Like the widening gyre in Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, pop culture is both cyclical and constantly expanding. For proof, look no further than the current obsession with the music and fashions of the 1990s, which has spawned literally hundreds of new bands that aspire to sound exactly like bands that peaked 20 years ago. Call it early onset nostalgia, call it a premature revival, or — to hell with LL Cool J — just call it a comeback. Like the decade it looks back to, the Second Coming of the ‘90s has been a mixed bag thus far. On the negative side, it has led to words like “reverb-drenched” and “fuzz-soaked” becoming tent poles on which boring critics stake their opinions on boring bands. At this point, if we could round up every fuzz pedal in existence and stomp them all to death Office Space-style, rock music would probably benefit.
Maybe that’s a tad unfair. After all, the ‘90s revival has produced some truly inspired bands that make music just as good if not better than their predecessors. Does Beach Slang sound a lot like early Goo Goo Dolls? Sure, but John Rzeznik never wrote anything half as urgent as The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us.
No band has embodied both the good and the bad of ‘90s revivalism as thoroughly as the UK’s Yuck. The band’s 2011 self-titled debut is straight fire — a damn near perfect synthesis of slop, Slumberland, and squealing guitars. If we’re being honest, I still listen to Yuck a lot more than I listen to Dinosaur Jr. and Teenage Fanclub, though the record owes heavy debts to both bands.
Frontman and principal songwriter Daniel Blumberg left the band before 2013’s Glow & Behold, and Yuck responded by promoting guitarist Max Bloom and getting a whole lot sleepier. The follow-up has its bright spots (the chilled out and lethally catchy “Lose My Breath”, for one), but it also has one fatal flaw: It isn’t fun. Listening to that album feels a little like watching the Gin Blossoms play Ribfest in 2015, with all parties involved either overindulging or going through the motions.
After a near-classic debut and a mediocre follow-up, it’s tempting to view Yuck’s third full-length as the “make or break” moment in the band’s still-young career. The good news is that Stranger Things is neither boring nor unfun. In fact, it’s stuffed with signs that Bloom and co. are starting to figure out how to thrive in a post-Blumberg world. As a prime example, opener “Hold Me Closer” is a certified mid-tempo ripper built around a see-sawing guitar riff that feels big enough to fill a room.
Yuck has always insisted that their albums sound like proper albums, with room for everything from six-minute shoegazey epics to heartfelt rock ballads, and that certainly holds true on Stranger Things. After “Hold Me Closer”, the band launches into the straightforward rocker “Cannonball”, then lurches sideways for the Pinback-esque “Like A Moth”. While the sounds it contains hardly count as strange, Stranger Things throws enough curveballs in terms of pacing and style to count as Yuck’s most varied effort to date. They cover an impressive amount of ground in a mere 10 songs.
Of course, that ground has an awful lot of footprints already stamped into it. Yuck have always been an easy group to play “spot the influence” with, but some of the tracks on Stranger Things are eerily (or borderline laughably) evocative of others that came before. The first time I heard the album’s title track, I kept half-expecting Evan Dando to show up and break into the chorus of The Lemonheads’ “Into Your Arms”. A similar moment awaits fans of Red House Painters on “Swirling”, a meandering slice of shoegaze that’s way too reminiscent of Rollercoaster’s “Mistress”. There are a handful of other moments like this scattered across the album, and it’s frustrating that so many of these melodies seem to fit Yuck like second-hand clothing that’s a shade too snug.
Stranger Things succeeds most when it channels the spirit of ‘90s slackerdom but adds a new page to the text, as it does on the doo-woppy ballad “I’m Ok”. “I’ve got nothing to give you/ I’ve got nothing to offer you/ I’ve got nothing to say to you except ‘I’m Ok’,” Bloom sings, channeling the voices of underachieving millennials everywhere. It’s the kind of thing that could almost be mistaken for a sweet love song if you don’t bother to listen to the lyrics — and that’s probably why it works so well. The best most people can offer is mere adequacy, and there’s something empowering and even endearing about admitting that upfront.
Adequacy is a trait that fits Stranger Things well. It’s not a disappointment like Glow & Behold, but then it only occasionally manages to reach the heights of Yuck’s debut. Maybe a group that lost one of its key members not so long ago deserves some time to shift and change. At least now they sound like they’re back to having fun, which is more than can be said for most of the wet-blanket nostalgists masquerading as rock bands these days.
Essential Tracks: “Hold Me Closer, “I’m Ok”, and “Yr Face”