PATH OF NO RESISTANCE
Pacific Northwest Indie Rock Before and After the Gold Rush
By Sean Nelson
The suckerest bet in the music writing racket is trying to neatly summarize a regional music scene. But due to certain quirks of history and provincial character, it’s actually pretty convenient to talk about the past 20-ish years of Pacific Northwest indie rock, in terms of what it declined to be.
Still, it’s telling that the folks who made this list chose to exclude the “grunge” era from the tally, because most of the bands did back then, too. For many years, that word could scarcely be spoken aloud in the PNW without being shrouded by air quotes (real or implied) or followed by a telltale “…or whatever.” It wasn’t just that musicians chafed at the term’s aesthetic limitations; it was that they didn’t want anyone in earshot to think they subscribed to the “media”-created bullshit on any level.
The massive overexposure of a few Seattle bands had a long psychological fallout—the aftershocks continue even now, in the era of the perpetual anniversary. But it also yielded certain tendencies in the generation of musicians that followed. The most demonstrable was a withdrawal from bigness. Seattle’s commercial heyday was defined by a complicated relationship to showbiz (Sub Pop’s tongue-in-cheek “World Domination” shtick, Kurt Cobain’s “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” T-shirt), and a penchant for classic rock but punk-adjacent anthems. In general, the bands who came after seemed less interested in exploring the ironic intersection of underground and mainstream than in carving out a livable space under the radar.
As with sensibility, so, too, with sound: Instrumental interplay and transparent complexity started to creep over the dense walls of stacked-up power chords that had generated so many hits a few years before. The center of gravity shifted from garage to bedroom. Vocals grew more pleasingly idiosyncratic. Interlocking—as opposed to overwhelming—guitar work became foundational to the music of Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, the Shins, and several other bands represented here. But one record really set the stage for all of them.
The shadow Nevermind of post-boom NW indie rock was unquestionably Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, which came out September 13, 1994—not so very long after a certain tragic event—and soon became the North Star to a great many bands that came along after. The songs were exuberant and melodic, but they were also, somehow, intensely private. Even the artwork—a white and gray cloud floating over a muted palette of cream and yellow—was a masterpiece of understatement. You might not even see it the first time, but when you caught it at just the right moment, just the right angle, you could recognize the solitary statement that you had been let in on, and you treasured it all the more.
My favorite bands on this list—Unwound, Beat Happening, Pedro the Lion, Sleater-Kinney, the Softies, Bratmobile, the Posies, Quasi, Death Cab, Bikini Kill—were energized by the well-kept secrecy of their greatness. That’s not to suggest they weren’t also ambitious for whatever performing artists are ambitious for. No one would argue that Bikini Kill weren’t rightfully eager to make their voice heard. Or that Neko Case wasn’t born to sing on the mainstage. Or that the Decemberists are especially demure. But they all sounded great in clubs, bars, and basements, too. It’s worth remembering that the top-selling record on this list, Give Up by the Postal Service, began its life as an extremely low-budget side project that no one, least of all its creators, expected very much from. The circle of people who appreciated this music was initially very small, and far removed from the rest of what was going on in the world—not unlike the Pacific Northwest itself.
As the music industry entered its long decline, a lot of people began to argue that the real fault lies with the bands—pardon me, the artists—who no longer seem to have a hunger for conquest and dominion. These people are flummoxed by the idea that any band would ever settle for less than a mass audience. But when I listen back to the music on this list, I’m reminded of a relatively short period during which mass-ness had been authoritatively debunked as a worthwhile goal. The albums on this list offer a good snapshot of the before, during, and after of this interregnum (let’s say roughly 1994-2001, between There’s Nothing Wrong with Love and Oh, Inverted World) when the music of this region sounded like an invitation to a private affair that you felt lucky to receive. There’s something to be said for the aesthetic and spiritual differences between setting out to conquer the world and holding still so the world knows where to find you.
Sean Nelson is a writer, musician, and actor who lives in Seattle, where he works as Arts & Music Editor for The Stranger, America’s Hometown Newspaper. He appears on two of the records on this list, but he isn’t saying which ones.