The latest in indie music
You may not think you've heard independent-label rock when in fact you have: Stars like Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, and Mazzy Star began recording for small, do-it-yourself labels and didn't change their sound much after they left. Now comes the irony: Because of the alternative boom, the indie scene is in shambles. Leading acts have signed on major-label dotted lines; the pioneering indie record companies of the '80s (like SST and Twin/Tone, which first spawned Husker Du, the Replacements, and Soul Asylum) are sad shells of their former selves; many of their inheritors have been absorbed by the majors; and underground-rock trademarks like off-key vocals, slacker attitude, and low-fi production are as likely to be heard on anything released by giants like Sony and Warner Bros. So what do indies have to offer now that they've been co-opted? Just continue the next-to-impossible task of uncovering something refreshing or individualistic, traits that the following cream-of-the-recent-crop records all have in common.
Speaking of Green Day, the label that released their first two, pre-Dookie albums the Berkeley, Calif.-based Lookout! Records continues to crank out freshly gobbed punk discs by new bands who were in kindergarten when the Sex Pistols broke up. In fact, Green Day's Mike Dirnt pops up on Screeching Weasel's How to Make Enemies and Irritate People, adding his rubbery bass and wholesome harmonies to 13 amiable pile drivers in which leader/fanzine writer Ben Weasel complains about jerks in clubs and jerks in general (''Nobody likes you, you're ugly, dumb, and mean/ Everyone hates you, pass the Dramamine''). Screeching Weasel disbanded after recording this album last June, but the record gives newcomers a look into the rawer side of the current (and, curiously, more feel-good) punk scene.
A standard indie-rock sound, derived from the Velvet Underground the guitar drone that sounds as if it were recorded in a damp dungeon has become as cliched as worship of the Velvets. Yet the German-Danish trio 18th Dye either doesn't know or doesn't care on its herky-murky debut, Done. Either way, the band knows enough to temper its beautifully swirling, slump-shouldered mood music with the occasional shot of new-wavy drive.
Another de rigueur underground style, currently being mined by the likes of Pavement, is slacker rock a jumble of wiseass observations, guitars that sound as if they're being tuned up during the songs, and singers who can't be bothered projecting because that might imply earnest emotion. Pavement singer-strummer Steve Malkamus keeps driving down that road on Starlite Walker, with his offshoot band, the Silver Jews. The record's highlight, though, is an honest-to-God sweet, unironic song, ''Advice to the Graduate,'' in which singer-guitarist David Berman tells a friend: ''Don't believe in people who say it's all been done/They have time to talk because their race is run.'' In indie land, sincerity is progress of a sort.
With song titles like ''Insignificant Other'' and ''Free & Lonely,'' the mood of Steve Westfield's Mangled is clear before you even hear it. In what could be called acoustic grunge, the Westfield, Mass., songwriter pens and sings laconic, acid-folk ditties about his lovesick torpor; call him the Leonard Cohen of alt-rock. When he's not lamenting a breakup, he wants to stay in bed all day to think about it. Fortunately, Westfield has enough of a sense of humor to undercut the navel-gazing: ''Love fish that we bought, I'm sorry to say they drowned,'' he moans in ''Missing.''
John Brannon, lead singer of Detroit's Laughing Hyenas, is a tortured guy too, but he and his band prefer to rail against depression on their third album, Hard Times. Touch and Go is renowned as the early home of the raging Butthole Surfers, but Hard Times has the malaise-fueled, foot-to-the-pedal pull of the Stooges or the Stones circa Exile on Main St.; ''Just Can't Win'' is the rocker the Stones haven't quite been able to come up with in the last decade. The Hyenas' alternative update of this style is sustaining that tempo for songs that lurch on for up to seven bile-swigging minutes.
At times, the Bottle Rockets sound as if they shouldn't be on an independent at all, since the Missouri band's no-frills menu of truck stop-jukebox country, electrified twangs, and waltz-time ballads is as unpretentious as a box of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios with milk. The meatiest songs on their second album, The Brooklyn Side, are simple tales of working-class folk getting through the day-watching ''Sunday Sports'' in boxer shorts (''Stock-car racing is the best of all/A hundred miles an hour, straight into a wall'') or regretting having only a thousand dollars for a new car and ending up with a lemon because of it. With his remarkably unaffected voice, lead singer/main songwriter Brian Henneman sounds like he means every single word. As a whole, the group gets bonus points for music that isn't anywhere near as contrived or condescending toward country as so much underground rock can be. On ''Idiot's Revenge,'' a Southern-pride song the new Lynyrd Skynyrd should cover, Henneman tries to understand why that girl with the ''whacked-off hair'' likes Dinosaur Jr. The indie-rock world needs more people like him. How to Make Enemies and Irritate People: B Done: A- Starlite Walker: B Mangled: A- Hard Times: A- The Brooklyn Side: A