In the seventeenth year of my salad days (Thousand Island, for the most part), I spent a very boring summer driving around in a 1983 silver Volvo station wagon, listening to the records pictured above: The Shins‘ Chutes Too Narrow and Rilo Kiley‘s The Execution of All Things. Something about 8th-note ride cymbal hits matches perfectly with cruising around the Southern United States. In 1996, my humble hometown finally got itself an “Alternative” radio station, which was a godsend for learning about new music: I strongly remember first hearing “Friends of P” on a battery-powered radio-flashlight during the long blackout from Hurricane Opal.
Radio, however, cannot hold a brief candle to that warm glow of hi-bias cassette tapes blasting out of ’80s car speakers, a kind of amorphous audio blob unrestrained by crisp hi-end — a triumphant victory of mid-range and hiss.
By the summer of 1996, we were already seeing the Decline of the Alternative Nation: instead of epic grunge, we had one-hit wonders of grunge lite, the precursors to Third Eye Blind. I doubt the four words Green Apple Quick Step mean anything to anyone anymore, but bands like this made up a long list of second-tier non-mainstream acts with a single good song: The Refreshments, Letters to Cleo, Primitive Radio Gods, The Caufields, Sleeper, maybe even the Phunk Junkies. Definitely Hum.
The Shins and Rilo Kiley fit well into this mold: catchy songs, rough but simple production, earnestness. The Shins brought a bit of a ’60s and home recording into the mix. RK, on the other hand, were so of the time — the alternachick voice, guitars instantly growing in size through a stompbox smash, dueling high-guitar parts over ride cymbals, distorted voices, songs too long for their own good, the fetishization of depression, sing-along choruses. I find it odd today how much the melodic structure of “Bad Day”-type innocuous mainstream pop borrows directly from that post-Alternative framework. Is it just all Linda Perry‘s fault or a sign of real stagnation in Top 40 musical progression outside of hip-hop?
No matter, why listen to today’s indie pop when you can go back and hear better and more original versions from the mid-’90s? The Shins and Rilo Kiley don’t sound like 1996 — they are 1996. And 1996 was much better the first time, when I was out mowing the lawn, enduring the eventual abrupt cut-off of last songs on 45-min side Maxell tapes with hand-written labels, drinking blue Powerade, and spending the $1 of the $10 I earned that sweaty morning on a 9pm viewing of a recent blockbuster at the discount second-run theater. Driving home afterward, you better believe I rewound the tape to the beginning of side A, and there goes “Kissing the Lipless” — sitting in the car until the end of “Saint Simon” even though I had arrived back home minutes earlier.