RETRO: Malkmus has always had a taste for the classics, and on Real Emotional Trash he digs into your mom and dad’s stoner rock.
For all of American Idol
’s less savory aspects — Simon Cowell’s arrogance, Paula Abdul’s presence, and the general sense that we’re bearing witness to the decline of Western civilization in real time — the show is hardly good for nothing. In an age in which digital downloading has made it almost impossible to gauge mainstream tastes, the participants on the show offer a reasonably accurate view of how Middle America hears its music. And, I’m sad to say, the entire decade of the ’90s in rock appears to have been reduced to little more than the proudly pathetic, aggressively vulnerable, self-servingly wounded vocal style that emerged in the wake of — oh, how I hate to use this word — grunge. Said style is really just a cute, angst-ridden twist on the old strong-yet-sensitive type, supported by the requisite big guitar riff and muscular, pounding beat. And though one could trace its roots back to Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder, some of the more likely culprits are the second-generation alt-rockers who were quick to jump the train — guys like Scott Weiland on those early STP discs, Gavin Rossdale of Bush, and, worst of all, Creed frontman Scott Stapp.
That’s also a fairly accurate snapshot of where the alt-rock revolution ended up in the late ’90s, as so many of the bands and artists who’d helped get the ball rolling with Kurt were relegated to cult status and indie rock went off to do its own thing. Guys like Greg Dulli, former frontman of Cincinnati’s Afghan Whigs, and Mark Lanegan, singer for Seattle’s Screaming Trees, were stuck somewhere between indie and alternative. Even Stephen Malkmus, who’d been instrumental in defining indie in the ’90s with Pavement, seemed lost as he ventured off on his own in ’99. By that point, the diversity of sounds that had come rushing in with the first wave of alternative rock had all but disappeared from major labels and commercial radio.
That’s not to suggest that all the voices who were there to lay the groundwork for alt rock in the late ’80s and early ’90s have disappeared. Many of them have come full circle: they’re back on indie labels making inspired, idiosyncratic music that doesn’t register commercially or fit the mold of American Idol. And that includes Dulli, Lanegan, and Malkmus — three of the more instantly recognizable voices of the early ’90s. The once soul-strutting Dulli is recording for Sub Pop, the label that first signed his Whigs, this time with gravel-voiced Lanegan as his partner in the Gutter Twins. And Malkmus, whose patented warble was one of Pavement’s calling cards, remains a Matador recording artist for much the same cult audience he’s always had. The Gutter Twins, who play the Paradise on March 18, have just released their debut album, Saturnalia (Sub Pop). Malkmus, who’ll be at the Paradise with his band the Jicks on April 3, is already on his fourth, the new Real Emotional Trash (Matador).