The Depressing Familiarity of the '90s Alt-Rock Reunion Boom

It's easy enough to understand why bands do this. But the results are often boring. The recent Sebadoh EP, Secrets, reprises the band’s less-interesting releases from the second half of the '90s, when they toned down the experimentation and innovation that characterized their early work. Secrets contains the lyric, “the time / just happens to be now / so . . . let the new things go,” and the new full-length out this week, Defend Yourself, takes this advice. There’s energy, but little variation, and certainly no attempt to return to Sebadoh’s early unpredictability. The upcoming Mazzy Star album, Seasons of Your Day, similarly channels the group’s old aesthetic, as if the members headed right back into the studio after 1996’s Among My Swan. At least Mazzy Star can simulate continuity, which is more than can be said for the Pixies' new collection. It’s titled EP-1, a fittingly generic name for its generic four tunes. No one will listen to this and start looking for earlier Pixies albums.

The Replacements' Songs For Slim EP, recorded to benefit stroke-ridden former guitarist Slim Dunlap (who replaced original guitarist Bob Stinson), tries to avoid the burden of expectations by focusing on cover songs. Look, lead singer Paul Westerberg seems to say, we’re still properly sloppy and uncaring, just like we were back in the '80s. But sloppiness isn't inherently interesting. There’s not much of the “rock like murder” Westerberg described in his recent interview with Rolling Stone; it's the band on autopilot.

My Bloody Valentine is the only act in this recent wave that has aimed for the Elvis Costello ideal, putting out a record because the members wanted to, rather than because they needed something to promote on tour. Not surprisingly, they are also the only group whose new release, mbv, attracted enough acclaim that it might actually earn new fans rather than just placate diehards. My Bloody Valentine’s ‘80s albums were more innovative than albums like the Pixies’ Doolittle or Sebadoh’s III, so even trying to reclaim similar territory would seem daring. But mbv actually attempts a few new things too. “New You,” for example, sounds as if maybe the band listened to some funk in their off time, and there are strains of other dance music that poke through the album unexpectedly.

The lineage of mbv differs, too, in crucial ways from its competitors. Unlike the stars of the Replacements, the Pixies, Mazzy Star, and Sebadoh, the leaders of My Bloody Valentine—mainly the talented and erratic Kevin Shields—haven’t put out solo albums. (Shields has played guitar on a few releases from other artists.) This means My Bloody Valentine has rarity as well as nostalgia on their side. And time: According to interviews, some of the songs on mbv were started during the '90s, while other parts of it bounced around inside Shields’ head for 15 years.

But bands  don't need to have followed My Bloody Valentine’s unusual career path in order to return with interesting material. Right now, many buzzed-about younger rock acts—Speedy Ortiz, Yuck, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart—are offering creative takes on the foundations built by this crop of re-formed bands, threatening to outdo their idols at the game they invented. Conceivably, those idols could similarly innovate on their original ideas. After all, the Stones' last truly inspired original album, 1978's Some Girls, was a fiery response to the new forms—punk and disco—that threatened to brushed them aside in the late '70s.

Then again, Some Girls was about 10-ish albums ago for the Stones. (Tattoo You, their only vital post-'78 record, fleshed out unreleased ideas from ‘70s recording sessions.) So reunited '90s bands should be wary. They have a while before they hit Mick Jagger's age, and that’s a long time to drive in just one direction.

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Elias Leight writes about music and books for Paste and Popmatters.

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