Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is/I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses. --Billy Bragg, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards"
Bragg answers his own query by packaging his artistic crisis in a funny, rollicking, singsong pop tune. But if Bragg struggled with mixing pop and politics, Metric has an alchemist's touch for framing social concerns in an attractive pop package. To vocalist Emily Haines and her bandmates, a concerned citizen living in North America isn't allowed to shut out the world and just write pretty pop songs. As she puts it, "the personal and political are interchangeable" for Metric.
On Metric's latest, Live It Out, Haines and company set their sights on the world they know: sexual politics, consumerism and gender roles. Out's politics are often subtle, but in a few cases, they're unmistakable. "Handshakes" breaks from its splintery guitar leads and fuzzed-out bass lines so Haines can delve into her lowest Polly Jean Harvey moan to caterwaul, "Buy this car to drive to work/Drive to work to pay for this car."
Metric performs at the Gypsy Tea Room on Wednesday, March 15, with Islands and Every Move a Picture.
Not exactly what you want to hear on your morning commute, but thankfully Metric's songs stay far from sloganeering. In fact, Haines clearly feels unwilling and unqualified to be a spokeswoman for legions of disaffected youth.
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"We don't have any answers," she says. "But we have a lot of questions."
Indie rock fans discovered Haines' distinctive voice on Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It in People--specifically on the album's pivot point, "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl," where her modulated, manipulated singing ("Park that car, drop that phone/Sleep on the floor, dream about me") ascended from nonsense to epiphany over a bed of lazy banjo and a sweeping violin.
But Haines is a consummate frontwoman when leading Metric, a singer whose power is forged through equal parts bravado and humility. She can go from coquette to ball-buster in the click of a stompbox, her voice commanding, commenting and confessing across the album's 10 tracks, and her band has followed suit, embracing a full-on rock sound on Live It Out. The punky dance-pop and analog-synth sounds found on 2003's Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? are gone, replaced by guitar squeals and blood-hot drumbeats. Haines points to two of the band's seemingly disparate influences for the shift: Sonic Youth and Pink Floyd.
How the latter sneaks into Out is anyone's guess, but Metric's debt to Thurston, Kim and the boys is evident from the leadoff track, "Empty." Whistling ambience and a bottom-heavy guitar line are all that support Haines' dreamy, almost broken voice. Drums lope along a half-beat behind until the two-minute mark, when the volume and attitude both get cranked to 10 and guitarist Jimmy Shaw punishes his fretboard as if with a rotary drill.