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Vancouver's Red Hot Indie Music Scene

It's incredibly diverse, and grabbing wide attention.

By Elaine Corden 13 Sep 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Elaine Corden writes about pop culture for the Tyee. Her work has appeared on CBC Radio, and in The Georgia Straight, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Magazine, Time Out, Victoria Times-Colonist, Monday Magazine, FFWD, The Hour, North Shore News, Shared Vision and some papers in Florida, Texas and Oregon she forgets the names of. Until recently, she authored the music column "Band Geek" for WestEnder, where she also acted as Arts Editor. She maintains the pop-culture obsessed blog Trifective, and is currently working on her first novel.

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[Editor's note: Next week, in part two, The Tyee brings you a look into why Vancouver's indie music scene is taking off.]

Your mom loves Coldplay. She does. And so does everyone else's mom. Even if you liked them before, your mom's adoration of their milquetoast melodies had kind of ruined it for you, hasn't it? Ditto U2, ditto White Stripes. You can't listen to them now without thinking of your matriarch, or of that annoying man at the office, or the million other folk who insist on keeping the minivan radio tuned on "mass consumption." And so you have to move on. Because if you hear X & Y one more time, you're personally going to hunt Coldplay's plaintive singer down and beat him with a James Taylor album.

You're tired of bands being rammed down your throat. You are a pop culture refugee. Well, sit down next to me. Enter the world of independent music.

With due respect to the all-conquering pop-song, the advantages of exploring independent music are obvious: songs you love are less likely to become jingles for Sunny D., you are not feeding the media beast that is AOL Time Warner, and yes, you can walk a little taller knowing that your record collection is unique, unlike your neighbor's. It takes a little more effort to find the diamonds amidst so much coal, but in the end, it's worth the effort.

Laid back explosion

While every town has its local gems, Vancouver's indie music scene is red-hot right now, so you really need look no further than your own province as a starting point. In fact, had you traveled down to Victory Square, on the edge of Gastown, this past Labour Day, you would have found a veritable treasure chest of independent, local acts: all playing a beautifully utopian outdoor concert, not in the name of profit (the event was free), but rather for the sheer love of making noise.

With seven acts on hand (Fond of Tigers, The Christa Min, The Book of Lists, Calamalka, Ladyhawk, P:ano and the buzzier-than-buzz Pink Mountaintops), you'd have been hard-pressed to come away with something you didn't like. In fact, the line-up was exemplary of why taste-making music press, such as Pitchforkmedia.com, NME, and Spin have taken an interest in our fair city lately.

Take Black Mountain. Drawing huge interest in the UK and Stateside, the Vancouver-based group has just returned from a jaunt opening up for (wait for it) Coldplay, a feat that, considering the uber-popularity of that group, was of no small importance. Ramshackle and defiantly retro, Black Mountain (whose membership forms no small part of the aforementioned Pink Mountaintops) are making '60s-styled, druggy guitar rock that's the toast of the global indie rock community.

Coastal talent pool

Likewise, The New Pornographers and specifically chief songwriter Carl Newman, have been drawing over-the-top praise in the international music media, with American rag Blender naming Newman to their "Hot 100" list of worldwide music visionaries. One listen of Pornographer's witty, harmony-laden new album, Twin Cinema, will tell you why. While the album traverses the well-worn territory of love and relationships, it's done in such a fresh, clever way that you'll find yourself immediately hooked.

Add to that jerky post-punkers Hot Hot Heat, a once-indie, now-signed-to-Warner outfit who is playing the likes of Glastonbury and David Letterman. And The Organ, an all-female group whose melancholy, Smiths-esque 80's revivalism is capturing critics' hearts. And a host of other up-and-comers making their mark beyond our borders, and all together, you have something akin to the Seattle explosion of the 1990s or the Hives-led Swedish garage rock phenom at the start of this century.

The chief difference, (the difference, one hopes, which will not leave us in the same time-has-not-passed-since-Soundgarden's-"Spoon Man" state as the still-grungified Seattle) is the incredible diversity of our flourishing talent.

Diverse rock

The acts on hand at the Victory Square Block Party, for example, while all "rock" bands, could trace their respective influences to groups as varied as Roxy Music: the spacey-sounding Book of Lists, who also draw heavily on the canon of psychedelic prophet Syd Barrett (listen to Book of Lists' single "Through Stained Glass"), to Canned Heat. And Pink Mountaintops, basically a sexed-up version of Black Mountain who mix songs about "Sweet 69" with romantic, existential boy/girl duets (listen to Pink Mountaintops' single "Leslie").

Furthermore, while it's our pop and rock outfits drawing the most attention right now, other genres, such as jazz, hip-hop and electronica also boast some extraordinary talent. For example, hip-hop fans should check out the rabbitting, quickfire delivery of socially-conscious local Birdapres if they don't believe visceral rap could come from laid-back Vancity. (Listen to Birdapres' single "Broke Beat")

Perhaps this is the upside of the Vancouver's whorish courtship of "global city" status. It may be that we have to endure the occasional unnecessary stadium or Cadillac transit project to keep talented artists in town. In the past, we've hemorrhaged talent to cities like Montreal and Toronto, but now it seems that we're finally interesting enough for artist to remain here.

Wade in

If you're a newcomer to this strange and exciting world, it may be daunting to wade in to the torrent of creativity in the city right now. It is still, despite the talent boon, a crapshoot to wander into a nightclub or music venue not knowing any of the artists. Any of the bands mentioned above are a sure bet.

When you get to their shows, saddle up to the nearest hipster-with-a-beard and ask them who their favourite local act is. You'll be amazed at the variety of answers, and the liveliness of opinions on the matter. We've finally outgrown the days when we were famous for grow-ops and Bryan Adams, and have become a world-recognized epicentre for visionary music. If you're brave enough to explore the scene, you may just end up handing that Coldplay album over to your mother for good. Trust me. You won't need it where you're going.

Elaine Corden is a Vancouver writer, editor and living room dancer.

Music downloads (Click on the links below to listen):

"Through Stained Glass" by Book of Lists

"Leslie" by Pink Mountaintops

"Broke Beat" by Birdapres  [Tyee]

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