• Bright Lights, Big City

    The San Diego Freeway-a.k.a. the 405-is a drab, twistingexpanse known for bottlenecks, exhaust, and massive frustration. It'sthe quickest route to Hollywood, but in many ways, it's the slowest.You could idle all day, stuck between the center of everything andnowhere at all. I was on the 405 one sunny day last January, listeningto "405," a lilting song about the vagaries of distance-both physicaland emotional-from Death Cab for Cutie's second album, 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. And the song was on the radio, not my CD player. "Indie 103" appeared on Los Angeles radio a few months ago, acorporate experiment in counter-counterprogramming. Suddenly, it'spossible to hear a four-year-old song from an indie-rock band high upon the FM dial.

  • Emo Trend Alert: Adding a classical instrument!

    You can only break a heart so many ways. That's the problemfacing today's glut of emo bands–open-tuned guitars,weepy lyrics, and fan sing-alongs won't separate you from themaudlin pack. To combat this musical malaise, a new crop ofinstrumentally ambitious groups has emerged, bringing a classicalsensibility to teenage breakup anthems.

  • David Cross, 'Let America Laugh' (Sub Pop)

    As the bald half of late-'90s sketch-comedy duo Mr. Show, David Cross perfected a particular strain of prissy, highly articulate rage. In 2002, Cross took that rage on the road, playing rock venues across the country with Atlanta band Ultrababyfat and videographer Lance Bangs in tow. The resulting DVD, rather perversely, captures almost none of Cross' live act (for that, check out the two-CD set Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!). Instead, we're treated to the inanities of the touring life and the insobriety of Cross' legion of yammering, collegiate fans. As he drifts in an endless sea of hecklers, flatulent old men, and bong-hugging video-store clerks, Cross' brilliantly indignant shtick is revealed: It's funny because it's true.

  • Trend of the Year: Mainstreamo

    Last year, Gerard Way was struggling. His band, My ChemicalRomance, had just recorded their debut record -- the operatic andemotionally dense I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me YourLove (for tiny New York City indie Eyeball Records), but theywere still slogging it out in a wobbly van, getting lost (numeroustimes) and getting robbed (once). Then last February, My ChemicalRomance went out on their first national tour, opening for theUsed, and a funny thing happened. "First,one major-label A&R guy came to our show," Way says. "And then two,and then three and four. All of a sudden, it was like a weird fuckingfungus all over the band!" A few months later, My Chemical Romancesigned a lucrative, multi-album deal with Warner Bros.

  • Death Cab for Cutie, 'Transatlanticism' (Barsuk)

    It's possible--and profitable--to build a career on being young and hopeless. But comb your faux-hawk down, flip it, and reverse it: Death Cab for Cutie cutie Ben Gibbard is the poet laureate of the young and hopeful. On three previous DCFC records--and on his masterful detour into indie electro, the Postal Service's Give Up--Gibbard has made a compelling case for yearning. Still, his Seattle quartet have never made the truly great album that their best songs promised. Until now. Distance is the central theme on Transatlanticism: "I wish the world was flat like the old days / And I could travel just by folding the map," Gibbard sings in his spotless tenor on the album's opening track, "The New Year." Luckily, he's got guitarist/producer Chris Walla in his band, and Walla doesn't just fold the map, he crumples, shreds, and trashes it, taking this band places they've never been.

  • Fountains of Wayne, 'Welcome Interstate Managers' (S-Curve/EMI)

    Here's to the artisanal-cheese-makers, the carpenters, the cobblers, the power-pop songwriters--dedicated craftsmen who still make high-quality products for an ever-shrinking clientele. Case in point: Fountains of Wayne. Welcome is the quartet's third album, yet Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood's shimmering songs are evergreen, perpetual No. 1 hits on Matthew Sweet's iPod. The lyrics explore suburban everyguyism (mowing the lawn, subpar waitress service), but the choruses ("Stacy's Mom," "Mexican Wine") explode like fireworks over a church picnic. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Burnside Project, 'The Networks, the Circuits, the Streams, the Harmonies' (Bar None)

    Thanks to recent advances in technology, irony, and unemployment, that scrawny English major with the laptop sitting behind you in the coffeehouse may be working on a hot breakbeat, not the Great American Novel (or his résumé). Smooth with a mouse but still awkward in life, bands like Burnside Project take the "pro" out of Pro Tools, applying electronica production techniques to indie rock's studied sloppiness. Burnside Project is mainly Wisconsin-born, New York City-based auteur Richard Jankovich, who traded his Replacements obsession for a tech-pop itch a few years back. His schizophrenic second album,The Networks, the Circuits, the Streams, the Harmonies, is dance music for people who approach the dance floor with great trepidation.

  • Jealous Sound, 'Kill Them With Kindness' (Better Looking)

    That Saves the Day poster on your wall may fade, but the importance of being earnest doesn't. Even grown-ups--those of us over the age of, say, 21--need their heartstrings plucked now and again, and, ladies and gentlemen of the jukebox jury, sometimes Wilco just ain't gonna cut it. Enter the Jealous Sound, a Los Angeles quartet whose debut album, Kill Them With Kindness, is emo for the rest of us-heartfelt guitar rock capable of punching you in the gut and patting you on the back. J-Sound frontman Blair Shehan sketched out a memorable design for sensitive-indie-boy life with his previous band, Knapsack. Since then, Shehan's grown balder and bolder. There's a new ferocity behind these breathless melodies, the kind of disenchantment that only emerges after one's third or fourth layoff. Shehan has aged out of his target demographic, but his songs are still a visceral kick.

  • Blur, 'Think Tank' (Virgin)

    "I ain't got nothing to be scared of," sings Damon Albarn on Blur's seventh album, and he means it as both an opening gambit and a mission statement. Since his breakup with Elastica's Justine Frischmann in 1998, Albarn has discovered hip-hop, monkeyed with Gorillaz, gone native in Mali, and raged against the war machine. Unfortunately, America's response has been a half-hearted "woo-hoo," usually between periods at hockey games. No matter--the world's a big place. After spending act one of their career in archly Victorian fashion--skewering snooty Englishisms, exoticizing the dog track, engaging in horseplay by the pool behind the manor--Blur have reinvented themselves as boldly postcolonial popsters.

  • Alkaline Trio, 'Good Mourning' (Vagrant)

    As reliable as spiked belts, chain wallets, and the distinctive aroma of trust funds is the love all hardcore kids have for the Smiths. Except it's not just love--it's looooooove. Often, when the bruised, bully-boy sadism of punk meets the bullied, bruised-boy masochism of that arch English quartet, the results either sound dreadful or get pigeonholed as "emo" or both. Chicago's Alkaline Trio is that rarest of birds--a group able to meet their dual loyalties halfway. Even when things get maudlin, they've got a fight that never goes out. Good Mourning, the Trio's fourth album, is their best by a mile. Frontman Matt Skiba still spits loogies of self-lacerating verbiage at the ghosts of his ex-girlfriends. But he's also quicker than ever with the Paul Westerberg-ian zingers: "You crashed your car through my front door....

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