Maus Haus
Maus Haus – Courtesy of Nacera Mekki

It’s time we come to grips with something — “indie rock” undeniably carries a connotation these days, perhaps undeserved, but simply inevitable. No one can seem to fly the term in conversation without a wink, an apologetic modifier or wry smirk. On the other hand, despite being such a vague descriptor many young bands try to outrun, it’s hard not to embrace its classification for the appeal of its perceived social aesthetic. Perhaps some of its greatest successes (briefly, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, The White Stripes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) who deftly crafted, unintentional or not, their independant edge in such a way to trickle onto the Billboard, may have naturally diminished the glory of this mythical genre. Of course, the influx of subgenres has pushed the nomenclature, but your everyday listener is more likely to still chew on the image play of “indie rock”.

Whether it’s a direct reaction to good ol’ indie rock getting a bad rap, or the sheer inflation and accessibility of so much under-the-radar music on the internet in recent times, listeners are clearly seeking wider variety and eclecticism in their iPods and their local clubs. For the most part, I think all of this term tossing could simply be relegated to music that is either “inside the box” or “outside the box”. Of course, everyone’s earspace is his or her own box, and being outside that box does not necessarily translate into better listener reception. But pushing that envelope is significant, if in the least to redefine what underground music (aka independent music) means in the latter part of the 00s. The three musical decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s conjure up such strong sonic stereotypes, so much so, that bands in the 90s and those of the 00s continually hit the thrift store of rock to create a pastiche inspired by such definitive stylists as Pink Floyd, CAN, Joy Division, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Eno and many others. But, as exposure and crossover multiplies in the world of immeasurable mp3s and recyclable sound, influences become less discernible, making for some really exciting years to come in the end of this age of the zeros.

Two of this evening’s acts, Maus Haus and Battlehooch, exemplify the move towards a broader palette of sound, while billmate Tempo No Tempo is content to embody the classic spirit (and quite well) of what one may suggest is modern indie rock. Back in the Hemlock’s box, where a cumbersome flap door divides a socially competitive, uber-bargoing clientele and a seemingly insular musician’s musician kind of audience, Maus Haus played to a packed and attentive room, with enthusiasm deferring occasionally to folks trying to feel out the highly anticipated debut. Stemming from a guitarless format, the seven members orchestrate their compositions amidst stark synth lines, rabid horn flourishes, introspective but emphatic vocals, with a vaguely afro-pop rhythm section. While the seven members include veritable local all-stars from such rising bands as Social Studies and The Lovely Public, none of them seemed at will to overstylize the group’s arrangements with their own band’s definitive sound.

On a vacation from indie rock, but not necessarily ready to hitchike to Nevada City, Maus Haus‘ live aura is surprisingly warm and inviting despite some of its prog leanings and non-sequitur arrangements. The set varied wildly, from fragmented pop to rounder grooves, culminating in a mesmerizing hymnal collage (reminiscent of recent Do Make Say Think) at the conclusion. Not sounding like mere retro-fetishists, MH takes a cue from WARP’s Broadcast, filtering vintage key tones through progressive, nearly urban beats. As any debut band will attest, some hiccups in execution are natural on such a night, but MH’s experienced crew sidestepped most of them with good humor and charisma. I can only imagine future shows will take the heat off concentration as muscle memory will lend its members a chance to engage even more. If they had a comment box at the merch booth, I might have only scribbled one thing: the addition of a female bird would do wonders to the already impressive harmonies and texture.

Battlehooch, who has literally hooted and hollered its way into the local spotlight over the past year with its pure live inhibition and a loyal legion of sweaty fans clad in tattered orange headbands, followed Maus Haus’ set with their version of the house party at the club. For a minute, you might mistake their zaniness for intoxication or posturing, but then you start realize these guys are actually rad as hell, and they could care less if they or you forgot to wear your coolest jeans to the show that night. Slightly less abrasive vocally but equally as kooky as Man Man, and inspired but not bogged down by the arty art rock of Roxy Music, the Hooch use horns to sex up their sound, not sax it out. I thought I even heard a few new numbers among the bunch which pushed the dancefloor a little more than some of the ambitious compositions on their heralded 2007 EP, OOH OWF. It’s hard not to imagine many more orange headbands in the Hooch’s sea this coming year.

Closing the evening, Tempo No Tempo played a compact but spirited set of their alternately taut and jagged dance rock, providing a refreshing change of pace from the larger ensembles that preceded. TNT, recently signing to up and coming local label Double Negative, for the release of its EP Repetition late last year, already seemed poised to fill the dance punk vacuum left by bands like the Rapture (who have gotten less gritty of late) and the demise of Q and Not U, if given the opportunity to grow on the balanced praise dealt by Pitchfork a year ago.

It’s hard to deny there’s still something to be said for unabashedly quality indie rock in the present day — especially if it moves the floor.