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Holy Hell! Return of the Rentals Turns 20

Holy Hell! Return of the Rentals Turns 20

The Rentals’ 1995 debut still sounds strikingly contemporary in 2015.

The Rentals’ 1995 debut still sounds strikingly contemporary in 2015. Return of the Rentals influenced an entire generation of musicians, playing like a template for the more pop-centric end of the indie spectrum. With its boy/girl vocals, buzzy synths, heavily compressed distorted guitars and seemingly endless stream of hooks, the album’s sound is a clarion call, a ground zero, the anti-Nirvana.

The band jumpstarted a musical and aesthetic revolution by co-opting disparate influences (new wave, grunge, elements of classical music) and filtering them through the lens of the mid-‘90s turned back on itself. Like Nirvana, though to an undeniably lesser extent, the Rentals forged a sound that left a lasting impact on popular music. Their unique combination of sounds and styles established an easy entry point for those coming down from a grunge high.

This buttoned-down aesthetic (an offshoot of Matt Sharp’s tenure in the equally nerd-identified Weezer) arrived amidst a sea of flannel. They stood in sharp contrast to their peers and served as a beacon for those disaffected by the cultural permeation of grunge. Their sound and look provided a countercultural outlet for those who only a few years earlier would have sought solace in grunge. From the album’s cover on down, Return of the Rentals embodies the now seemingly ubiquitous nerd chic adopted by countless bands since. But when viewed in the context of the waning years of grunge, the Rentals aesthetic was as anti-establishment as grunge had been in the face of hair metal.

Tempering the snarling guitars of Weezer with Moog synths, sugary harmonies and violin, Sharp and thatdog.’s Petra Haden helped renew interest in new wave instrumentation, including an instrument long since abandoned by the guitar-centric bands of the next decade. Nerdy or uncool, the synthesizer had largely been relegated to kitsch status and had fallen out of favor with the majority of serious musicians. Seamlessly incorporating the instrument with grunge guitars and flat, disaffected slacker vocals, the Rentals created a sound perfectly suited to its time. They helped open up a new world of unabashedly hooky pop built around buzzing synths, sweet harmonies and catchy melodies, clearing the way for countless synth-heavy indie pop acts like Mates of State, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, Ozma and countless others.

Sharp has rightly been credited as the primary architect of the groups’ sound, but Haden’s contributions should not be overlooked. Without her crystalline, twee harmonies and lushly organic violin, the album would arguably be little more than a pleasant new wave retread, updated stylistically and thematically for the slacker ‘90s.

“Friends of P,” the album’s new-wave-meets-power-pop single, holds up surprisingly well, thanks in part to Haden’s deliriously sweet, wordless backing vocals. Adding her vocals to the mix helped make the boy/girl vocal dynamic long associated with navel-gazing twee and indie pop groups a commercially viable option. In the years that followed, innumerable boy/girl-fronted groups sprang up on the indie landscape.

Building songs around self-deprecating lyrics, much of the album’s appeal lies in its ability to speak to disaffected underdogs. Sharp’s lyrics expressed melancholic sentiments that predated Weezer’s emo touchstone, Pinkerton. While largely credited to Cuomo’s own disaffection, it’s no coincidence that Weezer took a turn for the sunnier following Sharp’s departure after the release of Pinkerton,

As John Cale underscored the Velvet Underground’s darker proclivities, Sharp was instrumental to Weezer’s earliest successes. If The Green Album was Weezer’s Velvet Underground or Loaded, Return of the Rentals was Sharp’s Paris 1919; an idiosyncratic, influential album in its own right that served as a high-water mark in a career that was soon lost in the wilderness, catering to an ever dwindling but eternally loyal fan base.

Comparing Weezer to the Velvets might seem like heresy, but both groups’ latter efforts are forgettable bits of pop ephemera that don’t tarnish the reputation of their highly influential early work. Where Return of the Rentals should’ve heralded the start of a brilliant side project for Sharp, an act complimentary to Weezer’s studied geek chic, it ultimately proved an evolutionary dead end. The ensuing years found Sharp largely adrift; he left Weezer, abandoned the Rentals handle (last year’s triumphant return notwithstanding) and in the early ‘00s attempted to make himself over as a singer-songwriter.

Despite Sharp’s relatively short stint with Weezer and the subsequent fizzling out of the Rentals, Return of the Rentals remains a highly influential, highly revered album of new wave-indebted, sugary sweet pop. Younger groups influenced by their sound may not make the connection to this album remains to be seen. Since it’s release, the album’s influence has so thoroughly spread through the musical underground that it now feels more a byproduct than a harbinger.

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