The 90s slacker anti-grunge sound is an uncelebrated (non) scene worth (not exactly) celebrating


Around autumn/fall 1991 and into 92 a new sound began to take hold up and down north America, and we’re not talking grunge here. Well, not entirely. This sound was on a variety of small and independent labels, but also found on such well-known, major-sponsored indies like Sub Pop.

For every widescreen, heavy emotion from a Nirvana, Soundgarden, Tad, Pearl Jam et al–who began shifting units and filling big halls in no time at all–, there was North Carolina’s Polvo, Pavement, Arcwelder of Minneapolis, Chicago’s Seam, and Trumans Water. Each of these bands had a distinct sort of sound, but in common they shared a more college scene, heads down appeal.

It would not have been unusual, roughly between 1991 and 93,  for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel to drop his favourite two or three American import 7″ singles into one of his shows (sometimes back-to-back). Many of these acts have since been forgotten (possibly also by its creators), but the majority of the singles were indeed mysteriously angular, college-rock gems with a, well, slanted pop slant.

Stockton Cali’s Pavement (main pic.) were the most successful of all of the college scene indie-rock bands and, one assumes, quite rightly so. Their debut LP ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ is influenced a lot by UK cult indie noiseniks The Fall’s ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ (only with less of that in-yer-face, difficult uncle ‘tude that has always been the attraction of the group’s loose cannon, lager-and-krautrock frontman Mark E Smith). Smith didn’t much care for the band, mainly (if not exclusively) because he thought they blatantly ripped off his own group. True, if not entirely.

Pavement around this point were the calling card for awkward arty kids who found the more throaty, thrusting rawk!! of some of the grunge stuff a little to overdone and popular for their positively insular tastes.

Chicago didn’t only house slacker rockers Seam, but another, more slow core, and all round despondent sounding group named Codeine; a three-piece who put out a couple of  LPs on Sub-pop around the middle of the nineties. These records are mightily understated, and bizarrely underrated.

1993’s ‘Barely Real’– that this writer picked up last year on vinyl at a nice price– isn’t short on post Slint strumming, and sparse-beat drumming that, even to use the term “leisurely” to describe it would be to confuse the record with something approaching fizz and purpose.

Polvo, of course, and Truman’s Water of San Diego, also released recommended LPs around this time. Remaining less noted thanPavement, the former group’s 1992 album ‘Cor-Crane Secret’ came out on merge in July of that year, while their similar-sounding and decent follow-up ‘Today’s Active Lifestyles’ came along less than a year later, using much of the same lopsided, wiry post-punk grunginess with that crucial post rock twist.

Trumans Water’s music was, if anything, even more lopsided, noisy, just as blatantly early Fall influenced, whilst showing a near obvious debt owed to a certain Steve Albini. The group, throughout much of the nineties, sounded akin to tumbling-down-the-stairs guitar distortion, like an impossible-to-solve maths equation. Was this the sound of a band being too clever and head meltingly difficult? Possibly, but also the sound of something strangely addictive. The title of their second LP, ‘Spasm Smash Xxxoxox Ox And Ass’, released bang start of 1993 and follow-up to the previous year’s ‘Of Thick Tum’ (all put out by the Homestead label) reads a lot like their music sounds.

Get checkin’.

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