Music Article

The Return Of (Good) Alt-Rock

What exactly is ''Seth Cohen rock''? Alt rock bands Modest Mouse, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Franz Ferdinand are breathing new life into the genre

After dozens of frenzied, sweat-on-the-walls club shows, Glasgow rockers Franz Ferdinand were used to warm receptions. Even so, when the then-obscure indie quartet touched down in an iced-over Manhattan this February, they were baffled to find comfy new scarves, hats, and gloves waiting at their hotel -- gifts from the largest record company in the world. ''We said, 'Is this for us? Why?''' recalls Franz's lead guitarist, Nick McCarthy. ''We couldn't quite grasp it.''

The late Christmas present from Universal was just the beginning. The band and its tiny label, Domino, soon found themselves besieged by major-label offers. Later that month, Franz signed a million-dollar deal with Epic.

A few years ago, Franz Ferdinand might have been a small cult phenomenon, selling a few thousand records to in-the-know hipsters via word of mouth. Now, they're rock stars. Franz's pogo-inspiring single ''Take Me Out'' has bounced to No. 11 on modern-rock radio, while sales of their self-titled album have skyrocketed since it was released March 9. The CD has even cracked the top 30 of Billboard's album chart.

Take off your red baseball cap, dude: After almost a decade of domination by rap-rock and nu-metal bands, mainstream alt-rock is finally good again. Modern-rock radio is embracing a new generation of talented, artistically inclined bands -- acts like Modest Mouse, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol -- that sound nothing like Creed or Limp Bizkit. Even more surprisingly, young fans are buying these albums in impressive quantities. ''A generational shift is taking place,'' says Sub Pop Records cofounder Jonathan Poneman. ''People want smart, thoughtful, passion-filled music again.''

The bands of Alternative Nation, Version 2.0 don't share a city or a sound (although many evince a fondness for post-punk and new-wave bands like the Cure and the Smiths). Instead, they embody a sensibility, a yearning to return alt-rock to its creative roots. Of course, high-quality alternative bands never went away. They're now just connecting with an increasingly large audience of young, sensitive music fans who are more interested in songcraft than stage diving. ''There's definitely something happening,'' says Franz Ferdinand's McCarthy. ''Some kind of movement.''

Call it Seth Cohen rock: The geek-chic ''O.C.'' character -- who can't stop talking about his favorite band, Death Cab for Cutie, but still scores the cutest girlfriend in Orange County -- seems to represent an entire generation of precocious, open-minded fans. ''We're tapping into something,'' says Josh Schwartz, creator of the popular series, which has prominently used music from Franz Ferdinand, Death Cab, and Modest Mouse. ''Either kids are responding to the show, or the show is in touch with something that's happening out there.'' At a recent Franz Ferdinand in-store appearance in New York City, a flock of preteens showed up and sang every word, something that astonished Epic senior VP of A&R Ben Goldman. ''These are the same people who would be buying Britney Spears CDs,'' he marvels.

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