Minneapolis's Tapes 'n Tapes, which played its first of two sold-out shows at Bowery Ballroom Sunday night (the other is tonight), is the latest band to benefit from the new star-making apparatus of the Internet. The group's meteoric rise follows a now familiar pattern.
The influential music blog Music for Robots started the ball rolling last November with a gushing review that tagged TNT (self-mockingly) as "the current most amazing band in the world." As if to set up the next domino, the review concluded: "If I were pitchfork this would be my best new music." The indie kingmakers at Pitchfork Media happily complied, labeling TNT one of their "early '06 faves."
TNT arrived for its marathon nine-set weekend at South by Southwest with full, hype-billowed sails. There the buzz finally percolated up to old-school gatekeepers the New York Times and Rolling Stone (which stodgily declared in its headline "Experimental indie dudes rule at SXSW"), and within a month the band was signed to XL Recordings, home to former current most amazing bands in the world, Devendra Banhart, M.I.A., Dizzee Rascal, and Peaches.
But TNT fares better as an underrated surprise than as indie rock's savior of the month.The band is touted for its eclecticism, but at Sunday's show it sounded less like versatility than indecisiveness. "Insistor" set a spaghetti western twang against a quickening beat played on drums and guitar. The background music scarcely changed, but Josh Grier managed to carve out verses and choruses with dynamic changes in his vocals. "Just Drums" swerved from matte-finish post-punk to dance-funk grooves and back, but "10 Gallon Ascots" was topsy-turvier still, thinning to a sleepy whisper then swelling to white-noise thrashing and jazzy drumming.
Grier has a crazy quaver in his voice that sounds a lot like that of Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes or Conor Oberst. It contributed to the reckless energy of their best song, "Cowbell." The song's energy derives from the contrast between Gano's achy-breaky vocals and the confident, shout-along choruses that people join in on despite the inscrutable lyrics. The entire song had the feel of coasting a bike down a steep hill without brakes - it thrilled even as it wobbled dangerously.
Too many other moments were overly familiar, however. TNT is openly, proudly derivative.The song "Manitoba," with its vibraphone-like guitar and woozy vocals, could have been an Arcade Fire cover. "Crazy Eights" was pure Pavement homage: four minutes of unmusical jamming and Bob Nastanovich-like yelping. Such naked references serve a double purpose: They situate the band in tradition (or several), meanwhile reassuring the blogosphere (writers and readers) of its good taste and the adequacy of its MP3 collections.
After all, isn't being in the know what indie rock is all about? At the show, I struck up a conversation with a couple of fans who were able to rattle off not only all sorts of obscure information about Tapes 'n Tapes but also about the far-more-obscure opening acts Cold War Kids and Figurines. (Brooklyn Vegan, another popular music blog, posted an item earlier that day precisely so that loyal readers could discourse intelligently about the opening acts.) "Really, you haven't heard of either of them?" they asked me with equal parts pity and condescension.
If the Internet has democratized music criticism, it seems it's also spread its penchant for uncritical hype. "It's the best $14 I ever spent," said one of the blog-suckled fans I talked with. He simply couldn't believe the top-to-bottom quality of the bill. In fact, he was so confident of Danish opening act Figurines' talent that he offered to buy me a beer if I wasn't blown away. I wasn't. Far from it, actually. (After a reasonably promising classic rock opener they settled into hum-drum art punk-like Les Savy Fav without the amusing stage antics.) But in the end, I couldn't bring myself to collect.
Tonight at Bowery Ballroom (6 Delancey Street, between Bowery and Chrystie Street, 212-533-2111).