Who Will Be The Next Blog Rock Crossover Star?

Al Shipley | August 29, 2008 10:00 am

Many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock. To help figure out which is which, here’s “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al “GovernmentNames” Shipley examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of rock and roll. This time around, he holds a few recent blog-rock darlings up to the harsh light of commercial rock radio, and judges their potential for success:

In my last two columns, commenters asked me to rate the radio potential of current indie rock favorites that haven’t yet made that crossover. (I’d follow Matos’ lead and avoid the I-word, if the distinction between well-informed-college-kid “indie” and mass-market-rock-radio “alternative” isn’t key here.) It was an intriguing idea, but one I greeted with some trepidation; criticizing music is one thing, evaluating its commercial prospects is a whole other can of worms.

So I’ll begin by saying that I’m probably the wrong guy to even try to make those calls for a number of reasons. I’ve always been pretty bad at predicting hits and flops, especially with rock radio, and I let my own judgment cloud my sense of popular opinion. Seven or eight years ago, I never would’ve guessed that Modest Mouse or Death Cab For Cutie would later become platinum bands with radio hits; they seemed to me like paragons of the tradition of indie bands just big enough to get signed to majors, but achieve no real mainstream profile. (Incidentally, as I wrote this I was making calls at work, and “I Will Possess Your Heart” was the hold music at one place–I’m still kind of mystified that that song’s limp attempt at ominous drama was such a home run with radio listeners.) I think of alt-rock programmers as largely lacking in imagination, so when I try to predict their moves, I tend not to reach or get creative. Even now, if you asked me to name bands on the cusp of radio breakthroughs, I’d probably just look to see who’s been on the cover of Alternative Press lately.

The “farm team” relationship between major labels and indie buzz bands isn’t what is used to be. One reason is that the American rock underground is stylistically much more diverse and far-reaching than it was in the ’90s, when the ever-expanding variety of guitar bands was xxed by the fact that they were still all guitar bands. Another is that the bar for independent label success is higher than ever, but mainstream radio remains one of the last gatekeepers that’s strongly beholden to major labels. It’s now possible for an indie band to have a gold album, get on the cover of Spin, travel the late-night talk circuit, and have a video on MTV without making the jump to a major. But until that leap happens, odds are there isn’t enough marketing muscle to grease all the palms and mail out all the promos that it takes to get even a moderate amount of radio airplay.

Still, I trolled for suggestions from Idolator readers, most of which were bands I’d heard of many times in the course of my daily music press browsing, but hadn’t actually heard. I’m pretty old-fashioned as far as indie rock goes: I go to shows and check out new (mostly local) bands all the time, and I buy records by artists I’ve been a fan of for years and years already, not really bothering to check out the endless parade of unappetizing band names in the Pitchfork hype cycle. Unless, like Vampire Weekend and MGMT, those bands actually get some airplay and I have to cover them in this space. So with all those caveats in mind, here are my opinions on a few blog darlings, with their potential for alt-rock radio crossover judged on a scale from one to five Dave Grohls:

Tokyo Police Club – “Tesselate”

I have to confess, it was at most a month ago that I realized that this band and Tokio Hotel were two totally different things. More accents–this time, it’s a phony one adopted by a Canadian singer! Let’s face it: Fake Brit accents don’t get you far on U.S. rock radio, unless your name is Billie Joe Armstrong. Two and a half Grohls.

Fleet Foxes – “Whyte Winter Hymnal”

This is kind of nice, I guess. Way too college radio to be in serious contention, though. Two Grohls.

The Hold Steady – “Sequestered In Memphis”

I remember then-Pitchfork writer Tom Breihan took me to see The Hold Steady right after his review of their second album had run, which gave me a chance to see a band almost at the exact moment when the buzz around it was cresting into some serious career momentum. And I really tried to give them a chance. But eventually, I realized I have some pretty serious contempt for this band, possibly because I’ve spent to much of the past few years listening to the kind of ’70s rock they’re ostensibly so inspired by that I can’t help but notice how those comparisons are kind of horseshit. Maybe they’ve started to feel guilty about not actually sounding anything like the E Street Band like Rolling Stone said they would, because it sounds like they’re pushing horns and piano up way higher in the mix than the last time I’d heard them. In any event, alternative radio has always had a soft spot for amelodic talk rock, but I don’t think these guys could be the next Cake. One and a half Grohls.

No Age – “Eraser”

Someone was serious with this suggestion? One Grohl.

She & Him – “Why Don’t You Stay Here”

I have to admit I swooned a little the first time I saw Zooey Deschanel sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in Elf. So when she formed a band and released a record on Merge, I figured it’d better than the average singing actress vanity project, or at least well sung. There’s something about her voice on this song–especially on those harmonies at the end–that makes me grit my teeth in repulsion. Still, if enough radio programmers look at the promo pic and mistake Deschanel for Katy Perry, this could rack up a lot of spins. Two and a half Grohls.

Black Kids – “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You”

This sounds fairly radio-ready, considering a fair amount of bands with the same kind of emo-by-way-of-Robert-Smith pinched vocal style have made it big. If I heard this out of context I really would’ve pegged these guys as more Warped Tour stalwarts than (former) Pitchfork darlings. They could probably get a big hit, if they don’t break up first. Four and a half Grohls.