Hipster University

College rock hits the campus circuit
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  October 16, 2008

indie_yeasayerINSIDE.jpg

Ah, college shows. A Judd Apatow movie come to life. Pre-game seasoned binge-drunk coeds. iPhones ablaze. Most popular question: “Who is this band?” Most popular response: “I don’t know, GET OVER HERE!”

On-campus concerts — for us graduates or college abstainers — offer a lot to complain about, but it’s worth taking a chance on a college gig or two this year, if only because the acts are getting better. Bates College welcomes Brooklyn’s Yeasayer to the Chase Hall Commons on October 23 (the venue is a promising shift from the oversized, cavernous Gray Cage). Brunswick’s Bowdoin College, for its part, hosts Toronto’s influential Broken Social Scene at the Farley Field House on October 25. The shows are sponsored by the Bates and Bowdoin radio stations, WRBC and WBOR.

Though the genre largely sprung from college-town bars in the 1990s (Athens, Georgia; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Austin, Texas), campuses have been slow to embrace the increasing mainstream cred of indie rock. Student organizations are beginning to open their ample coffers to better-known acts, and corporate America sees something happening, too: mtvU, MTV’s online music channel geared toward students, sponsors multiple campus tours every year, showcasing indie artists who are peppering their tours with college dates to keep the gas tanks full. College rock, it seems, is finally earning its moniker.

Under these circumstances, it’s fitting that Broken Social Scene are playing Bowdoin’s largest venue next week (the opening act is the solid, female-fronted trio Land of Talk). The collective (occasional members include Feist and members of Stars, Do Make Say Think, and other Canadian bands) made a distinctive mark on the modern indie landscape after the release of their 2002 album, You Forgot It In People (Arts & Crafts). The album was arguably the first word-of-mouth Internet smash. After being “discovered” by Pitchfork editor Ryan Schreiber in the early months of 2003, the band became a darling of the infant music blog scene and expanded from playing underground bars and art venues (I saw them at a scantly-attended gallery show in London in ’03) to selling out theaters and opera houses.

The ten-member collective popularized a maximalist sound — punk rock- and Yo La Tengo-inspired guitars mingle with horns and tambourines, and breathy male singers are complemented by beatific female counterparts — that opened the doors of mainstream acceptance for numerous acts, notably Montreal’s Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene’s own female siren, Feist. The group’s brand has become so influential that recent album’s by BSS members have been released as part of a “Broken Social Scene Presents” series, which has yielded good-to-strong albums by guitarists Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning.

If Broken Social Scene’s sudden but hard-won success is emblematic of indie rock’s early-decade insurgence, Yeasayer are a product of the genre’s late-decade, band-to-watch hysteria. The four-piece, who meld prog-rock tropes (high-pitched vocals, ample keyboard) with unorthodox African drum patterns and a hippie-gospel melodic sensibility, caused a stir at Austin’s SXSW festival in early 2007, a full seven months before the release of their debut album, All Hour Cymbals (We Are Free). The fever-pitched hype, in this case, has so far proven to be well-founded. Cymbals, “famously” recorded in five days, is an assured and expansive debut. The band handily upstaged live favorites Man Man in an opening spot on a largely sold-out tour this past spring. At Boston’s Paradise Rock Club in April, the group transformed an album of dense, druggy atmosphere into something more taut, danceable, and celebratory. If that performance was any indication, their set at Bates, with openers Chairlift, could be one of the better indie shows in Maine this year — if the college kids don’t ruin it.

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