"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"
Musicologists will argue about the beginnings of politically conscious music, but a thumbnail sketch of its lifespan might look something like this: birthed by blues singers, popularized by Greenwich Village folkies, amplified by British punks and mass-marketed by heart-on-sleeve arena rockers. In the preceding quote, Billy Bragg -- a product of all these strands of political music -- voiced his frustration and impotence at trying to combine a popular medium with potentially divisive political beliefs.
In a way, Bragg answers his own query by packaging his artistic crisis in a funny, rollicking, sing-song pop tune. But if he 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. And it isn't a case of merely commenting on the outside world from a philosophical or idealistic distance: As Haines puts it, "the personal and political are interchangeable" for Metric.
The topics addressed in Metric's just-released Live It Out were not necessarily plucked from newspaper headlines, but Haines and company turn 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."
Not exactly what you want to hear on your morning commute, but Metric's songs thankfully stay far from sloganeering. In fact, Haines clearly feels unwilling and unqualified to be a spokeswoman for legions of disaffected youth.
"We don't have any answers," she says. "But we have a lot of questions."
Many indie rock fans heard Haines' distinctive voice first on Broken Social Scene's 2002 breakthrough 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 ten tracks.
In fact, there's no question that Metric has come to embrace being a full-on rock band 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 in sound: 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 gets cranked to ten and guitarist Jimmy Shaw punishes his fretboard as if with a rotary drill.
The song's tale of submission to the norm could be about the stymieing forces of modern life, but by the end of the second verse it's the equally frightening realm of modern radio that most concerns Haines. The chorus of "Shake your head, it's empty" is the best wake-up call to rock audiences since R.E.M took a lead-singer cliché and showed all of its hollowness by commanding, "Hey, kids, rock & roll."
But "Empty" is also one of a few songs on the album that deals with the life of a band on the road. With an album title like Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, along with tireless cross-country touring in that disc's wake, Metric introduced itself as a band wistful for the old days of DIY ethics and sweaty club dates. Those days of opening for bands like the Stills and Hot Hot Heat have started to pay off, and tickets for the band's shows in Canada regularly sell out weeks in advance. (After trying out locales like Los Angeles, Montreal, Brooklyn and London, Metric has finally settled on Toronto for its home base.)
With its rock-star status up north and in France, and a growing fan base in the U.S., the band has proven that good songs and hard work can still pay off. The same can't always be said about the band's pre-fab counterparts.
"People get their business plans set up first before they get their bands together," Haines says. "We're dedicated to this idea of high realism -- there's never been any artificial marketing or push." This may sound odd coming from a band with a polished sound and attractive singer, but the punk attitude isn't just for the safety-pin set. According to Haines, taking the hard road makes the rewards that much sweeter: "No one can take that away from you. We come there and work for the people and make them smile."
For now, Metric continues to fight the good fight one show at a time, despite the occupational hazards of being in a touring band -- like trying not to sell your soul to rock & roll. Or as Haines wryly puts it: "It's a dirty little world, this rock & roll business."