If it weren’t for their largely clean-cut image, the Rembrandts would make a good subject for a movie. Their career has progressed as if written for the screen — or at least VH-1’s Behind the Music — ever since the beginning. From credibility to moderate success to a massive novelty hit and then to self-destruction, they’ve been there and back.
The duo of Phil Solem and Danny Wilde, the two songwriters and voices of the Rembrandts, originally began working together in the early 1980s under the band name Great Buildings. Great Buildings produced a single album in 1981 — a fine record called Apart from the Crowd — that managed to garner a significant cult following and to become one of the quintessential power-pop albums of the early 1980s. Through the rest of the decade, the two worked separately and on solo projects, before reuniting in 1990 as the Rembrandts and issuing their self-titled debut.
Here’s where many may have missed something. The Rembrandts are of course most well-known for their massive 1995 hit single “I’ll Be There for You”, a Monkees-esque power-popper that doesn’t sound much like most of their material but was chosen as the theme song to NBC’s hit sitcom Friends. But long before that ditty became the lead-in to “Must See TV”, the Rembrandts had garnered commercial and critical success for their ringing guitar-pop. Owing a great deal of their sound to the Everly Brothers and incorporating some of the more direct elements of Crowded House and Squeeze, their unassuming singles and albums often missed the radar of the mainstream precisely because of their subtlety. For that reason, by 1995, few remembered that the Rembrandts had hit the Top 20 in 1990 with “Just the Way It Is, Baby”. Even fewer remembered the more modest 1992 hit “Johnny Have You Seen Her?”, a string-laden and foreboding but catchy-as-hell tune that broke onto Top 40 radio, despite the fact that it sounded completely out of place next to Snow and TLC.
Then, of course, the Rembrandts disappeared for a few years before emerging with their much-overlooked third disc LP, a near-great album of guitar-pop that will probably always live in the shadow of its final track, the aforementioned “Friends” theme, which was tacked onto the disc at the last minute. When later singles failed to chart, the band disappeared. Tensions between Wilde and Solem grew, as both said that making music had ceased to be fun. In 1996, the band split.
Danny Wilde, the primary singer of the duo, produced one quasi-solo album under the name “Danny Wilde and the Rembrandts” before rumors of a reunion began circling in 2000. And now, on independent label J-Bird, comes the long anticipated reunion LP Lost Together. And it’s a triumph just to see a band like the Rembrandts finally beat those post-success demons that they never really deserved.
The most important thing to note about Lost Together is that it sounds more like the band’s debut — their most stripped-down record — than anything to date. The emphasis is on the duo’s harmonizing (which is as sweet as ever) and subtle (often acoustic) guitar arrangements. While LP and their sophomore record Untitled had a few obvious flirtations with the mainstream, Lost Together is a significantly more resigned listen. It’s a more relaxed, assured album than anything they’ve released.
This is a mixed blessing, of course, because one of the flaws of prior Rembrandts releases is the presence of mid-tempo, often complacent, decidedly forgettable material. So even though there’s a lot of expertly crafted stuff here, from the music-hall shuffle of the title track to the rootsy “St. Paul”, or a trio of rockers later in the album, very little of it sticks.
Part of the Rembrandts problem — and probably the reason why so many who bought LP failed to warm to it — is that while they write extremely well-crafted, expertly executed pop music, they offer very few twists or hooks for anyone but a power-pop fanatic to hang onto. Sure ,the initiated will love all of their albums, but a more passive music fan is certain to feel that anything they’ve done apart from “I’ll Be There for You” is pleasant filler.
And Lost Together fits that bill more than any other record the Rembrandts have recorded thus far. There’s nothing for a casual listener to latch onto, each of the record’s 12 tracks sounding pleasant but unremarkable. But with the band’s shift to an independent label and their abandonment of Top 40 dreams, they’re also not really making records for that audience anymore. Lost Together is a record for those fans who always got the Rembrandts all along, and on that level it is a very welcome return.