Dancer in the Dark

Though I've just had a conversation with singer Todd Baechle in which we took turns saying things, there's still a couple of questions about the Faint, the Omaha, Nebraska, band he fronts, burning semi-important holes in the back of my mind. For starters, there's the one to which he moaned and said, "That was definitely one of our worst shows ever." It's not that I don't believe him; it's just that I'm not sure he's right. I'd asked about a Faint show I caught last summer, June or July. It was really hot. I, a handful of my friends and about 400 other kids whose names I don't know were gathered inside some sort-of-air-conditioned hall in the middle of Columbus, Ohio's state fairgrounds. We were sweating. Lots of kids were selling shit, from homemade-tampon kits to paperback guides on making and selling your own records to crates and crates of CDs someone didn't make and sell themselves.

Why? (That's not the question I asked Baechle, so hold on.) The annual More Than Music fest, which every summer brings a spate of punk rock bands (and a few non-punk rock bands) and a bunch of punk rock kids (and a few...well, actually, no, it's just punk rock kids, and me) to Columbus to rock and, at least ostensibly, talk about important issues facing the punk rock community: building homemade tampons, making and selling your own records, getting your hair to be straight in the front and poofy in the back. It's one of the best and most well-organized of the punk rock festivals that happen yearly around these United States (except for this year's, which I heard totally sucked), even if the majority of stylish twentysomethings who show up to rock and talk have little interest in either. They prefer, instead, to walk around and wonder semi-aloud why everyone else is from a slightly-less-hip suburb of Detroit and why everyone else's hair doesn't do the straight-front/poofy-back thing as well as their own. It's sort of like punk rock high school, and you're the geek. Unless you're the jock, in which case I'm the geek. Pout.

On the phone, I'm trying to explain the distinction to Baechle, telling him that what sticks out about Danse Macabre, the Faint's slammin' new album, is exactly what that moment in Columbus crystallized--that on the surface this band plays like a bunch of fashion-hungry hipsters cashing in on cheap new-wave references, but that right below the surface, where you realize, for example, that Baechle spends a lot of time singing about wage slavery and other fashion-unfriendly evils, there's some sort of plot working here, something other than the pursuit of the perfect sneer.

That plot's never been more tantalizingly exposed than it is on Danse Macabre, the Faint's most realized chunk of music yet. Built, like its predecessor, 1999's college-radio hit Blank-Wave Arcade, on a framework of Depeche Mode-meets-Unwound angularity, the music nearly perfectly conflates the carnal, rhythmic throb of vintage synth-pop and the frustrated proto-melodics of today's unhinged indie rock. On songs like "Your Retro Career Melted," the guitars succumb to the keyboards in this way that sounds so familiar, only it's coming after a decade in which the closest the two instruments got was Prodigy, which is thankfully way off. It's simply more interesting than it should be--but I don't know how to say that to Baechle without sounding mean.

"I guess I do it with the hopes that me thinking these ideas through in a song," Baechle says of his predilection for actual lyrics, "other people might be able to relate to these things, might be able to pry open an idea in their heads. You know, maybe I don't want to work," he elaborates in reference to Macabre's work-defiling "Agenda Suicide." "Maybe I want to do something creative with my life. Is it worth it to trade your time away for money?"

Don't ask me; I just work here. Baechle might want to run it by the kids who'll come to see his band play tonight, the kids whose heads he'd like his ideas to pry open. They're a motley crew, for sure: In Columbus, I think the guy selling corn dogs tipped over his cart when the band skulked offstage. What's more, you gotta wonder if they're buying what Baechle's selling. He tells me he wants everybody at a Faint show to "forget about who's cool and who's looking at who and what you're wearing and if your makeup's fucked up." As one who's never gotten a handle on the straight-front/poofy-back thing, I tell him that's harder work than he knows, standing up onstage, where all the kids look pretty much equally ridiculous.

"I totally agree," he says. "I just want everybody to feel that liberating feeling of dancing and feel like they can be themselves. If I'm dancing, I'm my own self, and I don't really care about who thinks what about me." This is more revolution than I bargained for, I think. A band that appears to be about hairspray is actually about issues, but they really just wanna get footloose? The personal is political and the personal is personal? Baechle's not interested in coughing up easy answers. "I'm dancing, and the rest of you can fuck off."