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1994 was an awesome year to be a nerd. A decade had passed since Revenge of the Nerds, and popular conceptions of awkward enthusiasts had evolved to the point where Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video could put four cardigan-wearing squares at the top of the charts. After that, there was always another word attached to nerd: “cool,” a conflation which sent both terms into a perennially cloudy spiral of meaning. Bassist Matt Sharp took a detour from Weezer in 1995 with a side project called The Rentals. Their debut album was a humbly crafted chunk of anachronistic purity called The Return of the Rentals — while it wasn’t as hugely successful as Weezer’s debut, it set the tone for two decades of destroying what we thought nerd-cool could and couldn’t mean. It was the end of “alternative” music and the beginning of our discovery that most music actually should be something different than anything else that came before it.

The MTV Yearbook from 1995 is a wash of over-saturated hip-hop / R&B and alternative videos — where directors for The Goo Goo Dolls, TLC, and Alanis Morissette all seemed hellbent on maxing out the color palette, The Rentals’ “Friends of P” stood on its own in understated black and white.

Moog, guitar, bass, and vocal harmonies stood out in a sea of overproduced pop

Taking a cue from Nirvana’s “In Bloom” video, Sharp and five bandmates play listlessly in front of lo-fi cameras as if they’re being controlled by an unseen puppeteer. Cyrillic subtitles inexplicably accompany the lyrics: seven years before James Murphy stared into the camera for the aging rocker self-parody “Losing My Edge,” Sharp stared into the camera and declared “I’m gonna break down at 50 / And I’m not quite a stallion / I’m a good guy for a gal / And I’m mentally slippin'." A year earlier Kurt Cobain’s suicide had forced the world to reconsider what fame and happiness meant in the context of rock ‘n’ roll; “Friends of P” was a dead-simple portrait of rock nerds with no further aspiration than to play rock music. The band appears to be tortured by the process of shooting the video: their eyes dart nervously from the lens and they can’t even force themselves to smile as they rock straightforwardly amongst Fender guitars, Orange amplifiers, and Moog synthesizers.

Luckily, straightforward rock music is something that The Rentals did exceedingly well. Eighteen years later the few sonic elements of their debut are still a compelling work of minimalism: Moog, guitar, bass, and vocal harmonies stood out in a sea of overproduced pop. It has the rare mood of a go-to feel-good album — although the lyrics are often disparaging, the instrumentation always elicits a strangely specific kind of elation.

Machine opera

I don’t think I’ll find the love I want,
the love I’m searching for
In this machine, oh

There are a lot of amazing first songs on albums, but “The Love I’m Searching For” prepares the listener for rock ‘n’ roll like no other introductory track. The opening lines float weakly through a tin can-sounding filter as if Sharp is recording inside an ancient space capsule, blasting off into the well-traveled but still compelling atmosphere of personal politics. Monstrously distorted barre chords and hulking kick drums on the low end balance the slightly imperfect triple harmonies of Petra Haden, Cherielynn Westrich, and a warmly robotic Moog lead at the high end.

The system’s failed, all the circuits blown
And the message lost in this machine, oh
Try all the codes, all possibilities
All combinations but, still nothing, oh

Like a lost cosmonaut surrounded by failing circuitry, Sharp can feel the entire world crumbling around him. Like a textbook nerd he sees a broken relationship as a machine in dire need of rewiring, and like a textbook Virgo he stubbornly refuses to believe that life should operate any other way than he planned it to.

I try, you know I try, I try
Hard as it may be I know you should be with me
Even though it seems it’s all lies
I still believe you should be with me

The machine vs. programmer paradigm operates on the entire album, accentuated by interstitial soundscapes that hold the thing together with a warm sci-fi glue. “Please Let That Be You” finds Sharp in some sort of mechanical lockdown, this time struggling for connection in the oppressive Orwellian structure he inhabits:

Empty, everything’s technical
Sterile and endless
Inside I malfunction
Observe, and obsess

His world is a machine built to induce depression, his only reprieve comes in the form of a perennially missing lover.

Please let that be you!
Ringin’ my phone right now like I wish you’d do
Calling with some good news
You know you are my thing and I love you

Although it’s easy to miss while it’s unfolding, the 37 minutes of The Return Of The Rentals eventually coalesce as a distinctly conceptual album, the only one I’m really aware of in the popular canon of mid-’90s rock. The cold machine had provided a perfect crucible for Sharp’s broken-hearted lyrics and chunky instrumentation to combust in.

Nerd capsule

By 1999, the things that had made The Return of the Rentals so special weren’t that special anymore. The internet turned everyone into a geek, Urban Outfitters turned nerd style into style style, and Robert Moog began writing Pro Tools plugins. Matt Sharp quit Weezer and released the second Rentals album Seven More Minutes — it’s good, but it feels like nothing more than archetypal late-’90s rock. Soaring harmonies and piercing synths gave way to celebrity collaborators (Blur’s Damon Albarn, Elastica’s Donna Matthews) and conservatively produced acoustic strumming. Sharp traded his signature thick glasses and crew cut for a generic white-guy outfit; his muse moved out of the cold machine and into a sunny Catalonian flat, which made for far less transcendent lyricism.

The internet turned everyone into a geek

Whenever I cue up The Return Of The Rentals on my iPod, I can’t shake a longing for the act of taking the white disc out of the jewel case and feeding it into my stereo, waiting for the opening riffs to take me to a time before cynicism and MP3s began to cloud my musical judgement. But as a true classic, the music does more than just pique a nostalgia for CD culture — Matt Sharp’s simple arrangements stay sonically human in a world where the machine has become a part of everyone’s soul.