For obvious demographic reasons, music critics overrate the importance of indie rock. Even so, the critical consensus was absurdly indie-heavy in 2009, a watershed year for a certain strain of Pitchfork-approved post-collegiate pop that beat a genteel retreat from its punk heritage. Skeptics tagged this movement’s frontrunners with the dismissive (and supposedly clever-by-fiat) abbreviation GAPDY, casting a net wide enough to take in hibernating aesthetes Grizzly Bear, stoned menagerie Animal Collective, wan Frenchmen Phoenix, avant-glee-clubbers the Dirty Projectors, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ triumphant new-wave-is-back move. Don’t ask me if either the consensus or the backlash mattered much. For obvious reasons, music critics also overrate the importance of music critics.
Notably, these darlings fared no worse in the “singles” portion of Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, usually the domain of poppier blacks and women, than they did in the “albums” tally. This success was indicative of some lazy habits among insular critics (as Chuck Eddy noted), but it maybe wasn’t wholly undeserved either. New Indie had managed to spit up some distinctive stand-alone songs in a weakish year for chartpop. And yet…
Animal Collective’s “My Girls” voiced an honest desire to balance material security and spiritual freedom — and yet, I hope whoever it is that’s struggling to learn to clap while watching Nova reruns finds a cozier place to raise his daughters than the bottom of that well he’s singing from. The Dirty Projectors “Stillness Is the Move” was catchy enough to elicit a cover version from Beyonce’s arty little sister Solange — and yet, I wish the awkwardness with which David Longstreth pairs lyrics to melody would conjure up more amateurish charm and less arch willfulness. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero” was a vital celebration of transcendent anonymity — and yet, it leaves me wanting to hear the rest of It’s Blitz! as well. As for Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” a frilly operetta number that mistakes Hal Blaine fills for math-rock, that prissy falsetto is almost enough to make an effete pencilneck like me buy Vikings season tickets.
Which leaves us with Phoenix. Thankfully, “Lisztomania” gives up far more mania than Liszt (you never know with Europeans), though the spazzy energy that’s its key asset doesn’t quite obscure the nifty bits assembled here: a bass fill here, a guitar commenting melodically there, everywhere a two-note keyboard bit reminiscent of “Friday on My Mind.” What’s more, “Lisztomania” is a triumph of dynamics: when guitar and drums drop out on the chorus, and the electric piano plinks on, Phoenix achieves the same emotional effect that ’90s alt-rockers strove for when they blasted into a loud chorus. And if the lyrics never quite evoke the interrupted flirtation and a pop phenomenon they hint at, I like how “jugulate” is introduced purely for the way it sounds.
Then again, Pazz & Jop voters preferred the less exuberant “1901,” which is probably indicative of nothing other than how tastes are even more arbitrary than usual when it comes to content-free indie fluff.