In the ’80s, nostalgia for the late ’50s and early ’60s dominated American superculture — Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, Dirty Dancing and its half-retro soundtrack, Billy Joel’s dips into doo-wop. Fetishizing the Boomers’ early days, where things were A-OK for those people who grew up to be cultural overlords, was in vogue. At the same time, the punk rock underground responded in the manner chronicled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, creating an infrastructure that would eventually evolve into its own dominating force.
Nearly three decades later, we’re still split between euphoria and unease, between the 1 percent’s hyper-consumption and the 99 percent’s student loans and stagnant employment. You can see this split play out in music: This week MIDiA Consulting released a report claiming that the Long Tail — the touted-by-technocrats theory that all cultural product would eventually find its audience thanks to the wonders of the digital age — didn’t really bear out in music and that instead a superstar economy, where the top 1 percent of musicians accounted for 77 percent of all income from recorded music, had taken hold.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the ’90s — specifically, the years right before alt-rock and indie split definitively in two at Woodstock ’99 — have occupied a large chunk of the underground’s consciousness. Some of this is the result of timing; 2014 is the year that Mellow Gold and Live Through This (not to mention The Blue Album, Roman Candle and the Reality Bites soundtrack) turn 20, the year that Kurt Cobain will be gone for two decades. But there’s also a palpable longing for aspects of the past — not just for life at the slow speed of dial-up, but for the hidden opportunities offered by a world that wasn’t made plain after just a few keystrokes.
Why was I having these lofty thoughts? They were summoned by an unlikely source: The Drop Beneath, the second album by the Virginia trio Eternal Summers. During the couple of weeks I was listening to The Drop Beneath, I was engaging in a bit of ’90s nostalgia for fun and profit — looking back at the catalogs of Beck and Nirvana for other pieces I was writing, digging through the 7-inches at the radio station where I have a weekly show. There were more than a few times that listening to Eternal Summers felt like part of that past-mining, even though their album was obviously of the now, delivered to me on MP3s, debuted on Pitchfork and Pandora.
The record is drenched in feedback, with singer-guitarist Nicole Yun serving as the fulcrum. Her voice often turns from sugar to acid in the space of a single measure, and her interplay with drummer Daniel Cudiff and bassist Jonathan Woods is deceptively tight, seemingly held together only by their collective urgency. But more notably, Yun’s clipped-yet-breathy coo, and the way it’s buried in the thundering guitars, resembles no one so much as Amelia Fletcher, the lead singer of bands such as Talulah Gosh and Heavenly. Heavenly. The pairing of poppy signifiers with self-lacerating lyrics (“Gouge, gouge/ My eyes out!/ Cut tongue from my mouth/ Cause I’m losing it/ Could be I am speaking/ Untrue?”) was straight out of the early ’90s indiepop playbook.
There were other powerful echoes, too: Yun’s multi-tracked vocal on the verses of “A Burial” recalled the pout of Curve’s Toni Halliday; the glum “Keep Me Away” brought me back to Tiger Trap’s most sullen songs, particularly “Prettiest Boy”; the heavy guitar effects on “Deep End” brought me back to the Halo Benders’ thundering “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain”; the thrumming, melodic bass on “Capture” felt like it could have been propelling a b-side from one of the singles stashed away in the radio station’s coffers. Eternal Summers’ true potential comes out on the title track; over the course of its seven minutes, the band distills all the sounds they’ve experimented with into a glorious cascade of feedback and noise, complete with pealing guitar solo.
When I listen to Eternal Summers, I hear a young band with potential beyond the great record it’s already released. I also hear a hard-to-define nostalgia, one bound up in longing for a recent past. Things weren’t utopian back then — look up any discussion of cultural politics and you’ll see the only difference between then and now is the comment sections – but attempting to puzzle out exactly what is being missed, by me and by the band members, is a crucial part of the allure.