"Are you talking to me?"
Just when the exported goods of New York's renewed dalliance with the Trouser Press history of rock seemed to have expired, stellastarr* and its metallic brand of arty New Wave kicks off round two.
Pretend it's for the better, because in some ways it really is.
In the wake of the Strokes' 2001 critical and commercial smash Is This It?, Big Apple alt -- and its garage-roots cousin from Detroit -- has crashed loudly onto the radio and MTV (or, more precisely, M2), loudly proclaiming that the indie-rock underground isn't quite as dead as the mainstream claims. For the couple hundred thousand consumers who've bought or downloaded songs by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and the Rapture, it's provided an alternative that's catchy the way kiddy-punk bands aren't, hard in a way that rap-metal isn't, and not so self-conscious of droopy emotion as the emo army.
Sure, the buzz alarm set off by the British press (and lifted by their American cousins) continually threatens to overwhelm these New York first-wavers before they've even stopped feeding on classic post-punk dishes and developed their own recipes (egos expand faster than songwriting skills, you know?). But hating the Strokes because of their miles of wasted style and Hollywood girlfriends only deprives the haters of some great singles, rock's ultimate dance-rock bastard child of Damn the Torpedoes and The Cars. Which, if you like to bop your head, is just plain silly. I mean, unless you're a Godsmack fan.
The folks pretending that the Empire State invasion is a pop-cult passing fancy should think again. Big Apple's clubland, whose '90s stars -- Helmet, D Generation, Jonathan Fire*Eater -- fizzled in the national spotlight, continues pumping out rock contenders. In fact, despite New York's horrid economic climate, journalists, label people and club bookers all say there are more new rock bands, more people going out to see new rock bands, and more people booking shows featuring new rock bands in the city than in any recent memory. In other words, there's more of a scene.
stellastarr*, a quartet of 25-year-old pop rocks whose self-titled debut on RCA, home as well to the Strokes, was released in September, is the commercial lip of New York's second wave. They're also representative of the speedy musical ascendance Nu New York currently affords its bands, as well as the mix of artsy naiveté and professionalism these young bands have adapted -- both for better and for worse.
Singer and guitarist Shawn Christensen, bassist Amanda Tannen and drummer Arthur Kremer met at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute of Art & Design, playing in a band when no one in town cared. After graduating in the spring of 2000, they hooked up with recent Philadelphia transplant guitarist Michael Jurin, formed stellastarr*, a design-oriented play on the name of a hearse parked in Christensen's childhood neighborhood, and began gigging around New York just as the pace picked up. Their first official show was with the then-barely-known Strokes. "The place was already packed," Christensen recalls. They spent the next two years cutting teeth at New York clubs that have since become semi-legendary, places like Brownie's and Baby Jupiter, partly because they fell victim to the post-9/11 economy and the city's draconian nightlife regulations.
In that atmosphere, stellastarr* mastered hooks culled from various '80s corners and from the first wave of Brit-pop, then cobbled them onto Jurin's meaty guitar and Russell's disco hi-hats. And while Christensen claims that the group "doesn't have exactly a cool New York' sound," believing him is next to impossible. At its best -- the album's driving "My Coco," for instance -- stellastarr* is the commercial side of Nu New York at its catchiest.
It may simply be -- as is the case with many 25-year-olds -- that Christensen hasn't yet embraced the tradition he's working in. Or that he's artfully stealing from. In the meantime, stellastarr*'s (and Nu New York's) biggest champions see these influences, and the innocence with which they're being plundered, as among the Big Apple scene's virtues.
"A lot of the people who go to stellastarr* shows and who are going to buy the stellastarr* album don't know Joy Division or Mission of Burma," says Nick Marc. A scruffy 34-year-old Brit, Marc runs Tiswas, an influential eight-years-strong weekly party at downtown club Don Hill's that's hosted every major Nu New York band on its way up, and whose small label funded the recording of the stellastarr* album before giving it to RCA. "There's some influences that you're talking about in stellastarr* the band themselves probably don't know," invoking the naiveté many New York musicians carry in their back pockets.
The aesthetic that Marc has developed at Tiswas is at least partially responsible for all this. A catchy mix of classic New Wave, post-punk and shoegazer psychedelia, as well as indie- and Brit-pop, Tiswas started as a hangout for Marc and his British mates tired of the artsy gloom and doom of Gotham's hipper, experimental music. The Tiswas sound was familiar to any long-term dabblers in the New York underground, and Marc began booking bands like the Strokes, Interpol, and Mooney Suzuki with this aesthetic in mind.
Marc acknowledges that "New York City isn't a one-sound town. It covers a lot of different bases," yet he also sees the delirious response to the hook-minded first wavers as naturally in line with his own beliefs. "Most people don't want to be educated when they go out, they want to have fun -- and maybe get laid."
Adam Shore, label manager of Brooklyn's Vice Records and co-compiler of a much-lauded compilation called Yes New York, wholeheartedly agrees that the New York hip set goes out. A lot. But he's not so sure that some of those enthusiasts aren't in it for the learning experience.
"There's a huge audience of New Yorkers who want to see bands first," he says, describing the Brooklyn and Lower East Side legions who over the past three years have forsaken DJ events and flocked to the live venues. "They want to hear bands they heard are cool that no one has seen before because they want to be on the front lines."
In a way, that may be the most important thing for this whole Nu New York mania. Getting excited about its own export is the first step toward getting other people excited. Between local press coverage and the constant level of activity on music-heavy e-mail lists like NYHappenings, NYC Nonsense and FlavorPill, the local hubbub over the sound of Nu New York hasn't waned, but has increased.
So: "Are you ready for more?" You'd better be, because here it comes.
Covering all the incarnations of Nu New York would be exhausting. Here, then, is a minor primer on wave #2.
The Fiery Furnaces, Gallowbird's Bark (Rough Trade): Brother-sister-led group of garage-rockers fond of music hall and Broadway, and thus reminiscent of all the post-skiffle Maximum R&B groups of early '60s London, like the early Who and Kinks. They crank the fuzz and jack up the galloping rhythm to match Eleanor Freidberg's running-out-of-breath delivery.
Radio 4, Electrify EP (Astralwerks): The first Astralwerks release by the politicos of New York's white-funk dance-rock brigade, Electrify consists of multiple mixes of the epic 2001 single "Dance to the Underground," second only to Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" for pure Big Apple boogie.
The Rapture, Echoes (Strummer/Universal): Thank goodness this long-overdue debut full-length from the quartet that is redefining dance-rock (new formula: the Cure + house music) is worth the wait. With the DFA production team working overtime, songs like "House of Jealous Lovers," "Olio" and "Sister Saviour" have enough meat and potatoes to satisfy conservative punks, and enough groove to set off a warehouse party.
The Rogers Sisters, Purely Evil (Troubleman Unlimited): Guitarist Jennifer and drummer Laura Rogers, along with bassist Miyuki Furtado, do the razor-sharp Watusi like the B-52's without the kitsch. Angry, rollicking and completely delicious.
Various Artists, Yes New York (Wolfgang Morden/Vice): Start here, since it's as good a scene overview as Nu New York has yet to produce. Rarities from the Strokes and Le Tigre, hits from Interpol and Radio 4, standouts from next-wavers like ambient space industrialists Secret Machines, and more good shit than you could flush in one sitting. Proof that the New York City news will continue to be spread for the foreseeable future.