Lost in Alphaville
Polyvinyl Records, 2014
About 23 or so years ago, Matt Sharp co-founded the “math-rock” cult wave called Weezer. Things were going well after the success of their debut album, which would turn out to be one of three self-titled albums, each tinted with a different background color (blue, green then red), they surfed to alt-rock star status via two interesting videos that got airplay on MTV (“Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Buddy Holly”), directed by Spike Jonze. Then, after a sizable amount of touring, etc, they returned to the studio to record what would turn out to be a sharp left turn for the band, Pinkerton. After things were finished with Pinkerton, Sharp would find himself given the axe; shown the door; kicked to the curb –whichever way you wanted to put it. No one really seemed to know why – except the usual reasons: “artistic/musical differences”, which, in the case of Weezer, probably translated into “didn’t get along w/Rivers Cuomo”.
After Sharp’s abrupt departure, Weezer lost a big chunk of what made them such a catchy band in the first place and why their debut album still stands out as their most popular, grooviest album and even though Pinkerton was, like a lot of albums which come out after a successful album but goes in a quite different direction and is, at first received somewhat poorly by myopic music critics, people who dug the “hit” tunes which received airplay on commercial radio, etc., but which, at a later point in time, upon a re-evaluation, gets metamorphosis into a “forward thinking”, “innovative” and, the ever-popular “ahead of its time” classification, Pinkerton is now seen as quite a musical feat for Weezer and critics – writers and self-appointed ones alike – say that this follow-up to their eponymous debut (now, also in retrospect, due to the two other self-titled albums, albeit with differently tinted backgrounds, known as “the Blue Album”) was a brilliant direction to go in, instead of doing a sophomore release that has more of the same. A good example of this, from the 1970s, is Lou Reed’s solo masterpiece, Berlin, which was the follow-up to his hugely popular Transformer . Unfortunately for the radio listening masses and easily confused rock critics, Berlin was not just a rehash of Transformer; instead Berlin took a sharp turn and went in a completely different direction: Berlin was a “concept” album that dealt with depressing, introspective, heartbreaking ideas, like screwed up relationships, speed freaks, German whores, bad mothering and a generally misanthropic, almost nihilistic take on things. This really freaked out the same reviewers who, not much earlier, were raving about what a killer album Transformer was; now they were pissed off because Reed had totally messed with their minds and he didn’t give them what was expected of a sophomore solo effort. But, if you look around the internet, or read things about great albums of the ’70s and so on, Berlin now seems to be loved universally by critics and listeners alike. In my opinion, Berlin was a better album than Transformer – I especially love “Oh Jim”. So, when Pinkerton ran into a similar situation, it was deja vu – all the same complaints, the lack of radio-ready singles, etc., which, after time went by turned into this brilliantly conceived work that is still a charm of the Weezer catalog. Well, for that you can, in part, thank the great songwriting skills of Matt Sharp, who was gone after Pinkerton.
After wondering where to go next, Sharp finally found the perfect niche and with no advance hype or warning, assembled The Rentals, which was Sharp’s new creative vehicle. The Rentals debut album, The Return of The Rentals, in 1995 was a shiny new example of why Sharp matters so much and what Weezer had just lost by ousting him so unceremoniously. They would play a good amount of club dates and get around, but for the most part, The Rentals seemed to be almost a side project to nothing. They didn’t get around to recording their next album until 1999’s Seven More Minutes. Now, 15 years later, they have just released what sounds like their best work yet, since moving on to a new label – Polyvinyl Records – after recording the first two for Maverick/Warner Bros.
Lost in Alphaville, their new album, is a wonderful work. It finds Sharp having re-worked The Rentals’ lineup, which now includes Jess Wolfe and Heidi Laessig on vocals, Ryen Slegr on guitar, Lauren Chapman on strings and Patrick Carney on drums, with Sharp playing bass and keyboards and singing lead vocals. Guitarist Ryen Slegr comes from a band The Rentals once toured with, Ozma, while Patrick Carney is the former drummer from the Black Keys and Lauren Chapman, the string artist, used to be with The Section Quartet.
When all six Rentals fused together their division of labor, each doing a spectacular job in their respective roles, the aggregate sound that comes out of this is a sonic tour de force. You’ve got Slegr’s whirling, jarring guitar, the driving beat of Matt’s sometimes distortion edged bass playing along with the plump, juicy buzz of his synth playing, on a classic Moog machine. Those are adorned with the beautiful harmonics of Matt, Jess and Heidi, the lushness of the three singers fusing as one mixed with the slick work of Chapman’s string arrangements. As for Matt’s solo singing – he has a great sound that reminds me a little of someone whom most people haven’t heard – Chris Holmes, who was the singer/songwriter and main force behind Yum-Yum. When I heard Sharp singing, it was Holmes’s voice that came to mind. I’ve heard Sharp’s singing described as “layers of detached, voyeuristically breathy vocals” and that is not a bad description.
Mostly recorded in Los Angeles, Lost in Alphaville did get a couple sessions done in Nashville, TN, of all places, with Patrick Carney; they then wrapped things up in New York.
Recording the album, Sharp encouraged the band to do as much improvising as would work; each member of the band brought their own, unique talents to the fore, so, he figured, why not work that in to the band’s advantage? The result, as one can hear, is a wonderful synergy of the talents each member brought to bear.
Then, back in L.A., Sharp brought all this material together, mixing in an experimental, crafty way; knitting the sounds into incredibly wrought soundscapes. The process was so inspired that some tracks had up to 200 tracks of individual sound parts. In the hands of someone less capable, this kind of manipulating and remixing, engineering, etc. might have turned into a cacophonous mess, but in the lithe hands of Matt Sharp and company, Lost in Alphaville became this awesome, ear-candy sweetness of an album. There is some groovy psychedelia in here that totally transcends the pop genome of the basis of what these songs might have turned into in other hands.
Going back in time a little bit, the Rentals, weren’t completely idle from 1999 up until just releasing this opus. They released a few EPs in 2007 and 2009. The 2009 EPs were a three-part project, entitled Songs About Time: there was a “Chapter One”, “Chapter Two” and a “Chapter Three”. 2007’s EP, which was put out on Boompa Records (Songs About Time was self-released), was entitled The Last Little Life EP. There was a fourth chapter to the Songs About Time series that appeared on the Ernest Jennings Record Co. label, which was also known as Resilience. Little more than just keeping themselves busy and jumping into other artistic endeavors, the Rentals seemed like they weren’t really into the full-time set-up of a busy status quo band. Maybe that’s what makes Lost in Alphaville so special: after so much time, this album really stands out head and shoulders above the many CDs Weezer has run through. They do have a cult fan base, but when you burn the candle brighter, it burns out that much sooner. Is that what Matt Sharp has been afraid of? There’s really only one way to find out: see how fans react.
In fact, The Rentals are already set to play some club shows in September: in the beginning of the month they’ll be doing some dates in California: In Hollywood, on the 5th, at the Henry Fonda Theater, on a quiet spot on Hollywood Blvd, about 2 blocks or so east of Vine Street. Then, they travel to Pomona, also in LA County to play at the Glass House on the 7th and the very next day they’ll be up in San Francisco to play at the legendary Slim’s on 9th Street, just off of Market (Boz Scaggs owns it or used to own it, I’m not sure of the ownership status right now). Then, there’s two weeks until they show up on the East Coast – in Philly, Asbury Park, NJ and finally at Irving Plaza in NYC. Hopefully, if things go well at these shows, they may map out a more extensive tour and let more of the country se them.
As far as the music on Lost in Alphaville goes – every tune really rings out and has something catchy or groovy to it. A few solid mentions include: “Stardust”, “1000 Seasons”, which brings out the psychedelic side; the plaintive, sweet “Damaris”, “Seven Years” and then, for a finale, they do “The Future”, a six-minute slow ride that is a smooth sailing tune which is mesmerizing and glides you out on a wondrous note.
For The Rentals’ hardcore fan base, I think Lost in Alphaville will really be a rush. To anyone else, newcomers, average fans of delightful, unobstructed, not A&R supervised indie music, this will prove to be one of the top releases of 2014. I’m that confident. Plus, being already August, I can’t see too much more coming out that could surpass the fine musicianship, talent and plain hard work that is Lost in Alphaville. If you’re thinking about it – either order it now, or go to Polyvinyl’s website and check out what they have to say about it, at http://www.polyvinylrecords.com – you can also browse through the rest of the Polyvinyl catalog there, while you’re at it. Do enjoy it! -KM.