Old World Underground, Where are You Now?

the first time I heard “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” I thought Emily Haines could be The One.

I mean, at least that she could be The One this year, that one woman who strips bare all the male-centric bullshit of indie-rockdom and leaves you a hopeless little fanboy puddle.

It’s unfair too, because we men (if you can call us that) get to play both sides of the field when it comes to this kind of shit. Since most of our indie-rock heroes are male, we spend an inordinate amount of time under the impression that we’re being sung about.

Self-indulgent bastards that we are, we see ourselves in the existentialist queries and romantic entanglements of our same-sex idols, as their butterflies, breakups, and broken hearts become the solipsistic equivalent of our own.

Thing is, I think most female fans attempt a similar, though trickier, act of transference with male indie-rock musicians. Rather than just indiscriminately swoon in the presence of a honey-voiced heartthrob (Justin Timberlake) or a pseudo-sensitive folkie with date rapist potential (John Mayer), sycophantic moves that are (unfortunately) synonymous with weaker-sex surrender, I bet most indie-cultivated women also look for a semblance of themselves in their favorite phallo-centric sounds, though in the case of genres like hip-hop (why you trying to be all up in my shit, bitch) and emo (why’d you get a restraining order against me, bitch), that can often yield less-than-flattering returns.

Of course, there are a number of kickass female musicians who offer fangirls a safer and more self-gratifying mirror, but the unfair bit is how us guys get to have our cake and eat it too. Because indie-rock already so convincingly reinforces our dominant gender status, and because we don’t suffer the same stigma of starry-eyed submersion being equal to simple-minded devotion, we’re free to feel as though we’re being sung to if we so desire whenever a woman steps up to the mic.

Which is lovely, as guilty as it makes me feel, and that’s the reason I thought Emily Haines had the potential to be The One, because when I first heard that aforementioned standout track from Broken Social Scene’s unimpeachable You Forgot it in People, it made me feel 17 years old again, the way she demanded “park that car/drop that phone/sleep on the floor/dream about me,” especially that last bit, that’s just a fucking killer.

Now, Haines has a band called Metric, a kinetic pop-punk four-piece that’s got more on its mind than just making me swoon. No problem there, as a matter of fact, Sleater-Kinney’s got more on its mind than just about every other band in the universe, and yet every time I hear “Leave You Behind,” I fall in love all over again.

And that’s just it, because Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? is vaguely political and admittedly quite catchy, perhaps a little bit too glib for its own good, but it lacks the fixated conviction to justify its sociocultural critique, and then fails to compensate with enough high-octane hook-filled fervor to make those soft-sell barbs seem sharper.

Opener "Icu" starts off with promise, gets mired in a lockstep riff with a rudderless bass and then can't decide where the chorus should go. The same holds true for "Hustle Rose" except that the intro is the worst part, but it doesn't get much better after that either, as the band flounders in search of a hook.

Haines grabs hold of the reins on "Succexy," however, and steers the band back on course with a rather pointed jab at war-time indifference and media-saturated malaise, a double-edged sword that manages to impale both an administration and an apathetic populace. Metric then hits its stride with "Combat Baby," an energetic college-radio hit that allows for a bit more bubblegum than its compatriots (squint and it's the Cardigans with punk-rock moxie), maintains it with the lovelorn keyboard noodler "Calculation Theme" and the New Wave cheekiness of "Wet Blanket," but then loses the plot all over again with the self-pleased, featherweight jibes of "On a Slow Night" and "Dead Disco," though the latter does recommend itself with an expert bit of damaged dance-punk.

As you might expect, this kind of artful detachment comes across much better live, where Haines can act out these self-reflexive poses and pull it off as performance art in front of a livelier and less economical band. And so it was when I saw Metric open for Broken Social Scene earlier this month, but even though my first encounter with Haines' band was more than agreeable, it still didn't compare to her still-beguiling star turn on BSS's performance of "Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl."

Here I was, all set to hand her the crown, and what does Emily Haines do but release a well-crafted, oft-incisive album of note-perfect pop-punk pithiness that consequently has almost no heart.

Now, where did I put Corin Tucker's phone number?
Reviewed by: Josh Love
Reviewed on: 2003-11-18
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