BROOKLYN, NY—There are those who would complain that indie rock as we know it today has become a cesspool of self-importance and hip elitism, and let’s face it—those people have a point. It can seem like every Monday a new wave of Pitchfork-approved Brooklynites rises to blogosphere fame and rides the inevitable backlash into obscurity before the weekend. We chase trends and exhaust them with terrifying speed: Dance-punk, freak folk, chillwave, on to the next one. It’s understandable. Many of us (myself included) are getting antsy for the next leap forward—something to stir the stagnant cultural waters in the way that punk, hip-hop, or grunge did during their initial ascensions—and because of this we eye every kid with a guitar or sampler and a decent idea as the next possible savior. Sometimes we wonder if our faith will ever be rewarded.
If you feel like this, then you probably approach Islands with the same hesitation that I do. I like Islands. I own one of their albums and I’ve been following them since they grew out of The Unicorns’ disbandment. But I am also acutely aware of the fact that they make exactly the sort of quirky, self-aware music that has defined our tired notions of “indie rock” for the past decade, and thus I found myself feeling conflicted as I entered the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I knew I was going to be presented with some sounds I had cut my teeth on—off-kilter vocals, cheap synths, guitars that alternate between jangle and angularity—but I wasn’t sure they would satisfy anymore, and I was curious to see if my longing for something different would affect my review.
Before I get to that, however, I have to tell you about the opening bands. After all, if there really is a kid out there with a guitar or a sample that’s going to change everything, I sure as hell had better be spending time covering his band rather than musing over my own convoluted thoughts on the state of indie rock in 2010.
So, Steel Phantoms: Helmed by drummer/vocalist (and touring member of Islands) Aaron Harris and blonde Eraserhead look-alike Yos Munro on synths and vocals, the band cranked out a solid set of the sort of standard indie rock I described earlier. You know what? This sort of thing still sounds great live, even if I’ve heard it before. Very energetic and very melodic, the only thing lacking was a strong vocal presence to separate it from the multitudes of Brooklyn bands attempting the same thing.
Los Angeles’ Active Child, on the other hand, presented something braver and more unique. Looped drum machines and waves of fuzzed-out synths à la M83 converged with a harp and soaring Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto vocals, creating something dreamy, hypnotic, and exhilaratingly beautiful. It’s been a while since a supporting band stirred me as much as Active Child managed to do, nearly stealing the show from Islands.
Islands, by the way, managed to convince me that great pop music is great pop music, even when I’m tired of the mode of delivery or the winking sense of quirkiness. It certainly helped that Nick Diamonds and Co., though dressed in flamboyant jewel-encrusted white outfits, sounded like they took their musicianship seriously. Though their songs—which included newer material like “Vapours” and “Heartbeat” and old favorites like the handclap pop rush of “Rough Gem” or the epic guitar-centrism of “Swans (Life After Death)”—can often seem a bit silly on tape (and that’s part of this band’s charm, really), on stage the band injects them with a vigor that made me remember why I loved this music in the first place.