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Pinback helped steer indie rock toward its middlebrow ’00s popularity

Pinback's Rob Crow and Zach Smith / Drew Reynolds

In a largely positive Washington Post review of Pinback’s 2004 album, Summer In Abaddon, critic Elaine Beebe Lapriore wrote, “Indie guitar rock has lain fallow of late, bearing less fruit of interest than 10, 20, even five years ago.” These days Lapriore’s claim comes across as dubious in retrospect: After all, 2004 is the year Arcade Fire launched a slow, upward climb to its current height with its ambitious, grand first album, Funeral.

But that’s hindsight, which also makes it easy to skim indie rock’s slow crawl to mass appeal in the 2000s. The aforementioned Funeral debuted to some critical acclaim (a positive Rolling Stone review came a few months after its September release), but its status as a mass cultural touchstone didn’t really kick in until 2005, when the album landed in the lower half of the Billboard 200. Funeral finally achieved RIAA gold status in October 2011, around the time the band’s third album, The Suburbs, received the same distinction.


As foolish as it can be to equate crossover success with artistic accomplishment—especially with digital technology wreaking havoc on album sales and old values for measuring popularity going awry—the growth of indie rock in the ’00s can be followed with its march up the Billboard charts and increasing cultural omnipresence. The fact that more and more people found value in ’00s indie rock as some of the brightest in the scene made their best work is hardly incidental, and hard to ignore. And the ’00s class of indie rock—a nebulous term heaped on bands that prominently featured guitars, got played on the radio, yet didn’t sound like Nickelback or New Found Glory on the Warped Tour and couldn’t easily be identified with the ’90s indie scene—really began to flex its muscle as a mainstream force in 2005.

Arcade Fire’s name grew in 2005, which is also when Spoon, the Austin indie-rock band and major-label castoff that had been steadily releasing music since the mid-’90s, debuted at No. 44 on the Billboard 200 with its refined and accessible pop-rock album Gimme Fiction. It’s also when Michigan folkie Sufjan Stevens charmed enough people into buying his symphonic epic Illinois to get him close to the upper-half of the Billboard 200. Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade, and The Decemberists all cracked the Billboard 200, which had room near its peak for early crossover darling Death Cab For Cutie—the group came in at No. 4 with its major-label debut, Plans.

While NPR said 2004 was the year of the music blog, Philadelphia’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which former A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden astutely called the utmost “blog rock” band, didn’t get thrust into the spotlight until 2005. Even music blogging hadn’t quite reached its tipping point until 2005 when a Hunter College student named Anthony Volodkin launched the Hype Machine, a website designed to aggregate all the songs posted on those sites. Indie rock wasn’t the only thing that wound up on music blogs at the time, but it constituted the bulk of the MP3s getting hyped, and the ambiguous overarching sound and scene became synonymous with music blogs of that era.

Indie rock was showing signs of its crossover appeal and potential before 2005, and 2004 was the key year marking its infiltration into the mainstream. Isaac Brock’s long-brewing, definitive indie outfit Modest Mouse wound up in a 2001 car commercial—with “Gravity Rides Everything” providing a soundtrack for the adventurous, hard-working moms who drive Nissan minivans—but it wasn’t until Brock’s “serenity now” masterpiece “Float On” became inescapable in 2004 that the band made its mark on the mainstream. That summer Zach Braff convinced a generation of teens and twentysomethings that The Shins could change their lives with his critical-darling debut film, Garden State.


By the fall Fox aired the second season of its popular teen drama The O.C., which not only prominently featured a range of indie acts existing just below the mainstream’s radar; it also repackaged them as soundtracks that could hit the Billboard charts. It was an early sign that indie in the ’00s not only had mainstream appeal, but it could be commoditized, repackaged, and sold on a mass scale.

San Diego’s Pinback landed in The O.C.’s rotation a few times during the show’s second season and wound up on a couple of its soundtracks, too. That came just after the group released its third album, Summer In Abaddon, in October 2004, which peaked at No. 196 on the Billboard 200. Pinback streamlined and tightened up its lighter-than-air sound on the intelligently crafted and tremendously affecting album, but not everyone was won over by the band’s progression. “Pinback’s Blameless In Abaddon [sic] is one heckuva disappointment,” Sean Michaels wrote at the end of a post on his influential blog Said The Gramophone in July 2004. “Gone are the ruby melodies, replaced with trimmer, emo’er rock songs. Count me out.”


Pinback began in 1998 as a collaboration between multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Zach Smith and Rob Crow. Veterans of San Diego’s fascinating, complex, and underappreciated ’90s rock scene, Smith had been playing with stalwarts Three Mile Pilot, and Crow juggled a variety of acts including Heavy Vegetable and Physics before the two teamed up. Their debut as Pinback, 1999’s This Is A Pinback CD (or just Pinback), melds the emotional, dramatic heft of Three Mile Pilot and the giddy punk bounce of Heavy Vegetable with light shades of electronic-rock and hip-hop. The tender, melancholic, and slightly strange songs on Pinback reveal Smith and Crow’s alluring chemistry and profound grasp of songwriting, but these charming, home-recorded, occasionally tinny songs lack the focused punch that lend Summer In Abaddon an accessibility that transcends Smith and Crow’s bedroom beginnings.

The band refined its sound gradually, naturally, over the course of a slew of EPs and another full-length, 2001’s Blue Screen Life. That album has some of Pinback’s best songs, including the heart-wrenching “Penelope,” which pointed at the intricate, complex, and well-balanced songs to come a few years later. It’s with Summer In Abaddon that the group figured out how to focus its melancholic highs and lows into a direct, ethereal pop sound, with Smith and Crow’s angelic, playful vocal harmonies leading the way. (Considering these guys then had enough richly developed songs to make the album feel full to the brim and then sequenced the songs just right adds to the sense that Pinback had come into its own.) Songs such as “Syracuse,” “AFK,” “3X0,” and “Fortress” are reminiscent of an amalgamation of ’90s underground sounds (including San Diego math-rock and hushed mid-’90s emo), all while bearing a slight resemblance to the heftier, left-of-mainstream rock songs corporate radio started flirting with after Jimmy Eat World broke through with “The Middle.” It didn’t hurt that Summer In Abaddon was Pinback’s first for renowned indie Touch And Go, which meant the band was also working on a bigger platform than before.


Summer In Abaddon is Pinback’s best album, though it’s not the group’s best-performing record on the charts: The follow-up, 2007’s Autumn Of The Seraphs, came in at No. 69 on the Billboard 200, and 2012’s Information Retrieved landed at 71. Pinback’s leap up to higher chart positions wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the excellent work on display in Summer In Abaddon, and it wouldn’t have happened if ’00s indie rock wasn’t a recognizable musical staple people sought out. And ’00s indie rock wouldn’t have been what it became had Pinback not released Summer In Abaddon.

Before previously long-established but under-the-radar indie outfits and newbie groups started infiltrating the mainstream in droves in 2005, whatever new indie rock that made a serious impact did so within the confines of its own identity. As much as Death Cab For Cutie could have been (and was) described as indie rock when it broke out in 2003, it didn’t resemble the idea of ’00s indie rock we think of now: The term lacked a definition specific to the new era, with all the new colors, cultural signifiers, fashions, and pejoratives. Portland was very much a breeding ground for the new decade, but Portlandia was years away.


’00s indie-rock lacked its mainstream mass before 2005, and whatever crossover success came could’ve been written off as flukes independent of a national moment or scene. Pinback helped change that by being a part of the mass: Summer In Abaddon is an arguably important work in its own right, but it’s equally (if not more) important as part of a bigger tapestry of a scene as it began making noise on a mass scale. ’00s indie-rock as an idea would have appeared less vibrant had Pinback not made Summer In Abaddon, and its crossover appeal would have weakened as well—the songs are characteristically in tune with indie’s complexities, and they’re written and performed in a manner that fans of middlebrow rock could easily latch on to. Pinback didn’t sacrifice its quirks or quality to make bigger records that performed well: The fact that the band was one of many crafting better albums that moved toward rock’s center as the decade wore on helped mainstream pop gravitate toward the indie scene.

Pinback’s contributions to the ’00s indie-rock scene as a mass unit and cultural force helped elevate the band in turn. People are still turning up to hear Summer In Abaddon—the group recently wrapped up a 10-year anniversary tour of the album that hit mid-sized clubs around the country. Pinback isn’t headlining arenas, but the idea that the last decade of indie-rock could reach such a height owes a debt to the illustrious charms and perfectly timed release of Summer In Abaddon.


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