It was really something, going to college in the early 90s. On the one hand, you had friends around you who are really obsessed with music, and anxious to pass along recommendations. On the other hand, the swamp gas of alt rock was finally bubbling close enough to the surface that you could get a heady whiff of it. And you liked what you smelled. You found a lot of new bands, even in the first few years after you graduated, when the alternative rock stations were still finding weird, shiny new things and dangling them in front of you.
When did it go wrong? Was it 1997, when you started hearing more and more from bands that didn’t know how to spell their own names, like Limp Bisquick and Qorn? Maybe your friends were just becoming lame, and they weren’t sending enough good CDs your way. So that for some four years, you discovered maybe three bands that were worth following up on. Sad.
Are things changing? The other day, on a commercial radio station that plays something like adult contemporary rock, which you put up with because even Steve Winwood beats System of a Clown, you heard a quirky song by a band that you hadn’t heard from since college, when they had a novelty hit with a song about a girl using vaseline instead of butter. And after that, a moody new song about something by a heartbroken ex-hipster who used to specialize in songs about nothing. Is there a fresh wind blowing in popular rock and/or roll?
I’m here to testify: yes there is, and here are five newish CDs to prove it.
Beck, Sea Change Once upon a time, I would have scoured Rolling Stone and Spin to learn about the backstory here, the heartbreak and remorse that has transformed Beck from a funk-happy ironist to a painfully sincere crooner. Does he really mean it when he sings, “Mister Bluebird at my window/I can’t hear you anymore”? It doesn’t even matter. The title has it right — the success that was spoiling Beck has turned to dross, and he’s got the blues, or at least he’s doing a damn good impression of them. Be warned, though: as another reviewer said, there is no more devil’s haircut, no more ass pants.
Interpol, Turn On the Bright Lights Yes, it sounds a lot like Joy Division, yes, the lyrics make less sense than old Beck (“The subway is a porno”? “Friends don’t waste wine when there’s words to sell.”?). Did it bother you with Beck? Did you not like Joy Division? This is a compulsively-listenable CD, and as for the charge that they’re just 80s recyclers, I’ll quote the Boston Phoenix‘s Annie Zaleski:”It’s in alluding to these bands that Interpol find their own charms — not as post-punk clones, but as preservers and extenders of a sound and an era.”
Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots It would be better, perhaps, if this album were also about nothing, but let’s be straight: it’s mostly about Yoshimi, battling the pink robots. It’s embarassing how much we like this album at work, and it’s actually starting to get airplay as well. I got a bit burned by their last CD, The Soft Bulletin, which the critics loved but I found abrasive; it’s perhaps a good sign that the critics are less overexcited about this one. Give in to the robots…
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Give in to the Tweedy. He and his bandmates have pared out the sort of extraneous annoying songs that pop up in their previous outings, and leave you with eleven amazing tracks that range from straight-ahead heartfelt (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”) to strange-but-compelling-in-a-”Pyramid Song”-sort-of-way (“Poor Places”). And you, too, will fall in love with the drummer.
Cinerama, Torino The previous entries are all CDs that the moderately-hip will be well aware of, even if they haven’t already bought them. Cinerama, on the other hand, still don’t have the sort of following that they deserve, and I consider it an amazingly fortunate accident that I know about them at all. I’ve given their CDs to several people, and no one has failed to like them. Their latest is their best, an absolute triumph of pop-rock. Bandleader/singer/songwriter David Gedge specializes in songs about what you might call “lying in bed,” and here, under the characteristically-tender touch of producer Steve Albini, he marries his sardonic, bitter humor to the sort of gale-force guitarwork that it’s been craving all along. The music, in other words, aurally enacts the very emotions that underpin the lyrics.
And what lyrics! Gedge takes the basic rhyming couplet as far as any rock songwriter before him. From “Estrella,” in which he begs his girlfriend to take note of his cheating, and make it easy by breaking up with him: “Oh, yes believe me, yes, you should leave me/You’re making it too hard/How can you disregard/What I’m doing, who I’ve been screwing?” From the ironically-titled “Get Smart,” imploring his adulterous wife to be a bit more discreet: “No don’t flip, here’s a tip: all it needs is a little thought/This will surprise you, but I don’t want you to get caught/That’s a price that I’ll pay to stop you going away/Keep telling your lies, I won’t criticise if it means you will stay.”
The album winds up on a much more tender note, “Health and Efficiency,” in which Gedge looks back wistfully on a youthful love affair. As he notes, “This is such a cliche but/You don’t appreciate the joy until you lose it.” As true of the passing of early-90s alt rock as of anything else. Here’s to the possible signs of a new spring.