Most people assume that indie rock, with its underground, anti-establishment pedigree, is significantly more authentic than mainstream rock or pop. In fact, like the rest of the music industry, it is highly subject to manipulation: there are numerous Svengalis out there who have found the blog-centric system easy to work to their advantage, with nothing more than a few gimmicks and a boatload of charisma.
Case in point: Dan Deacon, who appeared Friday night at the Whitney Museum, part of the free Whitney Live series. The series mostly presents composer/performers from the new music realm, which makes Deacon a curious choice: he claims to be "an electro-acoustic composer," but comes across live as little more than a party DJ with a Casio and some processed vocals. A commenter on Brooklyn Vegan generously compares him to Philip Glass, "if Glass were hyperactive and composed on a Super Nintendo."
Like a 21st Century Pied Piper, Deacon has managed to steer a whole army of impressionable teens and tweens to his dance-driven cult of fandom. Which, by itself, isn't a crime: after all, what composer doesn't want to be loved by a young, attractive, wildly enthusiastic crowd? What creeps me out are his methods. He brings friends to his shows dressed as characters. He fills his stage with light-up toys. He talks. A lot.
And I'm not talking about the usual shoegaze chatter that rockers indulge in between songs. Deacon proselytizes. Before playing a single note Friday night, he had us do stretching exercises for a good ten minutes. Later, he had us all hold hands and recite a ridiculous ad-libbed story while his voice rose from a soft murmur to a mad roar. It felt compulsory, overbearing: like I was at Nuremburg, or my after-school church group. It seemed as if Deacon was looking for any excuse he could find to avoid playing his music. Predictably, the kids ate it all up. (First two photos courtesy of Leia)
By contrast, Jukebox the Ghost rocked a sold-out Union Hall last night with a set that put the music way out front. I first saw the engaging young Philly-based trio at the After the Jump Fest in August, where I was immediately taken by the intricacy of their upbeat power pop. Since then, they've stepped it up a couple of notches, having just completed their first full-length album, "Let Live & Let Ghosts."
Ben Thornewill, who shares vocals with guitarist Tommy Siegel, is a classically-trained pianist and the driving force behind the outfit. I'm not old enough to remember Elton John in his younger days, but Thornewill has that kind of talent and charisma (if not the sequined outfits.) Folks have also drawn comparisons to another pianist named Ben, which I could see as Thornewill jerked around on his piano bench. To Thornewill's credit, he was smart enough to add some loudness to his piano, blasting away any tweeness with a healthy dose of guitar noise and crashing percussion, courtesy of Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin.
Jukebox has the whole package: hooks, looks, chops, vocals - not to mention clever, funny songs. If these guys don't make it big, it'll be because the system took them out. Which will mean the "system" is hopelessly broken.
Opening last night were The Hymns, who played appealing roots rock and whose lead singer, Brian Harding, bears a favorable resemblance to Jakob Dylan. They were followed by A Brief Smile, a group of NYU students who blended upbeat pop with quirky dissonances, sounding a good bit like the Flaming Lips. Sure as hell beat the stuff I saw when I was in college (with one notable exception.)