New is generally easier to promote than old. Perhaps that’s why Lost In Alphaville is being marketed as The Rentals’ return from a 14-year hiatus, even though its only consistent member, ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp, has remained busy in the interim. After solo recordings in 2003 and 2004, Sharp resurrected The Rentals moniker for a 2007 EP, and, in 2009, a yearlong multimedia project called Songs About Time, comprising daily photographs, weekly films, and three EPs. The undertaking didn’t get that much attention, but Sharp must have been pleased with the results: He reissued his soundtrack from the films as a 2011 benefit album (renamed Resilience) to support the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami relief efforts, and, now, has rerecorded selected tracks from the EPs for the “new” full-length.
Obviously, a collection of second-takes of forgotten songs from five years ago isn’t as interesting as the first real Rentals record since 1999’s Seven More Minutes. But, publicity narratives aside, Lost In Alphaville is at least a noticeable reemergence of the band’s original sound. For the album, Sharp enlisted a top-notch set of collaborators—most notably Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney—and pulled the blueprints from 1995’s breakout debut Return Of The Rentals, meaning a booming, fuzzed-out blend of guitar and Moog, occasionally adorned with string arrangements. Where the earlier album showcased raw, lo-fi tech-pop, however, Lost In Alphaville is an all-out saturation of sound, with some songs comprising more than 200 elements.
The effect is a decided improvement on the Songs About Time prototypes—driven by Carney’s masterfully vigorous percussion and a demolition derby of moving parts, these versions have much-needed momentum, weight, and drama. Compared to its former incarnation, for example, opener “It’s Time To Come Home” more effectively creates a slow-building tension with thudding drums, swirling synths, and layers of cooing and chanted vocalizations (courtesy of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius). Not too long into the album, however, it becomes clear that these add-ons are how Sharp intended to revise all of the songs. The onslaught of Moog atop harmonies of oohs and ahhs is all well and good for bringing the record back into the band’s mid-’90s alt-pop wheelhouse, but ultimately mistakes sonic quantity for quality.
A larger problem with Lost In Alphaville is that its songs—subdued ruminations on the passage of time, from contemplative nostalgia to lingering regrets to fanciful dreams for the future—aren’t compatible with the vibrant, carefree whimsy that defined The Rentals’ early output. Perhaps because Sharp recorded individually with his contributors, they don’t always seem to know how to treat the material, leading to an uncertain tone and a permeating sense of restraint. Simply piling on more noise can’t make up for this lack of focused energy, nor can it improve middling melodies that aren’t particularly memorable on their own. Without a fresh set of tunes tailored for the task of revisiting the past, Lost In Alphaville fails at sounding satisfyingly new or old.