Culture  Breaking the cycle

Eric Wen on The Jesus Lizard’s reunion as a sign of the nineties revival

For a moment last week, I thought I was in some kind of Friday the 13th time portal. But no, it was just a congregation of Jesus Lizard fans eagerly anticipating the band’s reunion tour. Many newer fans that never got the chance to see the noise-rock band in their prime came out, but the show also drew many of the older fans nostalgic for the nineties and the band’s glory days, if you could call them that. The current tour has the band headlining bigger shows than they played back in their heyday, but by all accounts they are putting on the same frantic live shows they did 10 years ago, with the exception of a certain something involving the words “penis” and “pretzel” (research at your own risk).

Even David Yow, the band’s lead singer, got in on the time-bending act, as if the band hadn’t missed a beat in their 10-year absence. When they took the stage last Friday, he cordially said into the microphone “Good afternoon” before ripping his button-down shirt open, unleashing his wild front man persona and the band’s fury, eliminating any concerns that they would put on a subdued show. Yow prowled the stage snarling into the microphone, crowd surfing every chance he got while the crowd roared with recognition at the opening bars of each song. The Jesus Lizard was back in full force, and for the 75-minute long set, so were the nineties.

As it turns out, The Jesus Lizard show was but the symptom of a larger trend. The nineties are back, or at the very least beginning to make their comeback, and the proof is visible. Plaid is back. Other bands from the nineties – My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, Portishead, the Pixies, stand out among countless others – are reuniting and headlining major festivals and tours around the world. In a bid to conserve their DIY cachet, The Jesus Lizard and Pavement claim that their reunions are a one-off thing. But both seem to be following their reunited contemporaries in capitalizing on the rising interest in the nineties. Record companies are tirelessly attempting to turn a profit in a climate of declining record sales, taking advantage of their signees by reissuing their back catalogues. Whether that’s the case with Touch and Go Records – The Jesus Lizard’s label, and an indie juggernaut in the nineties – is uncertain. All the same, the band’s tour coincides with Touch and Go Records’ re-release of their nineties albums.

In all fairness, the tendency for indie culture to recycle itself is as old as the gramophone. For instance, this past decade saw a return of the eighties, in the rebirth of retro fashion and the pervasive influence of Joy Division/New Order. It’s only logical that the nineties would eventually rear their sloppy, long-haired head. Indie culture is stuck in a cycle, rehashing fashions, trends, and musical styles 20 years its senior. At their fall Montreal concert, Indie buzz band Cymbals Eat Guitars were giving away slap bracelets with the purchase of their CD – one that sounded exactly like Pavement, in fact. Meanwhile, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – who topped the bill at the Cymbals Eat Guitars – are often compared to late eighties bands that marked the transition to the nineties.

Music tends to be a good indicator of the decade du jour. The naughts witnessed the supremacy of The Smiths, The Cure, and the Talking Heads – as well as the aforementioned New Order – whose impact extended to most of the decade’s “it” bands. Today, the dynamics are the same, but the bands are different: Cymbals Eat Guitars sound like Pavement; Pissed Jeans sound like The Jesus Lizard (without the bite). Real Estate sound like Yo La Tengo. The list goes on.

The original nineites movement was in part a response to the cleanliness of the eighties New-Wave sound. The sloppy DIY attitudes of the grunge and slacker sounds of the nineties came as a reaction to overproduction and a perceived lack of creativity. This past decade has seen a similar cleanliness and meticulous sound, with bands often comprised of highly educated and trained artists. Expectedly, the response to that sound is the rise of rawer sounding acts – like No Age and Wavves – and the increasing ease with which people can produce music on their own. In short, this new movement mirrors the DIY sensibilities of 20 years ago.

So the Jesus Lizard may only be touring until the end of the year, but the return of the nineties is here to stay. Indeed, the tastemakers and prominent artists that emerge in the next decade will likely have grown up in the 90s, and will inherently be influenced by it.

One could hope, however, that the accessibility the Internet offers could allow people to defy the 20-year cycle, by giving people the opportunity to find different influences. Many musicians in the naughts cited a diverse and eclectic mix of styles and genres, after all, from Brazilian Tropicalia to Bulgarian folk music. Can we expect the Internet to open up possibilities, and give us a chance to break free of the cycle? Or will the 2010s be full of bands that sound like Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Neutral Milk Hotel? More importantly, will the next decade see a return of long dirty-haired kids with ripped baggy jeans and ugly sweaters? I guess we’ll see soon enough.