Some artists remind you that it's time to rename the Alternative genre or to reexamine Alternative Rock and it's place within the world of rock & roll music. Alt Rock has become the umbrella label for the lighter side of rock and to an extent, so has indie (the "indie" that's based somehow on sound, not on label independence). It's difficult to draw even a crooked dividing line between Rock and Alt Rock and it's impossible to set rules for each category. And anyway, what's the fun in writing within the rules?
But how to distinguish them, then? How to decide whether to sell an album as Alternative or Rock? What are the Strokes, if not a rock band (apparently they're alternative); what are Kings of Leon or Imagine Dragons if not stadium rock bands (also alternative); what are the Arctic Monkeys, Tame Impala, Cage the Elephant? And where is the line between Alternative and the equally vague Pop?
No one can claim that rock is dead but it might seem to be if you're looking at Alternative as something other than Rock. Alternative is the mainstream, it's not alternative to anything. It's time to call it what it is, and let Hip Hop, the genre that's evolving the most rapidly right now, label itself with the many subgenres (including Alternative which, by definition, can't be a standalone genre) that used to be important for Rock.
That said, there are still artists who make Alt Rock music. St. Vincent is a good example: she's a wizard on guitar but her songs are strange enough that they don't cleanly fit into the same group as songs by the Foo Fighters or the White Stripes. Her music straddles the line between uncomfortably daring and pleasantly melodious.
MGMT used to represent Alt Rock. It still seems like any song with a synth in it automatically qualifies for Alt-consideration (this is where its border with Pop is interesting). Take "Time to Pretend," a soaring live fast/die young anthem with heavy synth leads, or "Weekend Wars," a song with an acoustic-guitar-driven first half that builds into dramatic synths. "Lady Dada's Nightmare," "Alien Days," even "Congratulations" have more or less of whatever it is that makes them sound alternative.
You could argue that MGMT and St. Vincent are doing what the Beatles did 45-50 years ago. If the Beatles hadn't done what they'd done so rapidly, and today's distribution frenzy had given their contemporaries the chance to catch up, surely the later-Beatles would've been a part of a 60s Alternative genre, too. "Strawberry Fields Forever," "I Am The Walrus," "Baby You're A Rich Man," "Tomorrow Never Knows," and so many others (there are too many to list) could easily exist in the same genre group as the alternative (the really alternative) songs of today.
The Lemon Twigs
The Lemon Twigs are another band trying to join and, simultaneously, to help define the Alternative genre. Formed by brothers Brian and Michael D'Addario from Long Island, their music moves swiftly from alt rock to 50s pop to musical theater, often in one song. Their fashion, album and video aesthetic all lend evidence to their Alternative status but it's the music that has to prove it.
Some songs definitely do. In fact, some tracks on their debut, Do Hollywood, sound like something an early MGMT would make. Brian, 19, and Michael, 17, are impressive songwriters, and not just because of their young ages. They blend different melodies expertly, crafting tracks that often seem like they contain three or four songs' worth of material into a couple short minutes. They succeed where MGMT once did in weaving strange, psychedelic, ethereal moments into catchy rock melodies.
The first track on Do Hollywood, "I Wanna Prove to You," swerves so quickly from one melody to another that the pattern of the song isn't immediately obvious. It's shocking when it bounces from only a couple seconds of a familiar Pop tune into a dreamy, melancholy verse. It has a real hook, though, too, when he sings, "Baby, why won't you love me?" The Lemon Twigs don't use much synth or weird noises in this one. But the erratic way the song jumps around, the peculiar sound of the backing vocals, the xylophone—it all adds up to the brightness that characterizes current Alt Rock. And it has a tiny bit of the strangeness that comes out more in the rest of the album.
"Those Days Is Comin' Soon" has a carnival feel to the verses but the chorus is up-tempo Rock & Roll. "Baby Baby" has a lot of synth sounds similar to MGMT-Alternative and the underwater vocals on "Hi+Lo" make an otherwise normal song a little weird. "A Great Snake" summarizes the sounds of the album with a blend of synths and acoustic guitar.
Not everything succeeds. It feels like the band didn't know how to end a couple of their songs ("As Long As We're Together" is one). And some, like "These Words," would be better as a melody thrown into another song but are boring as a full track.
Do Hollywood is still a solid attempt by the band to partly define what Alt Rock is and to find their place in its world. You can call it an Alternative record, you can say that it fits into the category and matches other songs on the Alternative stations. But is it really trying to be different? Is it really trying to make its own branch of the rock & roll tree? Or is it just another slightly-strange, bright, but hardly experimental album that someone slaps with the Alternative label because it doesn't fit in cleanly anywhere else?
Whatever your ideas about its genre, the album's highlights, especially "I Wanna Prove To You," are definitely worth a listen.