Indie-rock has never been comfortable flirting with a populist stance.
That's part of what gives it its "indie" credibility. For indie-rock lovers, the music they hold dear can be defined as much by what it isn't as by what it is. When an indie-rock band gets popular, it had better get really popular really quickly, because success is likely to scare away most of the fans it could claim when it was unsuccessful, back when its members were starving, angry and, most likely, wearing beards.
Maybe some of Passion Pit's charm can be located in the band's unlikely arrival as the first brazenly populist indie-rock band of its members' generation. The group -- formed in 2007 in Cambridge, Mass., by Buffalo-bred songwriter Michael Angelakos -- can't be accused of selling out to court the mainstream, since from the very beginning, its sound married the electro-pop strain of indie-rock to full-blown populist intent.
Right out of the gate, Angelakos wrote songs that your kid sister could love, even if she didn't know her Brian Eno from her Black Eyed Peas.
Which probably explains why Passion Pit's first Buffalo-area show since the release of its critically and commercially lauded debut full-length, "Manners" sold out with little fanfare. The show is 8 p.m. tonight inside the Rapids Theatre, formerly the Dome Theatre, in Niagara Falls.
To borrow a phrase from an old blues song, with Passion Pit, the men may not know, but the little girls understand.
Legend has it that the very tape that earned Angelakos and Passion Pit a record deal was in fact comprised of achingly emotional songs the singer had written as a Valentine's Day gift for his girlfriend. Most of these pieces of danceable heart-on-sleeve audio candy ended up comprising the band's debut effort, "Chunk of Change," which was released to an impressive reception in 2008.
Immediately, Angelakos made his presence felt. He boasted a killer falsetto, fearlessly whittled his raw emotions into earnest and, yes, passionate lyrics, and was sufficiently hip to know that electro-pop was more boiling over than bubbling under, in the world of alternative music. The notion of a "second wave of synth-pop bands" -- the first wave hoisting upon us the likes of Depeche Mode, Erasure, etc. -- was being bandied about in the press and on the club scene with straight-faced sincerity in 2008. Angelakos might not have known it, but his moment had come.
By the time "Manners" was released, the now fully formed and fleshed-out Passion Pit was ably filling the gap between the more stoner/jam band-friendly danceable psychedelia of Animal Collective and the straight-up dance floor hijinx of bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Goldfrapp. Critics were noticing, yes -- Rolling Stone's 4-star (out of 5) review urged us to "please welcome Michael Angelakos, the 21-year-old drama queen at the core of Passion Pit," going on to praise the band's "hyperemotional electro pop." But it was more significant that the band was generating a passionate fan base that didn't really care so much what the music was called, as long as it was played loud.
Angelakos and Passion Pit had, probably unwittingly, pulled off a coup -- the band had created a body of work that unselfconsciously and directly mirrored the concerns and the tastes of its audience, precisely because in so many ways, they were that audience.
"Manners" would end up placing in prominent positions on the best-of/year-end lists of dozens of high-profile music publications, newspapers and blog-spots. The addictive sing-along singles "Sleepyhead," "Moth's Wings" and "The Reeling" would end up being heard as part of the soundtrack to target-marketed television shows like "Gossip Girl," HBO's "Big Love" and British teen drama "Skins." Perhaps most tellingly, Passion Pit placed a song on a video game; nigh-on-countless tweens and teens heard the band blissfully bashing away as they worked their thumbs into a frenzy playing "FIFA 10."
All of this has meant a whirlwind of touring for Passion Pit, as the group played high-profile festivals (CMJ New Music in New York City, SXSW in Austin, Texas) and simultaneously courted an expanding audience in the UK. The Niagara Falls show is a homecoming of sorts for the band, or at least for Angelakos, but in reality, it's just another stop on a road trip that is not likely to end in the near future.
As much as "Manners" has managed to become a crossover success -- appealing to both the indie-rock elite and the indie-rock oblivious -- it is Passion Pit's reputation as a jubilant live act that is earning it the loyalty of the quality-starved under-30 crowd. A reviewer for Paste Magazine described it thus: "Their live show is a keyboard orgy . . . five keyboards of various types stretched across the front of the stage. . . At least three people sang. . . melodies squealed. . . beats pounded. . . one band member whacked another in the head with a microphone. . . (it) was sloppier than a lot of dance-music concerts, which made it feel more like a shambling indie-rock show."
Barely controlled chaos? Kids dancing like lunatics, with band members themselves leading the way? Completely addictive songs that shamelessly court mainstream pop while maintaining credibility among alternative music snobs?
Sounds like the birth of a movement, doesn't it?