Remember 1998? Climbing the charts were Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart” by *NSYNC — the industry was dominated by punk-tinged alt rock and tween-darling boy bands. The “Titanic” soundtrack was the top-selling album of the year and a little-known band called Remy Zero released Villa Elaine, an otherworldly and gritty album that just didn’t fit in.
More famous for penning “Save Me” (better known as “that song from ‘Smallville’ ”), Remy Zero’s more seminal ’90s work has gone largely unnoticed. Villa Elaine was the result of the Alabama-based group’s two-year hole-up in a rundown Los Angeles motel of the same name. We’ve all heard the story of the wide-eyed artists who came to the city looking to make it big. But as Remy Zero demonstrates on Villa, these five Southern boys are not your average idealists.
Lyrically, the album presents a bleak landscape while simultaneously beaconing hope — a cathartically contradictory stance that’s embodied in the chorus of the first song, “Hermes Bird” — “So hold to your permanent bliss / in the time that it takes to exist / From the hours to the fall of it / It’s all right, you’re all wrong.” The track’s overpowering confusion funnels into a simple and vaguely positive message. Even “Life in Rain,” the album’s biggest downer, finds singer Cinjun Tate proclaiming, “So when it comes down / you’ll know I’m with you.” Villa Elaine operates in an apocalyptic world where there’s nothing left but simple emotions.
Mystical references and mysterious sounds run rampant on Villa. Song titles like “Hermes Bird” and “Whither Vulcan” recall ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The songs are linked by veiled lyrical references to ghosts and flames and spirits. Lines range from enigmatic (“A thousand hours are in your mouth / I dreamed our learning / And now it’s time to dream our turning out”) to a drugged-out brand of creepy (“And she’s strung out on life, he soon rolls his teeth / Spilling out from a mouth fit to overflow / back into me”), but always stop just short of real life.
Remy Zero’s music is pretty without being delicate, strong without being pushy and coarse without being crude. Layered guitars frame simple melodies with soaring choruses. Unabashedly melodic and emotional, the group is often compared to U2 and Coldplay, but its unpolished, personal style and unconventional lyrics are better suited to bars than to huge arenas.
“Prophecy” was the only song on Villa Elaine to get any radio play upon release. The cryptic lyrics and Cinjun’s smooth, emotive voice garnered comparisons to Thom Yorke, and rightly so — Remy Zero was invited to open for Radiohead after it heard the band’s demo. But the dirty, grinding guitars on “Prophecy” give the song a churning drive that keeps it from sounding like any other band.
Hidden among the gems on the ubiquitous “Garden State” soundtrack, “Fair” may be the best song on Villa. With a franker vibe than most rock songs could even dream of, the song’s first murmuring “Hey, are you lonely / Summer gone so slowly?” makes you want to answer the query. It’s the kind of song a girl would want a cute boy with a guitar to sing to her, if only the meaning wasn’t so elusive (“So what if you catch me, where would we land? / In somebody’s life for taking his hands / Sing to me hope as she’s thrown on the sand / All of our work is raided again”). The melody ambles along like the musical equivalent of a stroll on a foggy beach — the acoustic guitars wrap the listener and the song’s sudden end comes too soon.
So how come Remy Zero didn’t make it back in 1998? If Villa Elaine had been released in today’s musical climate, it would have easily found a home. Remy Zero wouldn’t be out of place next to mellow British acts like Snow Patrol and Keane, or even indie-pop groups like The Shins. The late ’90s was an unfortunate time to be a moody and introspective band, as Remy Zero found out. But in the coolly intimate world of modern indie music, Villa Elaine finds itself more relevant than ever.