Sunday, 22 December 2013

The 1990s revival

The prevalence of chopping guitars, strong riffs and an enjoyably high level of femme punk pop in 2013 is remarkably similar to the early 1990s musical map. There’s a pop theory that scenes repeat themselves after 20 years (as if time alone would explain the late 70s popularity of both Showaddywaddy and the Grease soundtrack), but to paraphrase EM Forster, ‘one revival may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another’.

The key to explaining the resurgence of bands turning up the volume, mixing gale-force attitude with dynamic hooks in 2013 is in the early 90s representing the last time popular alt-rock had its roots in the underground.

This vision of the early 90s is one where Hole’s Live Through This is fundamentally more important than Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s a standpoint where grunge’s legacy is known, accurately, as ushering metal into indie’s purview and opening the gate for nu-metal to be taken seriously.

Grunge’s legacy was driven by commerce and the historical popularity of metal (its sales really do make indie look like piss ants). What the sales ledgers miss, though, is the US hardcore’s influence on both grunge and the early 90s alt-rock scene. Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic, described their sound as “nothing new; Hüsker Dü did it before us”.

So when indie bands are described as sounding “1990s” the meaning is not grunge, it’s not nu-metal and it’s definitely not Brtipop; it’s that early 90s sound of bands picking up the still-hot trail of Husker Du, it’s Dinosaur Jr and the Lemonheads getting slightly more commercial, it’s Become What You Are by The Juliana Hatfield Three, it’s The Breeders and Belly, and it’s Husker Du’s Bob Mould breaking out with Sugar’s Copper Blue.

These records sold huge amounts. The Breeders’ Last Splash sold a million copies, Belly’s Star hit 800,000, and the Lemonheads and Dinosaur Jr charted. Like grunge, these bands came out of the 80s US underground. Like grunge, though, there was a commercialised cut-off point.

The combination of frantic power pop and higher production values was taken up by Alanis Morissette on her third album, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. Selling 33 million copies – the 11th biggest album of all time – killed the scene it hijacked its sounds from.

But as long as there are teenagers there’ll always be a new audience for confrontational guitar rock. So this year when The Courtneys (named after Courtney Love rather than Courtney Taylor, I suspect) half inch the bass line to Sonic Youth’s 1994 song Bull In The Heather on Dead Dog from their excellent self-titled debut, you’re hearing part of the new generation reaching back to the last time when the popular alternative had its links to punk’s grassroots.

When you see twin sisters Katie and Allison Crutchfield, a la Kelley and Kim Deal, breaking out with Waxahatchee and Swearin', there’s a neat parallel with the early 90s. Just as there is with the Crutchfield sisters’ far superior Bad Banana lurking in the underground. Because – and I say this from bittersweet experience, not snobbery – the best stuff tends to stay to under the radar.

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