Retromania sets its sights on the ’90s

Peter Boyle

I’ve never read “Retromania,” Simon Reynolds’ treatise on cultural regurgitation and hyper-nostalgia, but his point — that we are obsessed with the past, and we are constantly replicating it in modern terms — is not lost on me. Everyone noticed when The Killers reminded Top Forty radio about the ’80s. Jack White, a musician who got famous a decade ago by tricking out old blues and garage rock with a manic energy, just debuted a record at number one. It may not be new, but everything old is beloved again.


White has been busy with his Nashville label Third Man Records lately, a testament to another renewed interest — vinyl records. Third Man, like many independent labels, puts out every release on vinyl, and contribute heartily to the twice-annual Record Store Day festivities. Attempting to revitalize the LP format, and the brick-and-mortar shops where it is available, RSD is accompanied by a sizable hoard of limited edition seven and twelve-inches. Not to mention the avid collectors, who often snap up the heavily-hyped releases before more casual fans get a chance to grab them. 

I made it over to the Appleton branch of the Exclusive Company, a small music retail chain, for Record Store Day, and if memory serves so did quite a few Lawrentians. Though I did not purchase any of the limited editions, I got a few reissued records I’d been meaning to hear, and eventually I’d noticed I’d gone retro-manic on a small scale.

The first selection I made was “Darklands,” the second full-length by the seminal Jesus and Mary Chain. Having thoroughly enjoyed “Psychocandy,” their noisier debut, I figured it wouldn’t disappoint me, and I was right. “Darklands” is full of loose, blunt pop songs cast in gothic nihilism, marrying a devil-may-care punk philosophy to Wall of Sound-esque songwriting. The record is a phenomenal example of nostalgic reinterpretation; Sixties pop tradition is fed through buzzing guitar and a modern drum machine, with songs like “Happy When It Rains” throwing a Loud Reed croon over strident fake cymbals. 

Darklands” sounds brilliant, but it’s frequently caught up in its own influence, preferring to acknowledge its sources rather than try to avoid letting them show. That willingness to let forebears define the songwriting allows the Jesus and Mary Chain to fully occupy the attitude they’re constructing on the record, and makes the whole thing more interesting and affecting than a divorce from rock history.

But where is nostalgia headed? If we’re to believe the axiom that pop-culture aesthetic repeats every twenty years, it looks like music is boldly venturing into the Nineties for tradition to bowdlerize. My Bloody Valentine is reissuing all their records, and may have new music out this year; “Nevermind” got the deluxe treatment recently; bands like Yuck are mining the decade’s great sounds to great effect. 

My second purchase, the vinyl reissue of “Vee Vee” by Archers of Loaf, is another component in this ’90s revival. The Archers, a band from the revered Chapel Hill scene, have recently begun playing shows together and are reissuing their entire catalogue. It’s a good thing, too — their records reach an almost Platonic form of alt-rock, finding the space between clean and distorted guitars, between harmonious and discordant melodies, between goofy nonsense and heartfelt missives in their lyrics. 

Vee Vee” hits a little harder than their debut “Icky Mettle”, but its formula is similar — frontman Eric Bachmann emotes cryptically about being let down “for the second time straight,” and the dual-guitar maneuvers careen from crunchy to soaring. “The Greatest of All Time” is a powerful execution of the indie ‘loud-quiet-loud’ trope, joining a loser frontman and dying hero in a heart-wrenching, ear-splitting elegy. They settle into a whirling midtempo for “Fabricoh” a song occupied mostly by the lyric “rocking out.”

For bonus points in the sentimental arena, there’s a confrontational one-minute jam with a noise in the verse like an elephant’s cry, called “Nostalgia”. “Vee Vee” is ripe for the revivalist picking; its self-awareness and unrelenting churn still hold up as a bold statements in a frequently tepid modern indie-rock scene. In short, it’s worthy of the emulation that the future holds, and that may be its best quality. 

Despite the cheapness of constant regurgitation, the excellence of the past is something we should re-examine. I’m happy with what ‘retro-mania’ gave me on Record Store Day, and with an open mind and a disregard for the decade, I’m sure you can make a fantastic new memory out of someone else’s old one.