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The history of what we’ve learned to call alternative rock is full of dividing lines, from Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt to, well, Kurt Cobain’s “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” T-shirt. Ira Robbins has drawn a pretty big one of his own by jettisoning the contents of the previous, and fourth, edition of the venerable Trouser Press Record Guide (nee The TP Guide to New Wave Records). He had to do it, of course: The last book went to press moments before the alt-rock explosion that occurred with the release and subsequent culture-warping impact of Nevermind, and keeping everything would have guaranteed a 1,500-page tome. In another nod to semi-new culture, the entirety of the 1991 guide currently resides on the Trouser Press web site.
Even streamlined to include only artists who’ve made, in Robbins’ view, a mark on the face of the music since ’91, this is a hefty work. Even with 50 or so other critics on hand, much of the writing is still done by Robbins, who co-founded the original Trouser Press magazine in 1974. Anyone who lives with several thousand records must stand in awe of the book’s near-exhaustive achievement, not to mention wonderment at how much vinyl and aluminum Robbins’ dwelling must harbor.
While retaining his sense of delight in a well-wrought recording, the Trouserpoobah has grown slightly more crotchety in the past five years, and who can blame him? “My goal here was to say something about the era as much as its records,” he writes in a preface; barely spoken is Robbins’ sense that record-store bins have filled with crap in the wake of Nevermind (an album that, by the way, he reviewed for Rolling Stone, giving it three and a half stars before its seismic impact both on the charts and in lifestyle-defining press from the Village Voice to Sassy). Robbins has a gift for making the adjective “ineffectual” hurt, and unleashes some of the most spirited, well-deserved put-downs in recent rock criticism. On Porno for Pyros: “If Michael Bolton had less hair, an even more obnoxious ego and a fetishistic taste for life’s seamy side, he’d be the insufferable Perry Farrell.” Jewel offers “painfully earnest…stands against prejudice, sexism, religion, romantic injustice, cynicism, cruelty and the cold.” Counting Crows: “Yeah, whatever.”
Of course, there’s also room for plenty of positive, er, spin on the work of important acts like Hole, Pavement, Coolio, and My Bloody Valentine. The real heart of the book, however, lies as much in the hundreds of reviews of lesser- and hardly known bands. While addressing both the newly spawned alternative nation and listeners old enough to have grown up on the likes of Elvis Costello and the Replacements, ’90s Rock stays true to its school by celebrating much buried treasure, whether readily available at Sam Goody or not. It’s a real pleasure to see names like the Sneetches, Eugenius, and John Otway celebrated here. (The book also does well by D.C., heaping praise on artists from Fugazi to Basehead.)
At the same time, some judgment calls on which past fixtures are worthy of continued inclusion seem questionable. Fear, with one minor studio album put to tape in the past decade, receives a column of lovingly rendered (by David Sprague) critique, while Paul Westerberg is represented solely by his two wan solo releases and cross-references to brief collaborations with the Goo Goo Dolls and the Leatherwoods. Not even a roll call of Let It Be and the rest of the Replacements’ inarguably influential catalog? It is to weep into one’s beer.
As for the acknowledged commercial groundbreakers themselves, Robbins is both levelheaded and stunningly insightful on the subject of Nirvana. He’s not afraid to call Cobain’s lyrical musings “haphazard,” something that’s too often danced around in discussions of Gen X’s reluctant poet laureate. And the idea that producer Butch Vig helped shape the sound of Nevermind in part to “fulfill visions the band wasn’t even having” is audaciously on the mark. If only he liked the troubled but brilliant In Utero better.
Of course, at this point good reviews will hardly sell one more copy of anguished genius, any more than bad ones will stop Gavin Rossdale’s dull cash-in. The best that a book like The Trouser Press Guide to ’90 s Rock can offer is what it always could: laughs, friendly (and sometimes not so) guidance, and smarts. In pop terms, “alternative” has become a more meaningless term than ever, and the label certainly is no guarantee of audience solidarity in an age when it sticks to Courtney Love, Dave Matthews, Natalie Merchant, and Marilyn Manson pretty much equally. The fact that Robbins sees fit to gather all that and more under his tent, though, smacks as much of bravery as of market-savvy timing. When Spin itself published a generally excellent record guide in late 1995, exclusion seemed as much the point as anything. Robbins may have harsh words for some of what the new breed embraces, but his dedication to the idea that even hugely successful dreck deserves to be part of the discussion is refreshing. On the other hand, it’s hard not to wonder if, as Stephen Malkmus sings, this brand-new era isn’t a bit too late.CP