But with I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, in 1997, that changed; they began to combine their colors into new patterns and fresh textures. Besides their strengths as experimentalists, Kaplan and company have always been great craftsmen and great pop melodists, and what that album lost in adventure the band compensated by refining their approach. The same is true of this year's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. While Electr-o-Pura favored the band's intense, noisy side, this is a record comprised almost entirely of gentle and low-key songs, many with Hubley's wistful vocals.
The album's slow numbers are as good as anything the band has ever done, especially Hubley's country-ish "Tears Are in Your Eyes" and Kaplan's nostalgic "The Crying of Lot G" (which must be the most delicate homage to writer Thomas Pynchon ever penned). "Cherry Chapstick," an electrified, feedback-drenched wig-out that recalls Sonic Youth, will satisfy fans--especially the seriously caffeinated ones--of "Blue Line Swinger" and "Sugarcube."
With the most innovative music happening on turntables and in producers' studios, it's hard not to wonder if guitar-driven indie rock has become speech in a dead language. Despite the cheering of the record's press release, And Then Nothing does not break new ground for the band, and there probably is an atmospheric song (or two) too many. But in a day when even indie-rock stalwarts like Sebadoh and Pavement release second-rate albums, it's refreshing just to have top-shelf work from a major old-school band. And it's startling to see an already "adult" band (how many graduate degrees will be in the room when these guys play at Trees?) make a record even more mature than for what they've prepared us. Indie rock may not have many years left, but these three seem not to know it. They'll hum their way through the sunset.