I want to make this perfectly clear, right from the get-go: The Rentals’s 1995 debut, Return of the Rentals, is a small masterpiece of power pop. It’s a record that easily stands on its own, to the point that its utterly unavoidable association with the early releases of bandleader Matt Sharp’s other band--you know, the one with the songs about Buddy Holly and sweaters and butterflies--is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s really too bad that Return of the Rentals has never been allowed to exist by itself--you really can’t even talk about it without delving into ancient Weezer lore. On the other, its inextricability from Weezer history provides a sense of time and place in which Return can both exist and shine.
Listening to Return of the Rentals, it’s very easy to attribute Weezer’s less-than-credible current position to the absence of Matt Sharp. Whether that’s fair to say is impossible to know for anyone outside of the band. What we do know is this: Sharp was Weezer’s founding bassist, and played with them from the band’s founding in 1992 until 1998. He appears, then, on two of the band’s albums--the classics Weezer (The Blue Album) and Pinkerton. Watching some of the Pinkerton-era videos, he can be seen--usually accompanied by drummer Patrick Wilson--being kind of hilarious:
Sharp’s departure from the band has always been controversial among Weezer fans, not least due to the lawsuit that followed. In 2002, he sued the band for royalties, claiming co-writing credit for most of Pinkerton, as well as for “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Lawsuit aside, the split seems to have been at least somewhat amicable, and Sharp has reportedly worked with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo on songs that may or may not ever see the light of day. He may even have had some influence on at least a few of the songs on Weezer (The Green Album). I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. The Green Album boasted the keenest pop sensibility of latter-day Weezer, and based on Return of the Rentals, Matt Sharp has it to spare.
It’s ironic that Return of the Rentals is enmeshed in so much ancient band drama, to the point that it really feels like it all has to be gotten out of the way in order for the record to be discussed. It’s really a deceptively breezy, propulsive piece of post-New Wave power pop, drifting effortlessly, almost carelessly, through its 30-some minutes. Released in 1995, between the Blue Album and Pinkerton, it’s an essential piece of mid-90s pop, and helped to bring the Moog synth back into the spotlight.
In a lot of ways--crunchy guitars, simple-but-effective lyrics, gee-whiz rock n’ roll dorkiness--it sounds like a lost Weezer album. It’s tighter, though, and feels more grown up. The very prominent use of Moog synth aligns it with the New Wave bands of the 70s and 80s--especially the Cars--providing a throwback appeal beyond Weezer’s post-grunge, post-Pixies sound. Interestingly enough, it’s exactly this that lets Return of the Rentals still sound relevant today--what in 1995 was a throwback to the 80s is once again current in 2011. If you want proof, just listen to the Strokes’s Angles, or anything by MGMT.
Beyond the ever-present synth, it’s Sharp’s sense of composition that shines, keeping Return of the Rentals interesting as more than a happy pop record. The vocal work is quite impressive, and is helped immeasurably by the mingling of male and female voices. (Female vocals are provided by Cherielynn Westrich, as well as by both violinist Petra Haden and her triplet sister Rachel. Look the Haden triplets up, if you never have. I’m slowly becoming convinced that at least one has been in every. Band. Ever.) Check out the layered vocal work on “My Summer Girl.”
The songwriting itself is excellent. The lyrics have the universality of the best pop, and when they occasionally veer into the obscure, they’re anthemic enough to keep interest, or to straight up not matter--see the album’s most successful single, “Friends of P.” Structurally, most of the songs are classic loud-quiet-loud, with a propensity for bridges and buildups. It’s telling that “Undone (The Sweater Song)," with its sprawling outro and builds, is one of the Weezer songs for which Sharp has specifically claimed co-writing credit.
I could get into the merits of specific tracks, but it feels a little pointless. Return of the Rentals is power pop gold throughout; it’s one of those albums that demands a complete listen, preferably with the windows rolled down. In closing, I leave you with the video for “Friends of P,” one of the finest pieces of deadpan Soviet spoofing ever committed to film.