I seldom introduce my Moog trump card, yet an über-cool, erudite but fun-loving and Moog-fixated rock band like The Rentals definitely forces my hand. Analog synthesizers invented by the late Dr. Robert “Bob” Moog have inspired legions of Moog nerds like myself and the most successful Weezer spinoff band (others include Space Twins and The Special Goodness), fronted by former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp. It's clear after rewatching Weezer's anachronistic Happy Days parody video for “Buddy Holly” — directed by Spike Jonze — that the blond wig-wearing bassist had the best sense of humor in the group. His animated persona stood out.
To be honest, although I enjoyed them at Numbers after the "Blue Album" came out, I never got into Weezer's music beyond the band's initial nerdiness spiel. My preference was louder, more aggressive groups like Cruise Yourself-era Girls Against Boys or the unsung bands featured in Flipside or Maximum Rocknroll. I found The Stranger's “What the Hell Happened to Weezer?” article intriguing but melodramatic. The Rolling Stone writer who spent half the interview questioning Sharp about Weezer missed the point: Sharp has moved on. The '90s were wonderful, but not everyone is stuck there. These days, Sharp is far from the cacophony and mega-stardom of '90s rock's halcyon days. The Rentals' Instagram page tells part of their more obscure indie-rock, Moog-nerd story: underneath a photo of a vintage '60s Orange Matamp amplifier there's a picture of a Moog-inspired chocolate bar held above a cup of coffee; Moog synthesizers set up underneath a disco ball; and details about a contest featuring the words “Rentals Love Moog.”
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This group has embraced Moog sounds for 20 years since the Return of the Rentals album, which showcased Tom Grimley's Moog skills. The “Waiting” video features band members playing Moog Source synthesizers and a pre-Saturday Night Live Maya Rudolph playing a Moog Opus 3. Fast-forwarding 20 years, The Rentals' new Lost In Alphaville album (not a direct reference to the Jean-Luc Godard film) is easily their best album — even after group lineup changes, the decline of the music industry, and a switch from major label to Polyvinyl (home to Of Montreal and Deerhoof). A song called “The Future” floats through an ethereal, enchantingly cryptic sci-fi atmosphere with outer-space sounds seemingly inspired by backspinning records, flying saucers and early electronic pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron. It might have been hard to fathom a group more fixated with Moog equipment than Stereolab during the '90s, but the Rentals are that group; thankfully, for identity's sake, the Rentals are unique and sound nothing like the inimitable Stereolab.
Though I appreciate their Moog fixation, my own Moog-nerd experience has been quite different. I remember hearing bubbly Moog sounds of Jean Jacques Perrey's “E.V.A.” during my childhood; years later hearing those sounds in Gang Starr's “Just to Get a Rep” piqued my interest. It's worth noting that Gang Starr's DJ Premier, a Houstonian, worked at the old Soundwaves location on South Main near the Astrodome. If I ever get a chance to talk to him, my first question would pertain to how he discovered Perrey's music. During the '90s, I purchased a copy of Perrey's Moog Indigo album from the long-shuttered, dimly lit Throb record store, which was located on 14th Street in New York City's East Village. Once I returned to Houston, and played compositions (mainly “E.V.A.” and “Cat In the Night”) from Moog Indigo at the 8.0 lounge, one of my earliest mentors — the late Matrix Crew genius Abiel Mejia — encouraged me to continue exploring this and other kinds of lesser-known, slower-tempo electronic music. Even though I already had a copy of Incredibly Strange Music, I was determined to obtain as many Moog-related albums as possible: Hot Butter's Popcorn, The Moog Machine's Switched-On Rock, Perrey and Gershon Kingsley's Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Spotlight on the Moog, and Moog: The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman.
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There's a tie for my favorite Moog-related song between Leroy Hutson's “Getting it On” and Hyman's James Brown-predicated “Give It Up or Turn it Loose.” I even have a copy of the Moog-themed issue of the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal magazine. But perhaps the highlight of my Moog-nerd experience came after seeing the documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. I called the Big Briar office (the name of Bob Moog's company at the time) to talk to Moog. To my surprise, instead of a receptionist answering the telephone, he answered the telephone himself! That was shocking. Moog discussed how another company held rights to his last name at the time, so he had to sell under the Big Briar moniker. Inventory included theremin kits and custom built synthesizers. He laughed about how people always mispronounced his name (think “Moe” of Three Stooges). We discussed Perrey's music and Leon Theremin. It was a great conversation I'll always cherish.
Hans Fjellestad's Moog documentary definitely captures Moog's warm personality. One scene shows him holding an analog board — as opposed to a motherboard or microprocessor found in digital machines — and explaining the analog circuitry which transmits frequencies to the oscillators. The best moment in the film occurs when Moog discusses gardening.
Going back to the Rentals, it's refreshing to see a rock group make positive music during dark times while utilizing one of the best instruments ever created.
The Rentals and special guests Rey Pila and Radiation City perform Thursday, May 28 at Walters Downtown, 1120 Naylor. Doors open at 8 p.m.