On April 13, 2004, a trio of balding forty-somethings—one an obscure film score composer, one a magician, each of them unrecognizable to the general American public—performed at a small club in Minneapolis. They were accompanied by a talented brunette bassist, her attractive stage presence the only cure for her bandmates’ anti-rock-star mannerisms. The venue, a historic nightclub in the heart of the Warehouse District, barely held 900.
And if history is any judge—I might say, if we have the wisdom to look past petty obsessions with Nipplegate and Kanye’s award show faux-pas—that show will go down as one of the most important music moments of the decade.
That club was the Fine Line Music Cafe. That band was the Pixies. And that show was their first in 11 years, inaugurating a reunion-tour victory-lap that seems to continue still today.
The miracle was not the fact that the reunion happened. It was not the fact that Black Francis and Kim Deal were finally on speaking terms again, or at least enough to nail the call-and-response chorus on “Hey”. No, the miracle was that the most important band of the ‘80s was finally receiving all the praise and fanfare and mainstream publicity they had been largely denied during their heyday 15 years earlier. Suddenly, in 2004, they were stars.
And the miracle was that the Pixies were not the only one. Forget A Bigger Bang, and leave Roger Waters’s Dark Side of the Moon extravaganza to the Wikipedia epilogues where it belongs; the story of the rock reunion in the 2000s is a story of belated appreciation. And so time-tested cynicism towards the cult of the reunion tour (call it the “Steel Wheels Effect”) can no longer apply: the decade’s most memorable comebacks have not been soul-sucking cash grabs by fossilized rock giants, but unexpected second acts from some of the most important players in the annals of classic indie. And since “important” and “popular” are so rarely synonymous, the role of the rock reunion in popular thought has thus been transformed: no longer a corporate-approved nostalgia trip moneymaker by a band all too content to choose fading away over burning out, it serves as proof positive that hindsight, as the cliché goes, is always 20/20.
Mission of Burma
There must have been something special about April, 2004. That same month of the Pixies’ reunion, fellow Bostonians Mission of Burma were preparing for the release of ONoffON, their first studio album in 22 years. And meanwhile, some 90-odd miles west, in Northampton, J. Mascis and Lou Barlow assumed their original Deep Wound moniker for a one-song reunion at Smith College—their first time sharing a stage since 1989. The following five years would, of course, bring about a full-time revival of Dinosaur Jr.‘s classic Mascis/Barlow/Murph lineup. It’s no coincidence that this yielded some of the group’s most inspired noise-pop, live or on record, since 1988’s Bug. After all, that was the last time Barlow was in the band.
It’s appropriate, then, that the three strongest back-from-the-dead stories are culled directly from the 1980s American indie underground diaspora, as immortalized in Michael Azerrad’s essential Our Band Could Be Your Life. That scene by definition presents a tilted fame-to-influence ratio, and that ratio can only be balanced by reflection and time. (Consider that Rolling Stone, reviewing the Pixies’ Doolittle in 1989, awarded the landmark album a scant three-and-a-half stars. It wasn’t until 2002 that the magazine recanted its shortsighted foolishness with the full five-star treatment.)
But still—why these bands? Why now? Perhaps there’s something fittingly cyclical about these forbearers’ triumphant returns. By the early 2000s, the Pixies’ influence had finally, truly run its course. Ben Sisario traces the band’s lineage excellently in his 33 ⅓ book on Doolittle. It begins with Kurt Cobain’s now-famous 1994 confession that with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he “was basically trying to rip off the Pixies”:
Once “Teen Spirit” became a hit, alt-rock coalesced around Nirvana and a handful of bands—Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins…. It was sustained by a quickly introduced batch of copycats (Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, Moist, Candlebox, Collective Soul, and all the rest). Add some rap and metal mitochondria to this gene pool, and it’s no great stretch that it produced the unholy twins of nü-metal and rap-metal. And thus Korn, Deftones, Papa Roach, Staind, Godsmack, and even Limp Bizkit became the inheritors of the alt-rock revolution of the ‘90s.
But by 2004, grunge was long dead—just one casualty of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994. (Incidentally, exactly a decade elapsed between Cobain’s suicide and April 2004. Time plays funny tricks.) Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction, and the Smashing Pumpkins had all called it quits; Pearl Jam had uniquely survived by outgrowing the adolescent angst of Ten. Grunge’s uninspiring second wave had pretty much faded away when our backs were turned, too. And rap-metal? You could hardly utter the phrase without inciting snickers. By 2004, it wasn’t even cool for Fred Durst to act like Fred Durst.
In other words, the “Alternative” Revolution had finally run dry, and it made sense in 2004 to look back on its grandfatherly originators with newfound respect—to admire them for their raw power and craft rather than scorn them for somehow, horrifyingly spawning Papa Roach and Korn. To look back and canonize them, as a previous generation had done to the likes of the Velvet Underground, the 13th Floor Elevators, Big Star, and Love.
And so the indie revivalism roll call continued with representation from its early ‘90s subgenres. Slint returned in 2005 to tour the US and Europe and remind us (or educate some) of math- and post-rock’s origins. They reappeared at various festivals in 2007, performing Spiderland in its masterful entirety—a work that, like the Forever Changes of its generation, had only increased in stature once its influence on subsequent bands could properly be assessed. Kind of like Doolittle. Or Loveless, whose chief creator, Kevin Shields, overcame his famously Wilsonian reclusion enough to tour with My Bloody Valentine in 2008 and damage a new generation’s hearing in the process. Or Entertainment!, which was just making its influence felt in the popular post-punk/dance-rock resurgence (Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs) when Gang of Four reformed in late 2004.
Or Goat by the Jesus Lizard, whose unhinged legacy echoes still today in the shitgaze aesthetics of Times New Viking, or the brutal guitar onslaught of, say, Boris. The band reformed in 2009; they toured the festival circuit, from Pitchfork to All Tomorrow’s Parties, the same year Bob Weston and Steve Albini remastered the group’s Touch & Go releases, proving to new audiences (and reminding the old ones) that still, even after ten years of inactivity, no one can howl quite like David Yow. Even more surprising, though less publicized, was the triumphant return of Polvo, whose angular, detuned guitars and convoluted rhythms call to mind math-rock more than sludgy punk. The Chapel Hill-based quartet was arguably just as important—and far more tuneful—in the ‘90s noise-rock canon; they simply lacked a frontman as confrontational as Yow, or a connection as powerful as Albini.
And then they came back. And toured. And released a fifth album. And reaped the benefits of an audience and critical community finally ready to place the band in context.
And that album—2009’s excellent In Prism—may well be the strongest argument for these reunions’ creative worth. The record easily ambled onto my personal top ten of ’09, mostly by virtue of sprawling, dreamy side-two gems like “Lucía” and “A Link in the Chain”. The band shows no interest in rehashing their noise assault technique of yesteryear. Like Television’s criminally underappreciated self-titled 1992 effort, they have something new to say, and it comes in the form of their most haunting, nuanced work yet.
Others will point to Mission of Burma, whose ONoffON (2004) and The Obliterati (2006) are regarded as worthy and unquestionably potent follow-ups to the band’s all-too-brief early ‘80s run. And then there’s Dinosaur Jr. Even in their forties, the original lineup is consistently at risk of blowing off the stage any young band they happen to open for, whether culling tracks from 1987’s seminal You’re Living All Over or 2007’s shockingly compelling Beyond. And hell, even Kevin Shields continues to promise the long-awaited Loveless follow-up. Maybe Pavement will follow suit and top off their long-awaited 2010 comeback with new material.
My point? These are not lucrative nostalgia trips. They are not stale attempts by wizened has-beens to cash in—again—on long-past glories. Rather, they feel like inspired second acts by indisputable innovators of yesteryear. Once relegated to the obscure fringes of success, these bands have benefited immeasurably by the passage of time and critical reevaluation. They’ve been greeted as heroes, and to hear their music—in 1989 or in 2009—is to understand why.
And if history is any indication, the Rolling Stones will continue selling out Madison Square Garden. They will be greeted as heroes, too—in a bigger way. They will continue making millions. They will continue releasing albums like A Bigger Bang—that is, totally passable but wholly uninteresting. But they will not challenge. They will not educate. They will ride the continuing legacy of their classic era, but they will not supplement it. And that’s why the most memorable reunions of the decade belong in a different category, one occupied chiefly by the formerly unsung heroes of the indie underground. And that’s what makes it so exciting.