I love it when a specific scene has an identifiable sound. Sometimes I don’t like the specific sound that is happening, but I love the idea that people kicking around ideas among themselves over a long period of time will come up with iterations, similarities and variations that push toward the sum. And there almost always is a sum, even if it’s something seemingly unquantifiable like an artistic movement: the pinnacle of a form does not appear on the first try, by anyone. Rockin’ the Suburbs was nowhere near the first piano-pop album, nor Ben Folds’ first rodeo; it just happens to have assimilated all the ideas that had been kicking about in a particularly excellent way.
All that to say this: the lush orchestrations, wide-eyed lyrics, group vocals and bohemian charm make The City by The 21st Century sound very much like a Pacific Northwest indie pop band (The Morning Benders/Pop Etc, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives – although they’re from LA). And instead of that being a bad thing, it’s a great thing. “We Are Waiters” has familiar elements like plunking piano and big group vocals, but they invite the listener in so the band can drop the intoxicating chorus. I had the chorus on loop in my mind for days after I heard it the first time, and that’s incredibly rare for a guy who listens to music all day.
The band makes its living on gleeful tunes that incorporate guitar noodling, horns, organ solos and a well-developed sense of space. These songs may have a lot going on, but they’re not crowded: the production allows for everything to breathe. “The Good Things (Act I and II)” is the best example of this, as the band throws the kitchen sink at the tune and it still doesn’t feel as heavy as a power-pop trio with a huge guitar riff. “A Funeral March (The State of Our Parade)” is another melodic highlight, filled out with lyrics about the meaning of life (no, for real). “The Parisian Translation” gets its Decemberists on in the melodic structures, but not so much that it feels like a rip-off. It’s just incredibly fun. (And yes, there’s French spoken in the song!)
So where does the line draw between inhabiting a sound and retreading a sound? I think the difference lies in each person’s desire for the genre, just like I mentioned yesterday: The 21st Century’s game is the same as Friends of Mine. (This style of indie-pop is just as divisive as country, and I would guess mostly for the same reasons: two parts backlash to its related culture, one part resistance to the idiosyncrasies of the sound). The 21st Century takes an established sound and builds something inside it; those with a low threshold for the genre’s quirks won’t get this and feel that it’s just some more of that stuff, while those who love the genre will enjoy the new entrant into the field.
Given that ideas ruminate and kick around, the entry of another band into the field allows for another possible group who could come up with the definitive statement (or statements!) for this genre. If you’re a fan of the type of music that The Morning Benders purveyed on Big Echo, this one’s going to make you sit up and take notice.