Commentary

It's a brighter world with Metric

Updated: June 16, 2009, 10:08 AM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

Spring has been dreary in Kansas. May and June have been rainy with periods of cloudiness as brief interruptions. That I interviewed two members of Metric on the first sunny day in a week was fortuitous and, as I would learn later, fitting.

[+] EnlargeEmily Haines
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesMinus the sparkler from "Sick Muse," Emily Haines still sparkles in person.

When I arrived at the Granada in Lawrence, I was under the impression that I would be meeting with only Jimmy Shaw, the band's guitarist and co-writer. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when lead singer and focal point Emily Haines got off the tour bus with her band mate. They were dressed like musicians -- he in a white T-shirt and jeans, she in a weathered dress that did nothing to debunk the concept of Haines as sexpot.

While chaperoned by Lana Mauro, the band's lovely tour manager, Haines, Shaw and I walked to a nearby park, sat on the steps of a Lawrence municipal building and solved all of life's problems.

Come election time, there is nearly always a raft of musicians and actors anxious to express their political views. Many people -- especially conservatives -- dismiss their speeches as ego-driven publicity stunts and wonder why anyone would care about the opinions of people who either play guitar or memorize lines as their jobs. Theirs is a valid point, except for one thing: Musicians and actors are often extraordinarily intelligent. In order to pull off the mental exercise of portraying another human, a person has to be a near-genius. The same holds true for writing, arranging and performing music. Neither is an exercise that could be performed by your local gas-station attendant.

I thought of this as I spoke to Haines and Shaw. Both are intelligent, articulate and warm people. They understand that the world isn't perfect, but they're willing to help. Lofty goals for a rock band, to be sure. But noble ones, nonetheless.

Metric released its fourth studio album, "Fantasies," in April. Contemporaries of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio, they've been critical darlings for years but have never found much traction in the mainstream, except in their (half) native Canada. (Drummer Joules Scott-Key, in addition to having a fantastic name, is from Michigan. Bassist Joshua Winstead is a Texan.) Their sound is driven by Haines' vocals and the sort of jangly, electronically influenced guitars found on songs like "Sick Muse," which -- because it's a good representation of the band's music -- I'm going to make you listen to here.

Oh, and if you watch the video ... the answer is yes, she's really that pretty.

Haines, Shaw and I talked politics, world-saving and artistic integrity, but we discussed less serious matters as well. Both agreed that the rock 'n' roll lifestyle is hardly what most outsiders assume it to be. Bands realize early on what is at stake and so they take better care of their bodies than people think.

Shaw quickly tempered those remarks by adding that Metric's members still like to enjoy life when they're on the road. They just don't want their fun to require an accompanying intervention. As Haines put it, "At some point you realize that one martini might be a better idea than six."

Mauro began tapping her feet in a tastefully understated way, and we started our walk back to the bus. On our way, we talked about the perils of becoming too accessible: Does knowing that one's heroes/idols/rock stars are normal people who make mistakes and who have worries, concerns and idiosyncrasies of their own make them less worthy of worship as musicians?

Shaw agreed with an old belief of mine, which is that it does, somehow. Knowing that Bruce Springsteen runs out of toilet paper makes him seem less than the perfect specimen of rock 'n' roll god-ness.

Haines listened carefully to what her band mate said and then told a story about meeting Kim Gordon, founding member of Sonic Youth. She said she was floored by the fact that Gordon knew that she was an idol to Haines but then acted like a real person anyway. In the end, Haines said, it's comforting to know that people have their faults, but that they're able to overcome them in order to produce music or art or literature. As we all know, no one is perfect all the time. As Haines said, there is no such thing as the airbrushed reality we've all come to expect.

When Metric took the stage a few hours after our talk, I was hit with a wave of panic. I had bought into Haines' new philosophy and had decided I would be able to enjoy the show even though I had met half of her band. But as they started, I wasn't so sure. I could see that it was taking a few minutes to warm up; I could tell that the band was tiptoeing through the first song, and I was afraid they'd never get to a sprint.

My fears were unfounded. Metric found its legs by the middle of "Help, I'm Alive" (listen to the recorded version here) and then Usain Bolted their way through the rest of their set. Their joy in playing their songs was infectious; by the 30-minute mark, Haines was down to a skimpy, gray, skin-tight dress, Winstead had sweated through approximately 64 percent of his shirt, and everyone in the audience was in love with someone on stage.

As I watched them bounce through song after song of catchy, electro-influenced rock, I thought back to our brief talk. In the last few weeks, I've tried to familiarize myself with Metric's work in anticipation of my "interview." I started with their most recent material because, while I had heard of the band, my ears had no experience with them before "Fantasies." When I worked my way backward, I decided their two previous albums were much more introspective and so were more work to listen to.

[+] EnlargeMetric
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty ImagesSome things just seem a little brighter with Metric, from left, James Shaw, Emily Haines, Joules Scott-Key and Josh Winstead.

As she answered my question, she seemed to decide that, no, neither she nor Shaw had made a conscious decision to make "Fantasies" a more accessible album, but that they had grown enough as people to see that being gloomy about the state of life in our Western world wasn't going to change that world. As they put it, they figured out that they could add some syrup to the medicine to help it go down.

During the show, I had to look carefully for the medicine, because Metric is good with the syrup. Which isn't a knock, but a compliment. Their approach to their live show wasn't syrupy because it was too sweet. It was syrupy because it was genuine. I -- along with everyone in the audience -- could see what types of people were on stage pushing music through microphones and amplifiers. As it turned out, the fact they were just people didn't ruin it. Metric let the audience inside, and we loved them for it.

The members of Metric -- at least the two I spoke with -- remain artists. As such, they will always see the world with a critical eye. They'll be quicker than most to notice injustice and apathy, and they'll want to do something to remedy those problems. What they'll do is make music. A few years ago, that music might have been made as catharsis, in a woe-is-me sort of way. Now, that music is made with an eye toward action and optimism.

I, for one, am glad the sun came out.


Recommendation of the week: Frightened Rabbit

On "Midnight Organ Fight" the four Scottish guys of Frightened Rabbit sound like Snow Patrol, if Snow Patrol were 657 times better. The voice of lead singer Scott Hutchinson fairly drips with heartbreak and longing. As an example, listen to "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms" here.

And yes, as you people more cool than I am already know, the album was released more than a year ago. It takes time to filter through all the music in the world. Thanks to Thomas O., Scott L., Michael J., and a few others for the recommendation.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley, by e-mailing him here and he can now be found on Twitter: Twitter.com/paulthenshirley. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here.

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