Friday Jukebox: Underwhelmed

by Steve

In my early teens there were still plenty of local record shops. There were the usual chains, and the shops that sold other stuff but had a record section, but there were independent stores too. Not independent in the sense of just selling indie music, but genuine small businesses making money out of selling all kinds of music. Remember those days?

I’d often head out on a Saturday making the most of my bus pass I had for school and would explore all the record shops. I didn’t have much money, so I tended to spend most of my time scouring the bargain bins.

Sometimes I was looking for singles that had been out a few weeks back, but was hoping had now been reduced now they were out of the charts (or had never made the charts in the first place). I’d also keep an eye out for songs or bands I might have read about but had never actually heard. Sometimes I’d just like the look of a record cover, or a title, and take a punt. At 50p or a pound it was worth the risk.

Underwhelmed by Sloan was one of those punts. I was still very much in Nirvana Admiration Mode and so would always have half an eye out for other North American guitar bands. I’m not sure I was that fussy, and to be fair, neither were the record companies post-Nevermind. I was at that age when you just want to hear everything, but was part of the last generation where, pre-internet, that really wasn’t possible.

I played Underwhelmed over and over. I don’t think it was what I had expected from the sleeve, but it was funny and catchy and weird. And most importantly, mine. This was my own little obscurity. That’s kind of important at that age too, right?

The other day I thought again about Underwhelmed and listened to it for the first time in a long time. I listened on that internet place. I’m not sure where my record is now.

I still love it. Sure, that is partly down to that nostalgic kick, the ol’ Proustian rush sending me back to those funny old record shops with their bargain bins, and my teenage bedroom and my old record player.

But there is more than that. The song is the perfect amalgam of the classic College Rock sound of the era, along with the fuzziness of the shoegazing bands and the self-awareness of the early 90s.

There is a pop heart to the song, but a wonky one. There’s that strange feedback at the start that cranks up in pitch before the guitar kicks in. There’s a shimmer to the song, a funny sheen that recalls old tape decks and half-tuned radios. It is of a time, sure, but it isn’t weighed down by it.

The lyrics are funny, knowing, true, almost an early 90s college kid version of Valley Girl, and I say that as a good thing. The narrator relays conversations that in their conscious banality sound directly lifted from life then. There’s a charming awkwardness, we aren’t always profound, not always articulate, that as the song says, you have to read between the lines.

The song articulates that general difficulty in communication we all have, but also the particular sensibility of the time, where everyone was steeped in irony and only half-said what they half-thought.

This song captures a time that in hindsight was pretty innocent, post-Cold War, pre-War on Terror, when we could be as cynical as we pleased, where we could enjoy our solipsism yet pretend we cared about the big issues and where every detail of our lives really mattered and didn’t matter at all, all at the same time.

Thinking about it, maybe nothing has really changed at all.

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