Spinning through the radio dial in 1995, you'd probably run across Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," and Weezer's "Say It Ain't So." If you watched 120 Minutes, though, you might just have been lucky enough to catch the memorable and monochromatic clip for "Friends of P.," the low-key smash debut single from the Rentals, side project of Weezer's then-bassist, Matt Sharp—who, incredibly, was recording Return of the Rentals at the same time that he and the rest of the "=W=" were recording 1994's triple-platinum Blue Album. Two perfect albums. But 20 years later, only one represents the beginning of an intriguing, underappreciated catalog, while the other stands as a symbol of the perils of peaking early. It helps to think of the Rentals as Sharp's version of the Breeders—the beloved side-project-ternt-main-project of another bass player/vocalist who should've gotten more equity in another, bigger band that should never have continued without him/her. Shortly after Weezer's eventually beloved, rightfully cult classic second album, Pinkerton, landed with a thud, Sharp became a full-time Rental. As with the Pixies and Kim Deal, every move Weezer made post-Sharp was more embarrassing than the last.
As for Return, yes, I hold it to be absolutely one of the finest moments in the canon of '90s "alt-rock," not to mention sneakily influential. Its geeky, forlorn future-retro chic was both throwback (the Moog!) and some years ahead of its time—bands like Ozma and more notably the Postal Service wouldn't mix plaintive power pop with pretty synths until the new millennium. The unexpected presence of Petra and Rachel Haden—of LA band that dog., with whom I was more than a little obsessed—was an added bonus almost too sweet to bear after I befriended "P." Then there is the matter of onetime backup vocalist/keyboard player Maya Rudolph—brilliant Saturday Night Live alum, daughter of Minnie Riperton, life partner of director Paul Thomas Anderson—who got her first screen time in the video for Return's "Waiting." I'm just saying.
Having tasted a bit of his own success, Sharp shook the first album's self-consciously nerdy image (and most of its personnel) for 1999's Seven More Minutes, and lost some fans in the process. But the album is no less a joy. Like Pinkerton, it's an underrated jewel inspired by new surroundings and love lost in a faraway land—minus the creepy colonial lens of the Madame Butterfly character who inspired the Weezer album. Minutes chronicles a raucous, carefree love affair with Barcelona, where Sharp had made a second home. The thoughtful hedonism of the itinerant American indie-rocker slows down near the seventh minute on the dreamlike "Jumping Around," as Sharp, feeling his age, wonders how to find someone he can hold on to, seeing as he's "not educated and... not respected."
Cut to 2014's Lost in Alphaville, the first proper Rentals album in 15 years, on which a wistful, somewhat wizened Sharp revisits Catalonia—it's the perfect sequel to those Minutes, spiritually in line with the most recent albums from '90s R&B stalwarts D'Angelo and Jodeci. The nearly 20-year gap between projects ends up sounding like a trip up the street and back, no steps lost. All the more surprising given that in the years between albums, Sharp meandered something fierce, putting out a four-song EP (2007's The Last Little Life) and a photo-book/short-film collection with a seven-disc instrumental soundtrack called Songs About Time, both under the Rentals moniker, as well as a 2004 solo acoustic folk album recorded in Tennessee.
But all the gaps raise an important question: Are the Rentals really a band—or is the name just a multimedia clearinghouse for Matt Sharp's good ideas? Listen to Sharp's solo acoustic work, then deduct it from the three Rentals LPs for your answer—it's the wonder you hear in those synths, the strings, the all-important leavening of those ever-present female vocals, be they Cherielynn Westrich, the Haden sisters, Maya Rudolph, or Lucius's Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. All these elements, these other people, make the Rentals greater than just the sum of the voices in Matt Sharp's head. Yes, they're a band. They're a Greek chorus chronicling one man's downs and ups and downs again. Having shed the naive mid-'90s math-club swagger, Sharp can still posit that "there must be some hope in the future," as he sings on Alphaville's closer. If he really does break down at 50, as the supermodel narrator of "P." predicted, he'll have left some of that wonder behind.