Rock and roll is a nostalgic art in part because of math — there is a finite number of notes in a Western octave and only so many ways to assemble them into pleasing chords. Ideas repeat because there are so few and because the best storytellers — hustlers, naturally — are the ones who aren’t afraid to snatch a piece of the past and repurpose it to their own ends. Nineties alt-rock is shaping up to be a force this year. Jawbreaker’s on tour. Smashing Pumpkins “reunited.” Tripp pants are in. Mark McGrath is a fixture on prime-time television. The tart, crunchy sound of the rock music of the ’90s is being revisited by artists both young and old. This week Kim Deal’s flagship band, the Breeders, returns with the lineup that crafted its 1993 masterpiece, Last Splash, and the young Los Angeles act Moaning releases a self-titled debut album haunted by the ghosts of 120 Minutes.
Kim Deal has seen so many peaks and valleys that her whole career can feel like one long comeback. She first found her voice as Frank Black’s foil in the Pixies, but as the legend goes, his jealousy squeezed her out after positive fan response to her leads on cuts like “Gigantic.” The Breeders, then Deal’s side project, became her main gig, and Last Splash became a rock and roll revenge story for the ages. Its singles “Cannonball,” “No Aloha,” and “Divine Hammer” are the stuff music scribes speak of when we say a song is “impossibly catchy.” Stacks of indelible hooks ultimately paid off in a platinum plaque, but soon personality clashes and Deal and her sister Kelley’s dalliances with hard drugs busted up the band. Kim tried her hand at several other projects over the next decade: There’s the scrappy one-off album Pacer she wrote as the leader of the Amps, a stint as co-producer for Guided by Voices’ Under the Bushes Under the Stars, and a Pixies reunion that lasted longer than the band’s original run but only produced a single song. Kim and Kelley revived the Breeders in the aughts for 2002’s Title TK and 2008’s Mountain Battles. Both gestured to the band’s legacy but never quite matched the heights of the ’90s classic.
All Nerve feels like a new dawn for the Breeders. You can tell from the spiky “Good morning!” Deal barks out at the top of lead single “Wait in the Car” that she feels energized. Deal’s voice is unblemished ten years after the last full length, and her writing is actually hookier and more focused than it was for TK and Mountain Battles, both of which indulged the Breeders’ weird streak a little too openly. All Nerve flexes the band’s range without the feeling that they’re tossing out ideas to see what sticks. The pep of “Wait in the Car” is immediately dissolved by the title track, a slow dance charged with affection and insecurity. “Dawn: Making an Effort” is a slow-burning groundswell of tremolo guitars that actually feels like day breaking over a hilly horizon. The slow songs almost never get a chance to undercut the energy of the fast ones; barring the four-and-a-half minute “Spacewoman,” every other song here whizzes by in just over two to three minutes. Everything sounds crisp and lively thanks to the involvement of Big Black and Shellac front man and, of course, sometime Pixies and Nirvana producer Steve Albini.
All Nerve’s sweetness is offset by menacing notes of darkness, like a horror movie setting a peaceful scene early on with deceptive repose when it really intends to drench you in a shower of blood and guts. “MetaGoth” and “Spacewoman” speak to isolation on both social and cosmic levels. “Nervous Mary” ominously tells the story of a frightened woman on the run from an unnamed terror. “Walking With the Killer” sounds like a Law & Order: SVU cold open. (“I didn’t know it was my night to die, but it really was.”) The only misstep is a cover of Amon Düül II’s “Archangel’s Thunderbird,” whose lyric is too kooky even for this collection of killers and chase scenes. (“Go to Edgar Allen in the tower of sleep / He’ll tell you a story which makes you creep.”) At its best, All Nerve isn’t just a reunion, it’s a rebirth. It approaches the tart Fun Dip highs of the Breeders’ classics while pointing to wily new directions.
The Los Angeles punk trio Moaning’s self-titled album is also a rebirth of sorts. Singer/guitarist Sean Solomon, bassist Pascal Stevenson, and drummer Andrew MacKelvie have been playing together for the better part of a decade, most notably in a band called Moses Campbell, which can best be described as Los Campesinos growing a taste for noise rock. The longtime friends grew up gigging around L.A. scene venues like the Smell, which is famous for giving rise to the shimmering indie punk of bands like No Age and Abe Vigoda. You can hear those influences on Moaning alongside a host of others.
Moaning gets called a post-punk act and namechecks the Cure and New Order in interviews, but that doesn’t quite cover it. There are no less than three generations of offbeat guitar rock coursing through its DNA. “Tired” carries the woozy atmospherics of shoegaze greats My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. The buzzsaw guitar lick powering “Artificial” is peak Pixies. “Don’t Go” sounds like Meat Is Murder–era Smiths jacked up on HGH supplements. “The Same” matches clattering Joy Division–style drums to a synth line cribbed from Modern English’s “I Melt With You.” The mix is reminiscent of the Pennsylvania hard-core turned shoegaze band Title Fight’s outstanding 2015 full-length Hyperview. Moaning plays the same devilish game of Mr. Potato Head with anachronous sounds that Title Fight’s “Murder Your Memory” and “Rose of Sharon” did; both drape astutely referential indie rock in forbidding sheets of fuzz, although the young bucks sometimes fall short. They’re powerful players who need a steadier compass.
Moaning front man Sean Solomon is still growing as a writer and relies perhaps too heavily on deadening alienation as a lyrical conceit and vocal directive. His lyrics read like communication breaking down between lovers, all nervous fits and starts and hand-wrung resignation. The chorus to “Tired” is simply, “It’s all gone / It caught fire / It’s all wrong / And I’m so tired.” (“Useless,” “Don’t Go,” and “For Now” effect the same bruised pessimism: “It’s good … for now / Don’t think about if it went wrong somehow.” “There’s no point to any of this / Don’t think about it, it’s useless.”) It’s evocative of the numb quietude of depression, but sometimes the performance of a sad boyfriend’s despondency is a little too on the nose. Solomon’s delivery is a defeated deadpan, something like a young Paul Banks channeling a younger Ian Curtis. These vocals are by turns enticingly distant and just plain buried in the mix. When the boys bust out of a taut verse into a blissed-out chorus, though, as they do on “The Same” and the soaring trio of “Useless,” “Misheard,” and “Somewhere in There,” you can catch a glint of a bright future.
The mark of good retro-leaning rock music is an impeccable sense that you’ve just discovered a gem lost to time, a dizzying mix of familiarity and discovery. Moaning’s attempts to create a conversation between ’80s indie rock and synthpop and ’90s shoegaze are a promising hard reset for three players who have been trying to figure themselves out since their teens, but the mix will likely take a few more tries to keep. It’s easy for a band like the Breeders, who’ve developed a sharply defined musical language, to gesture to its past, but it’s hard work keeping from sounding trapped in it. In its rich contrast of lights and shadows, All Nerve succeeds. It’s no Last Splash, but it beats the tar out of Indie Cindy. Last laughs?