Wednesday, May 30, 2012

No Alternative Week: The No Alternative album

Posted By on 05.30.12 at 12:30 PM

No_Alternative_girl.jpg
When I heard that the theme on the Bleader this week was to be "No Alternative," the first idea that popped into my head was that I should write about the 1993 alt-rock compilation No Alternative. I pitched it at least half as a joke, seeing as the album—which collects live tracks, cover songs, and what often seem to be recordings otherwise destined for the B sides of Japanese CD singles—hasn't garnered much critical respect since it was released.

But despite its flaws, the record remains a fascinating document of a strange time in pop-music history, when members of a stubbornly antisocial subculture found themselves suddenly gaining power over the mainstream, but before they'd completely hardened into cynicism as a result. Nirvana (who contributed the "secret" track "Verse Chorus Verse," better known to bootleggers as "Sappy") and the Smashing Pumpkins ("Glynis") had recently broken through to the pop charts, and for a second it didn't seem too outrageous an idea that Uncle Tupelo ("Effigy") or the Verlaines ("Heavy 33") might follow. For all of Gen X's trend-piece-inspiring snarkiness, there was a genuine feeling at the time that weirdo underground bands showing up on the pop charts meant something, and the "counterculture summit" aspect of No Alternative—it includes not only Nirvana and the Pumpkins but Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, and Soundgarden—combined with the fact that it was a benefit for AIDS awareness charity the Red Hot Organization gave it considerable philosophical weight, at least to impressionable teenage fans such as myself.

The past two decades of pop-cultural history make the compilation's title seem ironic, and not in the smart-assed way it probably hoped. Alternative rock was already losing the edge that separated it from plain old rock, and even as No Alternative was released, bands like the Goo Goo Dolls (who contributed a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Bitch") and Soul Asylum (a really cringe-inducing version of "Sexual Healing") were producing AOR pap that made alt-rock safe for even the most timid listeners. Soon enough the musical community gathered here would spawn schlock-flinging "alternative" acts like Creed and Limp Bizkit. Looking back at it now, many of the bands on No Alternative come across as almost painfully naive in their ironic posturing, the somewhat predictable exception being Pavement, who were always a couple moves ahead of (and several degrees snarkier than) their peers. Their "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" is a tribute to ur-alt-rockers R.E.M. that by its end evolves into a sonic Civil War re-enactment, with the Georgia quartet standing in as a symbol for both the south and the whole concept of granola-crunchy professional musical integrity. Twenty years down the line, Steve Malkmus's prediction that the latter would fall the same as the former seems scarily prescient.

It's also a fucking jam.

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