Before we step into the Wayback Machine, a head’s up about tonight’s musical events.
Now, back to our Throwback Thursday special. In the coming days, The Reader will be posting my annual Year in Review and Predictions articles. Until then, let’s step into the past and read my Year in Review from a decade ago — 2006. It was a different time. Saddle Creek was flying about as high as it ever would. Slowdown and The Waiting Room were merely twinkles in their founders’ eyes. It all doesn’t seem that long ago…
From Lazy-i, Dec. 28, 2006…
Those Awkward, In-between Years
2006: The Year in Music
Lazy-i Best of 2006
I got plenty of shit last year for saying in these pages that indie music peaked in ’05. Looking back at ’06, tell me I was wrong.
Sure, there were plenty of new indie records and rock shows down at Sokol, but did anything from this past year really stand out? Contemplating this article, I wracked my brains for a theme for ’06, but only came up with this truth: 2006 was a year that indie music — both locally and nationally — was in a holding pattern.
There were no new trends, no standout acts, and maybe no place left to go. No, I don’t think indie has run its course, but I do think that we’re all getting tired of the same old mopey jangle-rock, the wonky 10-piece chamber-pop ensembles, and the endless reinvention of Gang of Four-inspired post-punk. If there was a trend in indie, it was toward the odd. Joanna Newsom, that harpist with the voice of Lisa Simpson, was lauded by indie music scribes as the artist of the year (I’ve yet to be able to make it through her new disc, Ys, in one sitting). Then there were the gypsy folk acts like DeVotchka and Beirut, and kitschy chamber pop bands like Decemberist that seemed to make a name for themselves based on their sheer idiosyncrasy. It’s all about being peculiar these days.
It’s not like we heard anything earth-shaking on the radio, either. Look, I like that Gnarls Barkley song as much as the next guy, but “Crazy” was hardly the ground-breaking single that “Hey Ya!” was for Outkast. The rest of the Billboard charts were dominated with the usual gang of hip-hop-sters, illiterate goon-rock bands and tuneless, silicone-powered divas. Can music get any worse?
We’re living in a state of inertia. That certainly was the case for Saddle Creek Records. For the label at the epicenter of Omaha’s indie music scene, 2006 will be remembered as an off year. This despite having signed three new acts — local heavy-punk rockers Ladyfinger (NE), Crooked Fingers singer-songwriter Eric Bachmann, and hippy folk rockers Neva Dinova, who (probably) won’t release their Creek debut until next May.
Meanwhile, one of the label’s holy triumvirate, Cursive, made perhaps the best records of its career. Released in August, Happy Hollow also is the label’s most significant creative achievement in ’06. But despite having sold more than 27,000 copies, it wasn’t its biggest seller. That honor goes to Bright Eyes’ 2005 release I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, which sold more than 47,000 copies, bringing its grand total to over 380,000. Is there a Gold Record in Conor Oberst’s future? Ironically, the biggest-selling Creek-related release was Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat, which actually came out on Oberst’s Team Love label. Since its January release, Rabbit Fur Coat has sold a remarkable 97,000 copies, according to Saddle Creek executive Jason Kulbel.
Creek only had seven releases in ’06 — a quiet year by record label standards. But that didn’t mean the label was sitting on its hands. After months of waiting, the iron finally arrived at the site of Slowdown, Saddle Creek’s long-planned, multi-purpose complex just north of downtown Omaha. Construction began on the multi-million dollar office/music hall/bar/movie theater/condo project in September with plans for a grand opening in summer ’07 — a year after its original target date.
Meanwhile, Presto! Studios — where most Saddle Creek artists record — bid adieu to Lincoln last summer. The Mogis Brothers are currently building a new studio in tony Fairacres, right next to a mansion purchased by Saddle Creek superstar Conor Oberst. As a sort of homecoming celebration, Bright Eyes performed a bone-drenching concert in Memorial Park June 17 that inspired the editors of The World-Herald to declare Omaha “fun city” (the saps!).
So, yeah, 2006 probably will be remembered as a limbo year for the Omaha indie music scene. But with Slowdown opening and new releases by Bright Eyes and The Faint, ’07 could mark a turning point for Omaha and Saddle Creek Records.
But before we look into the future, let’s look back one more time. Here’s the list of my 10 favorite releases of ’06 (in alphabetical order):
Eric Bachmann,To the Races (Saddle Creek) — Bachmann’s sweet indie lullabies mask stories of death and loss, all-too-often sung in a voice that Neil Diamond would happily kill Rick Rubin for.
Beck,The Information (Interscope) — His best effort since Mellow Gold. ‘Nuff said.
Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit (Matador) — The retro upbeat dance record drew heavily from Bowie and T. Rex. I hated it at first, but it grew on me (like a fungus).
Cat Power, The Greatest (Matador) — The first album from Chan Marshall that I’ve enjoyed from beginning to end — the most heartfelt and tuneful songs of her career.
Cursive, Happy Hollow (Saddle Creek) — It stands alongside Domestica as the band’s career-setting high-water mark. A pop, punk, drunk, funk achievement.
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love) — A twangy rock marvel, the best thing Lewis has produced since The Execution of All Things back in ’02.
Simon Joyner and the Fallen Men, Skeleton Blues (Jagjaguwar) — Standing alongside a solid band, Joyner has finally released his inner-rock star, emerging cautious and slightly broken in a cloak originally tailored for the likes of Dylan.
The Terminals, Forget About Never (Dead Beat) — With producer Andy Caffrey, the band reinvented its hep-cat-cool retro garage punk into blown-out, raw mayhem. Turn it up.
Two Gallants, What the Toll Tells (Saddle Creek) — Though a little of these hippy ship-galley sea-shanty balladeers goes a long way, I now see why they appealed to the sexy young execs at Saddle Creek.
Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador) — The latest in a series of intimate rock head-trips, almost indefinable in its scope, which ranges from 10-minute acid-rock jams to ethereal early morning acoustic walks in a forest to cow-bell driven, falsetto-sung dance-rock rave-ups.
Venues, for the most part, remained status quo last year, with a couple new players added to the mix. Sokol Underground and Auditorium continued to have a stranglehold on all things indie, as they have for the past three or four years, thanks to One Percent Productions. Little ol’ O’Leaver’s also kept its rep as the small venue that hosts some of the best shows, while Mick’s remains Omaha’s keynote location for acoustic (or electric) folk. The only venue to really fade in ’06 was The 49’r, which hosted fewer shows than ever, probably because they pack the place just fine without live music.
Two new venues for live music also made their mark last year. With shows by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins and Gillian Welch, The Scottish Rite Hall on 202 So. 20th St. was rediscovered as a hidden gem in downtown. It could become Omaha’s version of Lawrence’s Liberty Hall. The other notable new player was The Saddle Creek Bar at 1410 No. Saddle Creek Rd. Around for literally decades only to reopen last summer, the venue’s old-home atmosphere, weird stage and exceptional location could place it on top of the list for live music venues. Its future, however, depends on solid booking.
With Slowdown opening next summer and a couple new bars in the works, Omaha could actually suffer from a glut of live venues — and not enough quality bands to fill the stages. That’s a good problem to have (as long as new talent actually emerges). So what were my favorite shows of ’06? Here’s the rundown:
Simon Joyner and the Wind-Up Birds, Jan. 27, O’Leaver’s — Joyner and his band unveiled the sound that would become Skeleton Blues and hit the proverbial sweet-spot where melody and dissonance meet to form a beautiful, soulful noise that burns going down.
Cursive, Feb. 8, O’Leaver’s — A “secret show” where Cursive unveiled the sound that would become Happy Hollow. Their big-shouldered strut felt more relaxed and, quite frankly, funner than the usual furrowed-brow Cursive stuff.
Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins, March 11, The Scottish Rite Hall — A warm set in one of the city’s warmest venues, Lewis showed that she’s bound to become the biggest act on Oberst’s Team Love label (besides Bright Eyes, of course), and could spur a C&W revival among the indie set. God help us all.
Ladyfinger, March 18, Sokol Underground — The irony: They seem like nice guys, but their music is some dark shit, black and negative, psycho angry, rattling around loud and scary like a box of smoking chainsaws. Did I mention how loud it was?
NOMO, June 8, O’Leaver’s — To say it was celebratory would be an understatement. O’Leaver’s glowed. The seven-piece afro-beat ensemble closed the night by parading through the bar, ending in a chanting circle right in front of the bar.
Bright Eyes, June 17, Memorial Park — Oberst never sounded better performing in front of a park filled with a few thousand of his new neighbors. Halfway through the show, the sky opened and the rain came. In buckets. But throughout the maelstrom, thousands refused to leave, both young and old. Talk about your acid test in the park.
Thor, Sept. 10, The Saddle Creek Bar — Donning a huge black (plastic) chest plate and a series of gruesome rubber masks, Thor had the crowd in the palm of his mighty fist, proudly belting out one heavy metal ditty after another. It was like being back at Fat Jacks circa 1985.
Yo La Tengo, Oct. 8, Sokol Underground — Two hours, three encores, selections from throughout their catalog, their style was all over the board, from raging indie jams to urban, falsetto R&B to quiet, acoustic ballads. Show of the year.
Twilight Singers, Oct. 30, Sokol Underground — The highlight: Mark Lanegan entering from back stage looking like a cross between a straight-haired, goateed Will Ferrell and Frankenstein, striking a pose with one hand on the microphone, the other firmly grasping the mic stand, eyes clamped closed, barely moving. Scary.
The Who, Dec. 7, The Qwest Center — Memorable, despite a hoarse Roger Daltrey. After 90 minutes of music, the encore included a medley of songs from Tommy, Daltrey gasping to get through “Pinball Wizard,” while Townshend shined on a raucous version of “Underture” that was the night’s highlight. — Lazy-i, Dec. 28, 2006