The sounds of the 1990s are making a comeback
It's been in the air for a while: plaid shirts and Doc Martens boots on the high street; reunions by Dinosaur Jr and Pavement; teenage fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson's obsession with Nirvana and Hole. Last month, a heavily grunge-influenced debut album by the London four-piece group Yuck was heralded by the music press as one of the most promising rock releases of the year so far, and it became official: 11 years after we waved them off, the 1990s are back.
Yuck's songwriter Daniel Blumberg is only 20, but he's already a veteran indie rocker. At the age of 15, his former band Cajun Dance Party was signed to XL Records, home of Radiohead and The White Stripes, but the band split after just one album. While Cajun Dance Party made bright, upbeat indie-pop, with clear-sounding vocals and bouncy, syncopated rhythms, Yuck use a much muddier palette that owes a clear debt to the Seattle sound.
Both Blumberg's groups summed up the sound of their time: while five years ago "new rave" was responsible for bright sounds and neon outfits, this year is all about bands turning up the reverb and making songs that are submerged in soft, murky waves of noise. With their melodic interplay of vocals and guitar, chiming Pavement-style licks and use of distortion and a general vibe of slackerdom, Yuck are right on trend.
Vivian Girls, a female four-piece from Brooklyn, helped popularise fuzzy surf sounds among the rock underground with the release of their 2008 debut, which had distorted vocals half-buried in blurry guitar, in the same way as bands of the early 1990s such as My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. Over on the US West Coast, Wavves cut a first album the same year, which was full of squalling lo-fi that reached back past the dance-punk and garage rock revival popular at the time to evoke the days when Kurt Cobain and his alt-rock contemporaries were ruling the airwaves.
Fast-forward a few years, and it seems that every other new band has been digging through its collection of 1990s CDs and tapes for inspiration, and the trend has hopped across the Atlantic to invade the UK. Londoners Yuck were given four stars by Rolling Stone for their debut album, but that didn't stop the magazine saying the record sounded like "a well-rounded nineties indie rock mix-tape." It was the same with almost every other review Yuck got: an acknowledgement that they were derivative coupled with an affirmation that their catchy tunes are strong enough to get away with it.
"I listen to a lot of nineties music," Blumberg admitted in an interview, citing the Silver Jews, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, Bonnie "Prince" Billie and Smog as a few of his favourites, and adding that discovering Pavement and Royal Trux was "probably one of the most exciting points in my life." Of course, as someone born in the 1990s, his discovery of the scene was retrospective, and he adds his own nostalgia and sensibilities to the mix as a child of the internet age.
Yuck's nearest rivals are the quartet Male Bonding. Also based in London, they're the first non-US band to be signed to the Seattle label Sub Pop, and they oscillate between sounding like Nirvana with cheaper recording equipment and sounding like Blur during their earliest years. Like Yuck, the songs on their debut album, which came out last summer, and their live energy are good enough for the band to get away with their unoriginal style.
Back on the other side of the pond, Titus Andronicus, No Age and Times New Viking are three to check out if you're a fan of the 1990s lo-fi revival sound. Your other option, of course, is to listen to some of the reformed alt-rock bands who will be playing their own hits at festivals this summer. Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips and Belle & Sebastian will be headlining the Spanish festival Primavera Sound, while Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum - who has been something of a recluse since the release of his band's 1998 album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - will be playing long-awaited comeback shows in the UK and US this coming autumn and winter.
If you're one of those for whom "nineties rock" means Dinosaur Jr, you're in luck too. The band's erstwhile guitarist J Mascis has just released his first studio album, Several Shades of Why, and it's a worthy addition to his back catalogue. With delicate songcraft, and gentle acoustic guitar complementing Mascis's gravelly voice, it would make a good intro for anyone embarking on an alt-rock nostalgia trip.
* Jessica Holland
Updated: March 27, 2011 04:00 AM