Almost inevitably, this new decade will bring us a large crop of bands recycling ’90s guitar rock. Of all the various strains of ’90s rock, I think the most quintessential and commercial is “alt-rock,” an aesthetic I think is best connected to the bands on the DGC label — Nirvana, Weezer, Hole, Elastica, Sloan, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Veruca Salt — as well as other major label acts like Bush who were running with a similar formula and aesthetic. But what is that formula? What is that aesthetic? I think “Number One Blind” is a very good answer to those questions. In my mind, this song is a perfect example of the archetype, and just hearing it takes me back to the era of actually-pretty-great mainstream rock radio and suburban malls full of alterna-teens.
I’ll break it down for you.
* Gently rolling, thick bass line. Kim Deal has so much to answer for, and even the worst of it is pretty decent. (Like, say, “Good” by Better Than Ezra.) I think Krist Novoselic’s approximation of Deal’s style was itself extremely influential. I would argue that even ahead of fuzzy guitar tone, this is the most essential and recognizable element of ’90s alt-rock, especially when contrasted with a simple, pretty guitar figure as it is on the verse of “Number One Blind.”
* Strict verse/chorus/verse construction. I find that archetypal ’90s alt-rock very seldom includes pre-choruses, and bridges are generally quite brief. The bridge in “Number One Blind” takes us from a chorus into a solo, but it’s not necessary — a lot of songs in the subgenre will just slam a solo between choruses, or skip the solo entirely.
* Verses are mellow; choruses are loud. Duh! You stomp on your fuzz pedal when it’s time for the chorus. ’90s rock radio was basically this steady ebb and tide of soft verses and loud choruses. Black Francis didn’t invent this, but I think pretty much all of this music is directly traceable to the Pixies catalog.
* The solo break is very short. The solo is always melodic, but the playing is never too smooth or overly professional. These are mainly to add some touch of melodic flourish and to break up the rigid grid of the song’s construction for a few seconds.
* The melodies are simple. Okay, but not so much that it’s totally sing-song.
* The vocals have an arch quality. This depends on the character of the frontperson, but there’s pretty much always some touch of irony and bitterness in the tone.
* Obscure title and/or lyrical references. The chorus — “Levolor, which of us is blind?” is a play on words — blindness, as in obliviousness, and Levolor, as in the manufacturer of window blinds. There’s a metaphor in here, but it’s not fully formed, which is pretty much the way things go in this style. It’s more about suggesting an idea and an image rather that explicating it. Bonus points for the specific reference to Levolor, which has some kind of nostalgic quality despite being a brand that still exists.
(Originally posted on Fluxblog 10/14/2010)