When I first bought the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream in 1993 it pretty much blew my mind. Up until that point, I listened primarily to a lot of classic rock, with Led Zeppelin, at the time, being the pinnacle of my rock ‘n’ roll experience. Until then, my only knowledge of anything outside the realm of classic rock was Sonic Youth, and unlike most kids who started off with Daydream Nation my first exposure was their Ciccone Youth album of Madonna covers, so I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of them. For me, Siamese Dream was the entry into the world of “alternative rock”. Oh sure, two years earlier Nirvana made flannel acceptable with Nevermind but it was the Smashing Pumpkins who connected with my morose teenage self.
It’s interesting to see what has become of “alternative rock” over a decade later. Instead of bands coming up from the underground, speaking unique truths that resonate across the mainstream of America’s youths, “alternative rock” has unsurprisingly been co-opted by the record labels and marketed to every mouth-breathing jock from coast to coast. What was once a truly original voice in American music has become a faceless blend of goatee-fronted bands, whose gutteral Kurt Cobain-lite impersonations have created a whole spate of acts I like to uniformly call “Theory of a Nickelback”. While the cynical may say that it’s inevitable that alternative rock would be swallowed by the corporate machine, I argue that despite the bland face of the genre now, there has always been room for more authentic, inventive and complex guitar-driven rock.
For anyone who might doubt the veracity of my claim, may I offer The Life and Times. Formed out of the ashes of the constantly rotating cast of players of Shiner, Suburban Hymns is the kind of album that would’ve propelled these guys to superstardom in the early ’90s, but that still surprisingly packs a potent punch. From the opening epic guitar riff of “My Last Hostage”, guitarist and vocalist Allen Epley sets the bar high and consistently reaches it through the next 10 tracks. This is alternative rock the way it’s supposed to sound. There are no weird time signatures, “angular” guitar lines (or angular haircuts, thank God) or fashionably self-referencing lyrics. Nope, this is good old-fashioned alternative rock that deliver big killer riffs, loud drums and dare I say it actual singing of poetic lyrics. But unlike the knuckleheaded brand of FM rock that plagues the airwaves now, the Life and Times twist the mix, with Moogs, synths and an acute sense of atmosphere creating a unique soundworld that is a wonder to explore.
I’ve never been a big fan of J. Robbins production, finding his professional sound to often strip away the grittier elements of a band’s sound. But together with Paul Malinowski, this approach works perfectly with the Life and Times. There is nothing about the disc that is small. The drums are appropriately gigantic, thundering through these tracks with the guitars providing an enormous sonic canvas. This isn’t a band that needs a bit of dirt around the edges for texture, as they provide more than enough with these wonderfully structured and fleshed out songs.
Suburban Hymns makes the case for unabashed riff rock that can contain both musical and emotional depth. If there’s a teenage kid you know who could use something a little more nourishing than anything Default or Staind might offer, do them favor and pick this up. And for anyone else who needs an antidote to an indie rock scene that at times seems to think that rocking out big, loud and hard isn’t possible anymore, the Life and Times make for a compelling listen.