Smile Politely

Champaign Pop City

Nearly two years ago, while living as an ex-pat in Toronto, I got really excited when I learned that C-U’s biggest band—Headlights—would be in town for a show. As someone who had mostly ignored Champaign since moving away in 2001, I was kind of excited to see what the town had to offer by way of rock n’ roll. Admittedly, I hadn’t had much exposure to Headlights other than a couple of songs off of Kill Them with Kindness and “Cherry Tulips.” As such, I was curious how they might round out their sound. My thoughts after the show—very charming people, decent live show (I think they were hampered by a poor sound guy that night), but this is Champaign’s next big thing? Have I been gone that long? How did this happen?

Though I will admit that I often regret living in a Pitchfork world, they still manage to be a good measuring stick more times than not. When I looked up the reviews for Headlights on the site, I felt the 6.something each album has gotten seems very accurate. You cannot possibly hate them; you probably will not play them to impress your friends. I actually tried the latter once—they were not enthused.

So you can probably imagine that when I moved back to C-U last fall, I was interested to see what was going on locally outside of Headlights. Well, it didn’t take too much wrangling to figure out C-U’s already-proclaimed “next big thing” is Elsinore. As such, I wanted to check them out as soon as I could. However, when I visited the band’s Wikipedia page, I felt immediate trepidation. It reads like a hastily written press release, stating the band is “most commonly compared to Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, Wilco, Spoon, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire.” After listening to some songs, I can say for certain that whoever wrote that Wikipedia entry is doing the band no favors. I mean why stop with those bands? Why not throw in Animal Collective, Broken Social Scene and the LCD Soundsystem for good measure? I guess Radiohead will be shorthand for good vocal range from now until the end of time. Somewhere Freddie Mercury is either crying or very relieved.

Don’t get me wrong, from what I’ve heard Elsinore is a first-rate pop band who put on a good live show. Judging by the remix and live performances on YouTube, the song “Yes, Yes, Yes” appears to have huge blog hit written all over it. It’s catchy and buzzy in all the right spots. But so was “Cherry Tulips.” And I suppose it’s worth restating that I think Headlights are a good pop band as well. World’s First Flying Machine is a fine pop band. Santah seems like a fine pop band. I’m not trying to suggest they all sound the same; while Headlights are shimmering and Elsinore are bombastic, Santah feels economical and WFFM are quite simply folk pop. Taken individually, I find all these bands on their own to be interesting songwriters. I’m proud that we have a scene that can produce these bands. But overall, they all make me feel as if my head is being ever-so-gently banged against a fluffy pillow. They all seem so safe. Where’s the grit and originality?

For much of the 90s and early 2000s, Champaign-Urbana was a dirty rock town, boiling over with next big things that were actually considered trendsetters—primary examples being Hum and Braid. Though hindsight might give the illusion that these bands were just “of their time,” I assure you that this is only because of countless imitators. Lest you think I’m just an overly nostalgic old man, I should be clear that I have never been a big Braid fan, especially after they changed drummers. In addition, Castor, the Poster Children, Titanic Love Affair, The Blackouts, The Didjits and Hardvark all brought an urgency to their sound that is missing today. Heck, even Sarge sounds like Sepultura compared to the bands making headway in 2010. But it’s not just the lack of rockicity that bothers me. It’s the lack of anything that pushes boundaries. I understand not all music needs to do this, but shouldn’t we have something else to hang our coats on?

I unscientifically polled some friends, acquaintances and others about this and the only two bands that were also highly rated on most lists of movers and shakers in the C-U were Common Loon and New Ruins. I have actually found it difficult to find more than two Common Loon songs, so I will reserve judgment except to say that that I’m very intrigued by what I have heard. However, I have not heard enough that I am willing to make any broad pronouncements either. New Ruins certainly bring the rock live, but their focus on big guitar chords and the turnout at their show opening for Retribution Gospel Choir tells me that they currently aren’t the torchbearers I want them to be. Hopefully, they have some upward mobility left.

But John, life is what you make it? The reason these poppier bands have the attention is they are the hardest workers. They’re the ones promoting their shows, working with other bands and bringing music to town (Shadowboxer Collective anyone?). The cream rises to the top. You just admitted three paragraphs ago that “Yes, Yes, Yes” has a killer hook. And Champaign has a history abundant with all kinds of pop riches—REO Speedwagon, Dan Folgeberg, Last Gentlemen, etc. Plus, the kids come out to see these bands; that’s what really matters.

Maybe, but also maybe not. I have to admit that I’m a little ignorant on the ins and outs of how a band gets pushed to the top of a music scene in today’s world, but I am guessing more inclusivity is possible. For example—no matter how popular—does the same local band need to play the Taste of Champaign three out of the last four years? There is certainly a diverse offering of music out there, and I definitely have not explored all the second and third-tier acts in town. It’s possible this current pop moment is just an accidental blip on the radar. I’ve heard that a lot of the more rock and cutting edge bands have broken up and/or are on hiatus. Others are still emerging, and while it is too soon to anoint them, it is also way too soon to brush them off.

But I’m also slightly worried. Maybe C-U is really too small these days to propel any bands that don’t have obvious mainstream appeal beyond Peoria. Maybe all the bands that are pushing the boundaries do have to move to Chicago. I really am happy Elsinore and the Headlights are here. They really are excellent yings to have around. I just want a little more yang when I tell my out-of-town friends about the bands they should check out from C-U. Actually, I want a lot more yang.

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