My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, and the Year in '90s Indie Rock Revivals
No one expected a new My Bloody Valentine album in 2013. There were a few signs pointing to its pending arrival — the shoegaze pioneers had announced that the follow-up to their seminal 1991 record, the stunning and ethereal Loveless, had been mastered. They didn't provide a release date, tracklist, or any other pertinent details. Given the band's history, namely frontman Kevin Shields's meticulousness, most fans and critics weren't holding their breath.
The skepticism was warranted. In the 22 years since Loveless, the Irish act's next full-length had morphed into the indie rock equivalent of Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy. Despite the band's brief encouraging remarks, there was no telling how long they would actually take. But the wait abruptly ended one February weekend when the band quietly released mbv online. That moment effectively launched one of the best indie rock comeback years we've experienced to date.
My Bloody Valentine didn't stand alone as comeback artists. Mazzy Star and Sebadoh ended recording hiatuses, and the Replacements and Neutral Milk Hotel reunited onstage. Although 2013 hardly represented the first wave of the era's retromania — as Pavement, The Pixies, and numerous others have done in recent years — these groups quenched nostalgia, returned to form, and outshined contemporary acts far more than in year's past.
Over mbv's 47 minutes, Shields and guitarist and vocalist Bilinda Butcher crafted nine new recordings boasting their trademark distorted, nuanced guitar textures and hushed, melodic vocals. The album possesses moments of discordant grandeur ("she found now"), assailing pop ("only tomorrow"), and whirling ferocity ("wonder 2"). The band toured behind mbv more intently than any other year following their 2008 live reunion and formally introduced their music to a new generation of fans.
One month earlier, The Replacements' surviving members, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, returned with Songs for Slim — a five-song EP that represented the college rock outfit's first new material since All Shook Down in 1990. The sales helped pay for former bassist Slim Dunlap's medical care in the wake of a paralyzing stroke, and it sparked the Minneapolis outfit's return last summer at a handful of Riot Fest reunion shows in Toronto, Chicago, and Denver.
On August 25, Westerberg, Stinson, and the rest of the band's lineup ripped through a historic 22-song set of classic boozy anthems and late-night ballads. The performance marked their first together since the group's infamous onstage Independence Day breakup at the 1991 Taste of Chicago. This time around, Westerberg quipped with rabid fans, shouted iconic choruses, and even forgot the lyrics of "Androgynous," which diehards turned into a festival-wide singalong.
Their reunion remained far from perfect, but it was pure Replacements. After 17 years, dream-country drifters Mazzy Star finally found themselves "in the mood" this past September to provide fans with their fourth record, Seasons of Your Day. Lead singer Hope Sandoval and guitarist David Roback said in recent interviews that, contrary to what many believed, they had languidly recorded over the years following their major-label rift and a reported hiatus. Despite the misconceptions, the California outfit picks up where they left off, showcasing their lush hymnal on "In the Kingdom," twangy saunter on "Lay Myself Down," and other woozy Americana compositions. Mazzy Star's melancholic warmth throughout their fourth record harkens back two decades to the group's finest collection, So Tonight That I Might See.
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Meanwhile, Lou Barlow put out his first Sebadoh record this millennium. Defend Yourself, the group's eighth album, materialized amid a major transitional period for the frontman, and chronicles the end of his 25-year marriage and the start of a new relationship. Similar to the Massachusetts trio's grossly underrated seventh full-length effort, The Sebadoh, Barlow said his personal turmoil prompted his latest creation. He waited more than a decade for those potent themes to emerge, foraying into other musical projects such as Dinosaur Jr.'s recent comeback, before he returned. The result proved to be a scuzzy, direct, and uncompromising effort that, without the wait, might have otherwise fallen flat.
Neutral Milk Hotel's October homecoming in Athens ended up being a natural and largely obvious extension of frontman Jeff Mangum's worldwide solo performances during the past two years. For the first time since 1999, his lo-fi, overblown acoustic anthems returned with a bombastic full-band effort that appeased adoring crowds raised on early Elephant 6 records, namely the band's magnum opus, In an Aeroplane Over the Sea. No new official material has yet emerged, but it wouldn't be surprising to eventually hear another effort at some point.
While 2013's indie rock reunions primarily fared well, recent comebacks haven't always lived up to the hype. Many of the aforementioned artists' contemporaries had already cashed in the artistic credibility they accrued over time for a bit of financial stability. Some bands like Pavement, Pulp, and Blur did it better than others. The biggest perpetrators have included Guided by Voices' countless "classic" lineups, the Pixies' endless bassist kerfuffles, and the Stones Roses' change of heart from their initial desire to not "desecrate the grave" of their past work.
What distinguished this year's comeback class, by and large, were intentions. The returns of these acts were less novel, less superficial, and happened more or less for the right reasons. The pent-up demand for these bands has made the potential jump back into music an alluring proposition. But they held off until the proper moment — not because they felt obligated. (It could be argued that the Replacements set out to get paid, but it was for Dunlap's sake, so we'll let that slide.)
Sebadoh waited until a record poured out in the studio, Mazzy Star followed their creative intuition years after they disappeared, and My Bloody Valentine labored forever and a day to make a near-perfect record. These methods allowed each band not just to satisfy nostalgia, but also to create music that stands among the year's best. In an era where many bands' half-lives are shorter than ever, indie rock veterans demonstrated how to record on their own terms, and let the music do the rest.
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