Music/Popular Culture

The next Springsteen?

He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young

2003 and 2004 brought us the front edge what I’ve come to call the Nu Wave – a new wave of New Wave, Post-Punk and Technopop-influenced bands. For a guy like me, who hit college in the late ’70s and has the music of the ’80s forever insinuated into the soundtrack of my life, it’s been wonderful to hear all these new bands working that particular audial terrain.

Of course, when you get a new wave of anything musical (especially when the scene owes so much to a specific influence) you’re going to get plenty of rubber stampers who are more about imitation than innovation. I’ve indulged my nostalgic impulse, though, playing the hell out of bands like Bloc Party, The Bravery, Shiny Toy Guns, Kaiser Chiefs, The Stills, Drop Dead Genius, The Strays, The Faint, The Fever, Stellastarr*, She Wants Revenge and more. These are all bands I enjoying listening to a great deal, but I’m waiting to see if they can get over their influences and make a stand on their own. Can they take those New Wave and ’80s sounds and do something new and fresh with them? Or will their careers forever be about the past instead of the future?

I immediately began sifting through the Nu Wave looking for the cream, and by last year it seemed clear to me that we had three or four candidates. The Strays’ Le Futur Noir (2006) was fantastic, but can they pay off their obvious debt to the Clash? Interpol’s Antics (2004) was rich and mature, and while they’re hugely influenced by Joy Division, people who keep trying to paint them as little more than a JD tribute act are a little too in love with their own snark and should pay closer attention to what’s actually coming out of the speakers. Franz Ferdinand’s outstanding second release, You Could Have It So Much Better (2005), made clear that they had no interest in being a nostalgia band, either.

Then there’s The Killers. I remember a few years back, maybe in 2002 or 2003, my buddy Jeff Lindquist e-mailed me a couple mp3s he’d nicked off an unsigned bands site. Those two tracks were “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and “Mr. Brightside,” and I immediately realized that Jeff had stumbled onto something. Their debut CD didn’t disappoint, either – it may have been uneven in places, but the high spots (those first two songs, plus the insanely catchy “Somebody Told Me”) were pure magic. The question quickly became “okay, you have my attention – what’s next?”

So last year the surprising Sam’s Town arrived, and we learned that Brandon Flowers and his bandmates have serious ambitions. Instead of taking the easy, templated route, they swung for the fences, producing a completely unanticipated homage to Springsteen’s landmark Born to Run (plus one remarkable nod to The Raspberries, even). They hadn’t abandoned the synthesizers, nor was Dave Keuning’s guitar work trying to deny the ample Edge influence, but the vibe of the CD owed more to the ’70s than the ’80s. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, The Killers hadn’t settled for small, for unassuming, for intimate. They were shooting for epic.

The critics, for the most part, called it a miss, but I think the critical consensus tells us more about critics than it does The Killers. It’s been so long since grand rock walked the Earth that they’ve forgotten how to evaluate ambition. They’ve become so acclimated to the chore of getting goose-bumply over Sufjan Stevens and Bright Eyes that they barely know how to behave in the presence of a band intent on huge.

Last night I went to see The Killers at The Fox in Boulder, which remains one of the truly great places in America to see live music. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d only seen the band on TV and was unimpressed. Their performance on Saturday Night Live last season was every bit as atrocious as everything else on Saturday Night Live is these days, but SNL is a place where a lot of great bands have gone to suck (you’d think a gig as big as SNL could afford a sound guy, huh?) so I wasn’t sure how much stock to put in that set.

Last night’s show? Just … damn. This was BIG ROCK & ROLL. Flowers belongs to the “introverted lead singer” class of performers – quirky and obviously not quite at home in front of a crowd (a bit Michael Stipe-ish in that respect) – but unlike so many others of that ilk, who’ll gladly stare at their shoes all night, Flowers works very hard to reach out and connect with the audience, and it works. The depth of his lyrical vision is the reactor from which all that energy emanates, and the crowd responds to the passion that clearly drives him. He comes off like someone who’s slightly damaged, but who isn’t afraid to let the scars show, and who is determined to mine his pain for all the beauty he can possibly create. You can just feel the audience reaching out, like they’re starved for honesty.

The songs, as I say, are epic in scale, the sound is massive, Keuning understands how to act like a star on stage, and the crowd – wow. The place was packed, every kid in there knew every word – it was something I haven’t experienced in a very long time… I’ve seen Springsteen. I saw Queen, and some others along the way. Peter Gabriel, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, U2. This was like that in every way except the size of the venue (and I wish I had tix to the show at Red Rocks tonight so I could see it on that scale).

As fellow Scrogue Jim Booth has explained, back in the old days when labels would tolerate artist development, you always looked to the third album. That was when you knew how great a band was going to be.

The Killers look to be on that arc (although their second release was considerably more accomplished than some of the “sophomore slump” efforts from some of history’s greatest bands). Sometime in the next year or two we’re going to get that third Killers record, and then we’ll know for sure. I’m predicting that we’re going to be blown away. I’m expecting the third effort to be even more ambitious, and this band has everything you need to pull it off – vision, charisma, songwriting, and an apparent willingness to assume the mantle of greatness.

We’ve talked some around here lately about whether it’s even possible for those great legendary rock moments to happen anymore, and maybe it isn’t. But if it is – if there’s a band out there that has the potential to do a stadium tour behind an epic 5-star record – I saw them last night.

Stay tuned.

12 replies »

  1. Thanks for introducing us to the Killers, Sam. I’ll check them out. (I usually leaf through the rock section in my son’s Rolling Stone’s to get straight to the journalistic articles.)

    It’s always a mistake to raise one generation’s music over another. If forced to pick a decade — from the fifties to the tens (2000) — that was the best in popular American music, I couldn’t do it.

  2. I’d take the ’70s because SO MUCH happened. At the beginning of the decade we were still working on what was left of the ’60s and by the end we’d seen the emergence of punk and the explosion of the New Wave scene, which cranked up, peaked and more or less ended in the span of about four years. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a year quite like 1978, in fact.

    Of course, the ’70s also gave us disco, so that’s 100 points from Gryffindor….

  3. I yearn for the epic as much as you do, Sam. I like my rock stars as the Russians liked their tsars – “very high up/very close to God.”

    That said, I’m still in a “wait and see” mode with The Killers. While I like “Sam’s Town” (and love that first album), they haven’t (for me, anyway) shown me anything that makes me think they’ll become U2 – or even REM (the last “epic” bands).

    We seem to be stuck with one of two kinds of band now – those who follow the REM path of intimacy (REM made folk rock singer/songwriter intimacy epic, I believe) and can’t deliver what the old gods called in their last album “A Bigger Bang” and those who make a big show a la U2 – but who can’t deliver U2’s depth and intelligence.

    The band that seems to me most capable of that is Jets Overhead. But we need to see more work first.

    So I guess all this just says I think the jury’s still out.

    Going to see Elvis Costello next week, btw. I’ll let you know….

  4. One thing that has bothered me for a while now is the focus on concerts. I don’t care whether the Killers are great in person, since I’ve only rarely gone to concerts and don’t expect to go to concerts more often as my kids get older. I want my music to sound good coming out of my stereo’s speakers and on my Grado headphones when played off a CD. I want my music to keep me awake and focused when I listen to it while I’m working.

    To me, a good concert experience is a bonus, but it doesn’t make or break the music experience, because my music experience is almost always solitary.

  5. I want my music to sound good coming out of my stereo’s speakers and on my Grado headphones when played off a CD. I want my music to keep me awake and focused when I listen to it while I’m working.

    Big Toto fan, are you? 🙂

    To me, a good concert experience is a bonus, but it doesn’t make or break the music experience, because my music experience is almost always solitary.

    It’s not an either/or, though. If the subject is what you need for a particular situation, then really your decision at that moment is all that matters, period.

    However, if the conversation is about GREAT BANDS, then live matters. And studio matters. You need to be great both places, and the bands we think of as truly great are usually both.

  6. Great post.

    My kid has turned me on to most of the new music that you mentioned, and I feel hope for rock. There’s a lot of good music out there right now.



  7. Gotta say I was very underwhelmed with Sam’s Town. If I had actually paid for it, I’d be mad. If the first album was “uneven” this one was one big pothole. I’m still holding out hope, but I’m afraid that they may have the sophomore curse.

  8. Not sure what kind of standards you’re applying, D. I the argument is that you didn’t LIKE it, that’s fine, but if the argument is that it wasn’t worthy critically I’m not sure how you make that case.

  9. I just don’t like it. I didn’t read one thing the critics said about it, but then again I never do. If these “critics” are the same people who have a love affair with Jack White then I don’t want any part of it.