands good: Late '00s indie darlings
A regular feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether bands are good
Welcome to a *special* episode of “Is This Band Good?”, a semi-regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good.
THE DEFENDANTS: Late ‘00s indie darlings
At what point does nostalgia kick in?
Is it 20 years? More? This is a subject that I’ve been pondering over for some time—and one that, I think, underlies the entire concept of “Is This Band Good?” Without getting too deep or philosophical, does the advent of time better reveal the strengths or the flaws of the music we once deemed attention-worthy? And when nostalgia comes into play—do we care?
That said, I have no nostalgia for the late ‘00s, because in many ways, we’re still living them. I would wager that this was the era where most people became Extremely Online. Yes, there were internet addicts before, but the invention of smartphones and surge of social media all but solidified our status as a monoculture. People latched onto their echo chambers, and hiveminds became a thing.
Which is still happening. We’ve hit a singularity of negative enlightenment. We have everything we wanted (at least technologically) yet no one is happier. How can there be nostalgia for a time when everyone’s just felt the same for the past 10 years (i.e, low level dissatisfaction and dread)? Who knows how we’ll differentiate between the 2010s, the 2020s, 2030s and so on? (I mean, if we make it to the 2030s).
I’d also say this phenomenon is and was true with pop-culture. In the late ‘00s, websites like Pitchfork, Vice and Gawker established themselves as monoliths of influence. If Pitchfork deemed something Best New Music, that band was made. So powerful was their reign that a stoner punk band like Wavves could be thrust into the world’s spotlight after earning a Best New Music designation despite having only a handful of live performances under their belt (a fact that became clear after their disastrous Primavera performance).
So, while many great artists rose to prominence during this time, I think we’re far enough down the road to see that perhaps not everyband was not worthy of the praise and attention foisted upon them. I think it’s time to reassess some of the most egregious examples of bands that were occasionally brilliant, but also wildly inconsistent and perhaps prematurely fawned over.
Candice Renee: I’m Candice Renee. I play drums in a band called Blood Ponies. We released our first album, HOAX, at the tail end of 2019 and had grand plans to do our first tour in the spring of 2020. I’m sure you can guess why that didn’t work out. I also head up operations for Treble, a music site that was founded by my husband, Jeff Terich, way back in 2003 and is still going strong with a great community of writers. After living in San Diego for the past 17 years, I (and Blood Ponies) am getting ready to move to the East Coast, and I’m pretty sure this exercise was Ryan’s way of punishing me for leaving.
Ryan Bradford: I’m the writer of AWKSD and I was alive and listening to a lot of music during the ‘00s. Everything Candice said above is true, especially the part about punishment.
Ryan Bradford: I can’t remember when I first heard Vampire Weekend, but I do remember being disappointed by their name. It seemed like false advertising to me. I imagined something like My Chemical Romance or a psychobilly band. I hoped they had songs about vampires at least? Nope. Turns out they were just a bunch of rich New York kids obsessed with Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Also, when I first heard “A-Punk,” I thought, this is ska, right? Honestly, you can skank to many Vampire Weekend songs.
Candice Renee: In general, I have a terrible memory, so it’s hard for me to say exactly when I first heard Vampire Weekend. I think it was probably driving around LA or Orange County (I used to live up there) and listening to KCRW. I do remember thinking, did these guys just name drop Peter Gabriel in a song? That’s dumb. But then my boyfriend (now husband), Jeff, played the full album for me, and I was surprised to discover that I really liked it.
Ryan Bradford: If you had to describe late-’00s music, how would you do it? For me, I can’t think of any descriptor apart from “the Internet,” and by that I mean: a hodgepodge of disparate qualities that’s striving for cohesiveness. Like, you have the dour seriousness of bands like The National and Interpol cominglinging with the ridiculous neon hipster club culture that flocked to M.I.A., Kanye West and Lady Gaga, and then somewhere in the middle was LCD Soundsystem. Personified, it would be an unwashed bro wearing light-up sneakers and stupid sunglasses with plastic bars instead of lenses, holding a scotch on the rocks and explaining art to you.
Considering that, at least Vampire Weekend gave us a consistent and fully-realized product right out of the gate. Yes, their music was twee and, yes, it was infuriatingly precocious, but it’s held up surprisingly well over the years. As I mentioned before, it’s hard not to hear a bunch of privileged white kids aping Paul Simon and South African music, but at least they had a sophisticated whimsy that never felt cheap. I think of it as like the musical equivalent to a John Hughes film or (for better or worse) a New Yorker cartoon, where deeper meaning can be found in its playfulness.
Candice Renee: The ‘00s were kind of a blissfully* ignorant time for music. No one was really thinking about the cultural appropriation that Vampire Weekend was employing, or about how some young musicians have the means and resources to simply create music rather than going out and having to work 3 jobs just to pay rent. Vampire Weekend’s first album just really hit on that vibe—being young and thoughtful but also relatively carefree. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found both their concept and their style of music less and less interesting. But going back and relistening to their debut album, I have to admit I still like it. (*Just an aside to say that ignorance is not, in fact, bliss, even if the cliché says so.)
Candice Renee: It’s hard to argue that these songs are bad. They’re well composed, well performed and have great production. Sonically, they’re clean, and they have charming melodies. On the self-titled album, there’s enough diversity that you don’t get bored. If “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” are too sweet for you, there’s A-Punk,” which is a fun two minutes. And it closes strong with “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.” It’s solid.
Vampire Weekend is good.
Ryan Bradford: The first time I ever heard the term “mansplaining” was in response to Chuck Klosterman’s dismissive and lazy evaluation of Tune-Yards’ 2011 album W H O K I L L wherein he admits to not really listening to the album. That prompted me to check it out, and I put in a lot of effort to like it. Really, I did. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to spend time with something so obtuse that it seems to not want you around.
Candice Renee: Honestly, I feel like from the jump, this band was forgettable to me. Which is odd to say, given that their songs are pretty weird. But their weirdness wasn’t interesting to me—it just felt like another band trying to be weird for the sake of weird, because that’s what was getting attention at the time. But I do remember that in 2011, I saw St. Vincent and Tune-Yards play together at the House of Blues and St. Vincent was the *opener.* Even then I knew that was a fucking travesty. Frankly, it was kind of embarrassing that they had to follow her.
And as much as I hate Chuck Klosterman, when he wrote “Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought tUnE-yArDs was supposed to be brilliant?...Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?”... I was thinking the exact same thing. I still am, frankly.
Ryan Bradford:I feel like Tune-Yards only makes music for Tune-Yards, which I guess is fine if you’re an arteest, but c’mon, Tune-Yards, throw us a fucking bone.
The ‘00s were rife with alienating pretension, and of all these bands, Tune-Yards might have been the guiltiest party (though it’s a tough call between them and Dirty Projectors). I know this probably makes me sound like a musical luddite—and I respect anyone who has the patience for challenging music—but what occasion, exactly, calls for a Tune-Yards song? Is it when you feel like listening to a dance song that’s been killed and then reconstructed monstrously in Frankenstein fashion? Is it when you feel like music these days is just too damn catchy? The most frustrating thing is that there are genuinely good foundations to each of these songs, but they seem purposely stripped of accessibility.
Yes, there is something subversive about the singer’s voice in that it seems to eschew gender. And while that’s cool and really sounds like nothing I’ve heard before...it’s also pretty annoying. I’m sorry. Maybe the voice is supposed to be so off-putting? Hope I’m not pulling a Klosterman here.
Candice Renee: I had to consult Wikipedia to find out if they officially stopped stylizing their name as tUnE-yArDs, which is obnoxious as hell. It didn’t say, but their Wikipedia page entry is like a Where’s Waldo for “is this band good” evidence. Heavy reliance on ukulele? Bad! Scored the soundtrack of Sorry to Bother You? Good! Merrill Garbus was a puppeteer in Vermont? They won the Pazz and Jop poll? Somewhere there is a hipster bingo card with all the squares punched. (For the uninitiated, Pazz and Jop is a poll of the year’s best songs voted on by music critics by invitation only. Said music critics are really the only people that pay attention to it.)
Candice Renee: Oh my god, does the opening track on Bird-Brains really end with a kid talking about blueberries? And there’s another track that uses a child coughing as a percussive element? I’m tapping out right here.
Tune-Yards: Not good!
Ryan Bradford: So here’s an embarrassing story. When Merriweather Post Pavilion came out, I was living in Brooklyn, NY. If you remember, 2009 was the apex of hipsterism as a cultural trend (btw, “hipster” was always a reductive term and easy fuel for haters but also a useful shorthand, so you know what I’m talking about).
I was also interning at Vice, so I was pretty much at the epicenter of the hipster world. All of these factors created this sort of boiling point/fever pitch of enthusiasm for Merriweather, and hoo boy did I fell hard for that album.
A few months later, I was living in Southern California, and I was at an old college friend’s party (hi, Steve!). We were standing around, catching up, and eventually started talking about music. He hadn’t heard Animal Collective yet, and so I described them thusly:
“They transcend music.”
To my Steve’s credit, he didn’t laugh in my face. But that’s how I felt. I thought Animal Collective was the future of music.
Ugh. I still cringe when I think of that memory.
Candice Renee: I very clearly remember my first time hearing Animal Collective. Back around 2004, when my (now) husband, Jeff, and I actually had cable, we used to watch MTV2, which was MTV’s newly introduced “all-music” channel. It’s hilarious that a channel that started as all-music videos had strayed so far into reality TV programming that they had to launch a second channel for music. But it was great. There was a program called Subterranean, which was basically the ‘00s version of 120 Minutes, which both Jeff and I watched as teenagers. One night, Subterranean showed the video for “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” and I thought it was one of the weirdest things I’d seen in a long time. I was into it.
Ryan Bradford: Now, with a little more wisdom and life experience, I can honestly say that Animal Collective does not “transcend music.” (My bad, Steve. I’ll take that mulligan). In fact, I’d be hard pressed to think of a band that has aged as poorly for me as Animal Collective. What was I thinking? Were they putting something in the water in Brooklyn?
There was a comedian—maybe it was Tom Scharpling—who once described Animal Collective as (and I’m paraphrasing) “slowed down Beach Boys” and now I can’t unhear that. What I thought was “transcendent” now just seems like the result of Korg presets and a lot of weed. People give bands like Tool and Sublime a lot of shit for being stereotypical stoner music, but I think if we were being honest, Animal Collective is equally deserving of said shit. Like, who’s listening at the 3-minute mark of “Daily Routine” and thinking “hell yeah”?
That said, when Animal Collective are on, they are fucking on. I can’t deny that “My Girls” is easily one of the best songs of the ‘00s—not only for being a gorgeous jam, but for its earnest portrayal of spartan domesticity. And there’s something flourishing to the best Animal Collective songs. It often takes some patience to really see where the music is going, and then it suddenly clicks and you realize you’re in the middle of a great pop tune.
Candice Renee: I want to hate Animal Collective. In a lot of ways, they’re not that different from Vampire Weekend—privileged white boys composing songs from their Columbia University dorm rooms that their parents are paying for. Plus, they go by the names Avey Tare, Geologist, Panda Bear and Deakin. There’s so much heavy-handed artifice! Plus, I’m not a fan of watching all-electronic bands live. I’m never going to insist that composing music entirely digitally is any less of a craft than composing it on an analogue instrument (both are equally valid!), but when your live show consists of you and a couple other guys standing behind a sampler for an hour, it’s hard for me to stay engaged. I would get really bored watching these guys live.
Candice Renee: Ok, I’m sitting here writing and without thinking about it, I’m totally grooving to “My Girls.” Obviously a band that can write hooks like this can’t be written off. I always feel like, as an artist, it’s easier to make something really elaborate and complex—it’s writing a catchy pop song that’s the real challenge. I mean, these guys are writing songs in 9/8, but they’ve also got HOOKS. I think Animal Collective shows that you can be weird AF and still write a catchy song.
Animal Collective is still good, but nowhere near as good as Pitchfork led us to believe.
Ryan Bradford: I was obsessed with Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” when it came out, largely due to its creepy, uncanny music video, which is still great and super unsettling. You should watch it if you’re one of the millions who haven’t.
I bought Vekatimest based on the strength of that song alone, but none of the other tracks had the same pull, and the band quickly fell into the “I don’t get it” outskirts of my brain.
Candice Renee: I don’t feel like I have any connection to Grizzly Bear whatsoever. They’re this band that I hear on the “indie” station on satellite radio a lot. Sometimes I’ll change the channel, sometimes I won’t. They’re a band that I assume has had songs featured in commercials, but as far as I can tell from internet research, they actually haven’t. They’re a band I don’t think about at all.
Ryan Bradford: It’s crazy to think that only 10 years prior to Grizzly Bear’s mainstream breakthrough, the charts were ruled by Korn, Eminem and Limp Bizkit. Let’s sit on that for a moment.
I think it’s encouraging that there was such a dramatic shift in mainstream music during the ‘00s, and certainly there’s something to be said about the general public moving away from adult angst and rage toward music that was more sensible, complex, and beautiful.
But the reality was sort of a best of times/worst of times scenario, where these refined bands often just feel emotionally hollow. It seems like Grizzly Bear—whose strength lies in its vocal harmonies—is going for Pet Sounds-like sublimity, but can only replicate the facade. Simply, there’s not a lot of heart, which makes each song easy to forget the moment it’s done.
I think what grates on me most about Vekatimest in particular is how much heavy lifting the vocals have to do. In many songs, it’s almost like the vocals are creating the melodies and the instrumentation is accompaniment. Is this compelling? Absolutely. But is it enjoyable? Not really.
Candice Renee: More so than the other bands, Grizzly Bear feels like the band that reflected the hard mainstreaming of the “indie band” as a genre. The very truncated version of the history of indie rock goes something like this: 1. College radio station DJs play cool music that mainstream radio doesn’t. 2. People start using “college rock” as a way to describe music that is cool and underground, but “college” is too specific to one type of listener, so the powers that be start calling it “indie rock” instead. 3. “Indie Rock” becomes this stand-in for a style of music that is generally white dudes wearing thrifted clothing making lo-fi, cheaply produced albums. And now it’s almost sort of morphed into the Millennial’s version of “adult contemporary”—it’s not too loud or heavy, and these days, you might hear Grizzly Bear at the grocery store.
Candice Renee: Here’s the thing: Grizzly Bear is fine. Take Veckatimest. It’s got a decent opening track. It’s interesting that “Two Weeks” is the best known track from this album, because I actually find it to be the outlier. It’s very twee—much more so than the other songs. Overall, they feel a little what would happen if the Moody Blues met a southern jam band. The drums have a bit of a swing groove every now and then, and the open reverb on guitars has a nice spatial quality that allows them to layer in some lush arrangements or meandering jam bridges. It’s not my thing, but it’s not bad.
Grizzly Bear is okay.
Ryan Bradford: I was very intrigued by the concept of Dirty Projectors’ 2007 album Rise Above, which was an attempt to recreate the famous Black Flag album from memory.
“Oh cool! Indie punk!” I thought. “This will be great.”
And then I listened to it. It was not great.
Candice Renee: Man, I hated Bitte Orca when it came out. I could *not* understand why everyone was into this. To me, this album, and Dirty Projectors, feels like the height of Pitchforkness—the “you’ve never heard of them,” I-am-cooler-than-you band that hipsters will use to judge a potential date’s coolness. Probably while reading Chuck Klosterman, even though Klosterman himself would probably claim that he didn’t like them.
Ryan Bradford: Look, if I wanted to listen to someone masturbate, I’d just go to Pornhub and turn off the screen.
I know singers and guitar players who are really into the musical gymnastics of Dirty Projectors, but it’s all just so boringly self-indulgent and pleased with itself that it actually makes me angry to listen to their music.
One time I was talking about music with someone at a party, and he was like “Don’t you think you’re too old to be listening to punk?” and I can’t help but think about that condescending remark everytime I hear Dirty Projectors. I just want to say to the singer: “Buddy, we know you’re a serious musician—you don’t have to write every song to remind us of that.” Also, get Black Flag out of your mouth. They’re too good for you.
Candice Renee: There’s an extremely long list of musicians that have been “members” of Dirty Projectors, but the band is essentially just David Longstreth and whatever collaborators he is currently working with. Back around 2017, he released an album under the Dirty Projectors name following his breakup with Amber Coffman, who had previously been part of the band. Apparently this came as a surprise to her, which feels like kind of a shitty move. Their albums continue to rack up critical praise, which feels like some kind of conspiracy. Like a bunch of people that all saw an art film, and afterwards no one wants to admit that they didn’t understand it, so they say they loved it. I’m convinced that’s what’s going on with Dirty Projectors.
Candice Renee: Jeff and I once went to see the amazing band Broadcast with our friend Steve, who was unfamiliar with Broadcast at the time of the show. Afterwards, Jeff asked Steve what he thought, and Steve replied, “I prefer songs with melodies.” While Steve will never live down how incorrect of an assessment that was regarding Broadcast, I’d like to borrow his sentiment to analyze Dirty Projectors. Where are the melodies??
There is a constant tension in their songs that makes me feel on edge the entire time I’m listening to them. They never let you get comfortable in a groove or a melody. You could say that this music challenges the listener, but at the end of the day, I don’t get any enjoyment from listening to it. I never get any emotional release—it’s like being on hold on the phone and every so often the hold music stops for a millisecond and you think oh, someone is about to pick up! But no, false alarm. You cannot relax. You must continue to sit there anxiously, not sure when or if you will ever get off this call. The random handclaps! The attempts at Mariah Carey-esque vocal range! Please kill me.
"Two Doves” is a refreshing break on the album. It’s a bit too precious for my taste, but it’s at least a fully realized song. For an album that’s supposed to be so unique and experimental, all the rest of the songs on Bitte Orca sound remarkably the same, making it somehow weird and boring at the same time.
Dirty Projectors is bad. Just...really, really bad.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
Go to this
You know that big thing you just read where Candice and I talked shit on a lot of bands? Well, here’s some sad news: Candice and her husband Jeff—who, make up the band Blood Ponies—are leaving San Diego. Sad! They’re throwing a going-away party on Thursday night at the Whistle Stop, which should be a chill and goth night with DJs including Robin Roth, Hexa and Jeff—I mean, Handsome Skeleton. Come say goodbye to these people who have made such a positive impact on San Diego.
It’s been a long time since a show has affected me as much as Netflix’s horror series Brand New Cherry Flavor. The basic plot revolves around a young filmmaker in the ‘90s whose short film catches the eye of a famous and sleazy Hollywood producer, who lures her to LA with an opportunity to turn it into a feature, but then steals her movie when she refuses his advances. To get revenge, the filmmaker enlists the help of a witch (played by the perennially great Catherine Keener) who puts a curse on the director and—as is the case with curses—things spiral out of control. Co-created by one of my favorite writers Nick Antosca (watch his Channel Zero series for some of the best horror of the past decade), Brand New Cherry Flavor has some of the gnarliest and unforgettable scenes of any Netflix show I’ve seen. Definitely not for the squeamish, but for those who are into LA horror/noir like Lynch’s Lost Highway and the novel House of Leaves—not to mention some great body horror (especially an A+ homage to David Cronenburg’s Videodrome)—this show is ace. Also, it’s got some killer needle drops (Primus’ “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” and Concrete Blonde’s “Tomorrow, Wendy” are used exquisitely).
Every Monday night, I guest star on my Utah friends’ Youtube show, Polyester Blend, where we talk about current events, play songs, and try to be funny. One of the recurring segments is called “Ryan’s Comics Corner” where I pick my favorite newspaper comics from the prior week and read them on air. Well, the past two months has been the summer of Mary Worth, where I’ve read nothing but that titular soap opera, and let me tell you: it’s been a hell of a ride. I’ve never given Mary Worth that much thought, but when you start to read it every day, it feels like experiencing a thrilling movie, only two seconds at a time. Anyway, they just finished a wild story arc that involved a love triangle, brutal fisticuffs and a surreal dream sequence. On Polyester Blend, we celebrated this story end with an impromptu psychedelic freak-out, and it was ridic. You can watch the clip below.
ONE MORE THING
Rest in peace, Matt Hoyt. I didn’t know him well—only as the co-owner of Starlite—but I was well aware of the positive impact he had on his friends and community. My heart goes out to everyone who loved him.
Got a tip or wanna say hi? Email me at email@example.com, or follow me on Twitter @theryanbradford. And if you like what you’ve just read, please hit that little heart icon at the end of the post.