A strong start. That's all we're really looking for in a band, right? A solid, strong start. This time on the TMS Listening Party we will be sharing some of our all-tim favorite debut albums. This list runs the gambit, but is in no means meant to be a definitive list. Let us know what we missed. Seriously. We want to know. -DW
Debut records are tough.
There is an old saying that an artist has a lifetime to write their first album, and 10 months to write their second. People say this as a positive for the debuts, but I don’t always see it that way. A first album can sometimes try too hard to say everything it can about the artist recording it – this is their “one chance” to make an impact, and so they try a bit too hard to make it the definitive statement on the band.
For that reason, Return of the Rentals is an unusual debut, and a surprisingly effective one.
A little backstory is necessary: the Rentals are a band led by Matt Sharp, the bassist in the Blue Album/Pinkerton incarnation of Weezer. Return of the Rentals was recorded in between Weezer’s success with their own (excellent) debut record and the recording of Pinkerton. Sharp originally had recorded these as “standard” rock songs before deciding instead to take the album in a very specific stylized direction.
By giving the record a formula of synths + strings + male/female vocals, he locked in a framework that eliminates the sufferings of many first records. He wasn’t trying to paint the perfect, most accurate self-portrait; instead, he uses the constraints of the very particular sound to simply build the best record that fits that quite specific formula. This makes all the difference in the world.
Plus, let’s not forget, Sharp just had massive success as ¼ of Weezer. He was a memorable presence in their videos, easily being the most photogenic and energetic member of the band in their three videos from Weezer. He didn’t need this album to be his meal ticket, nor did he need it to define 100% of who he was as a musician. That freedom is key to the record’s success.
What is also essential to understanding the record is how Sharp completely changed for his role in the Rentals. He wasn’t Matt Sharp, bassist and falsetto vocalist for Weezer, he was “Matt Sharp,” horn-rimmed glasses wearing Moog enthusiast. Sure, the real Sharp loved synths too, but this was his outlet to let that be his focus – he could go all in on a particular look and sound, because of his other band. No one was going to mistake “Matt Sharp” for being the entirety of a human being – he was both the bassist in Weezer and “Matt Sharp.” I can’t stress how important that is. He also created an entirely fictional history for the band, as he recently told Made Man:
“On our first press releases, we wrote that the band wasn’t from this country. We were, like, this band that was living in Czechoslovakia in the late ’70s, and we had been put in prison. We were sort of the Pussy Riot of 1978 in Czechoslovakia. We were against the government and Communism and we got put in prison for it, and we had just been released from prison after 20 years. And that’s what the Rentals are.”
Because he was playing “Matt Sharp,” because of the cold and sterile record packaging and video for “Friends of P,” the debut single, because of the very deliberate and focused sound of the record, because of the false backstory, everything about the record could be controlled and manipulated into a perfect production that didn’t have the baggage of most rebut records. It could also be fun! There wasn’t a hint of pretention or trying to be overly serious; Sharp wasn’t trying to tell the world his life story, he was telling the story of Return of the Rentals, and that story is a blast.
That isn’t to say that all of the songs are party anthems. “Move On” is a paean to letting go, “Sweetness and Tenderness” paraphrases both scripture and Gary Numan to criticize a partner’s lack of commitment. “Please Let That Be You” is a reworked Weezer demo that is an absolutely beautiful song of hope. But somehow, even the saddest and most introspective moments of the record seem like there is an undercurrent of optimism present.
I mentioned the sound briefly before, but it deserves a much more thorough discussion. The sound of the record is unbelievably consistent. Each song features extraordinarily simple playing from the rhythm section of Sharp and his Weezer bandmate Patrick Wilson, and similarly straight-forward guitar playing from Rod Cervera. Outside of those three elements are where the real heart of the record lies: Moog synthesizers, layered violin, and female/male vocal interplay.
Moogs (and other analog synths) had yet to have the revival that the mid-late 90s would bring, due in part to this record, and their iconic sound is all over this album. A Moog’s sound is created by the knobs and sliders on the face of the keyboard, without the ability to lock in a setting. Because of that, they are fickle instruments that don’t always cooperate, but they have such a unique and appealing sound that people put up with their idiosyncrasies. Tom Grimley handles much of the Moog playing on the record, and his ear for layering and melody build mini-symphonies with chunky and bright synths trading off roles and imbuing the record with its distinct tone.
The record’s violin, played by one of my absolute favorite “secret weapons” in music, Petra Haden, is an unusual choice on the surface - it replaces guitar solos through the record, but isn’t used in a traditional melodic solo sort of way. Instead, Haden creates these short bursts of harmony that build into these beautiful detours within the songs. They rarely carry over into other parts of the songs, but remain a distinctive part of the mix.
And then there are the vocals. Sharp has a limited range, but is buoyed by a Haden and Cherielynn Westrich adding their vocals to the mix. Westrich is the “main” female vocalist, with Haden adding harmonies along the way (and her sister Rachel handling the vocals on “Move On”), and their voices blend into a really rich complement to Sharp’s. The voices sit up front in the mix, and join the Moogs as the most defining aspects of the band.
By their next record, Seven More Minutes, the Rentals had lost much of the magic of the Return period, despite having more or less the same cast of characters present (only Westrich, Wilson and Grimley were absent). Sharp was now much more concerned with appearing both cool and serious than he had previously, and he reduced the importance, both in interviews and on record, of the other band members. The fun has been sucked out, with the vapor trails of excessive booze and casual sex floating behind the songs as a sort of abstract fun that, in actuality, sounds pretty sad. The sound expands to include acoustic guitar, trombone, drum machines, and a production sheen that tries very hard to sound hip and modern. Almost totally gone is the charm and restraint of Return.
Sharp has been chasing the dragon ever since, stripping down his sound to almost entirely acoustic guitar and voice, reforming different lineups of the Rentals over time, and now finally releasing a third record, Lost in Alphaville, that sounds even more lost than Seven More Minutes. I had a truly bizarre personal encounter with Sharp during the promotion for his debut solo EP, Puckett’s Versus The Country Boy. I was a DJ/music director for my college radio station, and during the summer break saw that Sharp was doing a record release party in NYC. I emailed his manager, and was given a half hour interview with him before the show. We sat in his Winnebago and spoke; he was almost totally listless and bored sounding, giving what sounded like stoned-out answers and clichés to everything I asked. After the show (which was laconic in a wonderful way, unlike the interview), Sharp, his manger, and I split a bottle of champagne to celebrate the show’s success/release of the EP. I had to really take a step back at some point and remember that this shaggy bearded fellow with the dead eyes was the same guy who crashed through the ceiling from a helicopter in the “Waiting” video. All the life, fun, and spunk of Return of the Rentals was dead and buried by 2003.
And yet, 11 years later, Sharp is trying again. The horn-rimmed glasses are back, the font is back a robotic look, and Sharp is, visually, trying to get some of that old magic back. Sadly, the record continues Sharp’s trend of re-using old songs and bloating arrangements beyond what is necessary. Sharp wants people who love Return to give his new stuff a try, whereas he really should be targeting the (obviously) much smaller Seven More Minutes fanboys.
Even if the songs were great (and a few are), even if the production worked better, what Sharp can’t seem to pin down is the tone from Return. Nothing he has touched since then has had the pure innocence and joy that “Friends of P.” had, or the longing of “Sweetness and Tenderness.” Those songs of the debut record seemed to be uninterested with being anything other than distilled pop gems. Perhaps, if a producer would be given free reign, Sharp could get back there, but I think we will all, instead, have to settle for waiting, perhaps eternally, for the return of the Return of the Rentals.
Brian Salvatore is a New Jersey man with a family and a podcast. You can listen to it right here on Tell Me Something. It's about comic books and you'll like it. Check it out, dude.