Is Canada the new Seattle? Not quite, or maybe just not yet. But with the recent deluge of artsy, eighties-looking, super-hip indie bands from America’s neighbor (The Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene) our definition of cool has shifted just a little bit north.
The latest of these bands is Metric, from Toronto. Fronted by Emily Haines – whose claim to fame in American indie circles is one wicked cameo in Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” – Metric is the quintessential indie band, and Haines is the quintessential indie girl, the cooler, more stylish older sister of the hot girl in your local record store. She’s Karen O without the shrieking insanity, Brody Dalle without the scary. And she’s undoubtedly the star of the band. Her voice is magnetic, at times gorgeous. It almost feels like the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” all the time.
Unfortunately, Metric’s lyrics are afflicted with indie-itis: they’re so bored that everything they sing starts to feel really, really deep, or just really, really jaded This artsy, affected cool often works on the charisma of Emily Haine’s voice alone. Sometimes, though, it’s too much. Metric’s image is so cool that they become devoid of genuine emotional life at times. There are just too many layers of irony.
There are the standard lines about the facelessness of normal life. A few are pretty good, like the clever chorus of “Handshakes”: “Buy this car to drive to work / drive to work to pay for this car.” But in “Monster Hospital” there’s also the trite and played out words of “I fought the war and the war won.” It’s possible to make an album that touches on these topics – the Orwellian world we live in, the facelessness of society, the fear of modernity – and still show genuine heart. Radiohead make a living out of it. But Metric’s words leave you empty. And they don’t seem to care.
The French whispers in “Posters Girl” and the cheerleaders at the beginning of “Monster at the Hospital” – done in an all too familiar disaffected tone – pile on the irony. “Empty” is 6 minutes of nothing. We get it. It’s called “Empty” and the song itself is empty. It’s brilliant, but that doesn’t stop me from pressing the skip button. Sometimes a lack of substance is beautiful. But in this case, it’s a whole lot of nothing.
Sometimes there’s such a thing as too much disaffection, too much cool to handle. I wonder if Metric ever drops the mask. The comparisons to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t all that wrong. But Karen O often shows real emotion, or at least a facsimile so real that no one can tell.
Metric is best when they work themselves into a nice, New-Wave, keyboard-driven groove and just ride it out. The bass on “Too Little Too Late,” the pounding rhythms of “Glass Ceiling,” and the brilliant keyboard work of “The Police and the Private,” – this is Metric at their best. At their finest, Metric sound like the greatest eighties band that never existed, and all you want to do is to dance around feeling the groove.
They come closest in “Ending Start,” where a minimalist background pushes Haine’s voice to the forefront, and she says “nothing nothing nothing” like she feels as lost as she’s trying to convince us she is. Maybe if we get a sense she meant it more, we’d appreciate Metric on a more visceral, emotional level. There’s no doubt that Emily Haines can take over the world; rock journalists can’t resist a super hip leading lady. All we ask is that she drop the mask.