Music is a decidedly nostalgic medium. In fact, it might be said that music is a primarily nostalgic medium: Once you have listened to a piece of music a single time, every additional time you listen to it, you are reliving that initial moment. That’s not my observation—I’d heard it noted a while back by Stephen Malkmus, singer of the ’90s indie rock band Pavement, and I liked it, so I’m sharing it here.
But it’s also especially appropriate right now, because last night, I attended a Pavement reunion concert.The last time I saw Pavement was 1995 or so, at which time their music meant a great deal to me, and while I typically find musical reunions to be nothing more than opportunistic cash-ins, I expected this one to be an exception. But it wasn’t. If anything, it seemed especially empty and soulless and bereft of artistic discovery or integrity. It felt as though nostalgia was being forced upon me, and I resented it. I felt nothing.
What makes Malkmus’ observation doubly appropriate is that in this month’s “Pirate Guide,” I find myself examining new records from several bands from back then: bands that mattered to me in 1995, or so. And I’m aware that my memories affect my interpretations of these records. But unlike Pavement, each of these artists has brought new music to the table, instead of substituting nostalgia for art.
The Manics have been steadily releasing music for two decades now, and while they have a fairly limited aesthetic scope (politically charged fist-pumping glam-metal anthems), they’ve managed to keep things interesting by cranking the volume (or turning it down), and introducing (or eliminating) certain sonic elements: electro touches, massive orchestral arrangements, etc. Postcards From a Young Man follows 2009’s excellent and minimalist Steve Albini-produced Journal for Plague Lovers, and it may be a slight dropoff: By including string swells and gospel choirs here and there, Postcards sometimes recalls some of the band’s more bloated ’90s work. But the writing and performances here are uniformly magnificent, and as the album drives into its back half, the overblown additions are given something of a rest, and frontman James Dean Bradfield is allowed to simply belt and rock out. And when he’s at his best (as he is here for a good half of the album), there are few rock bands that can stand alongside this one. [7/10]
Superchunk are considered one of indie rock’s “classic” bands (alongside Pavement, among a few others), but I’d argue they never released a “classic” album. They have a few very, very good records, and they established a signature sound that grew over time, but no single work that is essential to understand the era or the genre. Majesty Shredding is the band’s first album in nine years, and it is absolutely as fresh and energetic as Superchunk’s most impassioned work (no small feat). The band’s ferocious instrumental interplay is in terrific form, the helium voice of Mac McCaughan is still a wonder, and the hooks here are as sharp and addictive as ever. Majesty Shredding is a joyous return—as good as, and maybe better than, anything else in the band’s catalog. [8/10]
The Belle & Sebastian brand was established with 1996’s landmark If You’re Feeling Sinister, but the band has evolved by leaps and bounds since then: By 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, B&S were flaunting a bold, brassy new sound that bore little resemblance to the quiet melancholy that made them famous. To this longtime fan, the changes were welcome: While Sinister remains my personal favorite, both Waitress and its successor, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, were highlights in a very strong, deep catalog. Write About Love is the first B&S record since Life Pursuit, but it comes on the heels of God Help the Girl, a musical project by B&S frontman Stuart Murdoch that bears a decidedly theatrical flair. Coincidentally or not, Write About Love feels like a cross between God Help the Girl and recent B&S: Alongside Murdoch, it features numerous female vocalists—including pop-jazz chanteuse Norah Jones and actress Carey Mulligan—which give the proceedings a sweeping, dramatic feel. At its best, B&S use this new template to grow again: e.g., album opener “I Didn’t See it Coming,” a wonderful electro-pop duet featuring Murdoch and Sarah Martin. But nothing else here matches those highs, and much of it falls short of the new standards set by the band. Not to mention their old standards. [6/10]