Thursday, June 28, 2007 | 7:23 a.m.
It's hard to tell which is more surprising: That the Rentals are back in action after seven years on hiatus, or that an active, touring band is playing a smaller, more interesting venue in town, the Beauty Bar on Fremont Street.
That's good news for local live music fans, who can pay $20 to see a band that has been garnering rave reviews for its energetic live act, complete with Moog-laden new-wave synth-pop, compared with $55 to see Donny Osmond at the Orleans.
The band's return is a bit of an ironic twist, considering frontman Matt Sharp's musical career. A founding member of Weezer, Sharp left the band in 1997 following its second release, "Pinkerton." Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo, disappointed by the lackluster reaction to the record, turned his attention elsewhere (namely going back to school at Harvard), and the band wasn't heard from for several years.
Sharp can relate. Following the Rentals' sophomore release, "Seven More Minutes," which didn't make a big splash, Sharp retreated to Leiper's Fork, Tenn., to work on acoustic, Americana-type music. He crossed the country twice playing small shows before realizing some of the songs he was writing were more suited to The Rentals' male/female vocals than to his sparse acoustic arrangements.
"At one point, after the last Rentals' album, I think I got pretty much to a point where I was terrified of anything sort of abrasive and aggressive and loud and distorted and those sort of things," he said. "From there I basically had to put all that stuff down, and just start from scratch ... Slowly but surely, I started coming back towards that thing."
And that's where the Weezer similarities started cropping back up again. A comeback started feebly, with a request from a festival in Japan, just as Weezer had received six years before.
At the first few forays back into clubs, Sharp was blindsided by fans hungry for the band's music, a smaller-scale version of Weezer's sold-out tour in 2000, a return Rolling Stone called a "shockingly successful cult phenomenon."
"I had very low expectations about what the response would be. I was very cautious about what size venues we were playing in and what we were facing on the road, and getting kind of nervous," Sharp said. "When it got to the point about when we started playing, audiences were so enthusiastic, it was a real shock to me.
"It was pretty overwhelming because you just stand there and go 'Where did all you people come from and when did this happen?' For us, one of those similarities I can share with Rivers is when we came to do our last tour, we didn't have a record to promote, we weren't there with any backing from any major companies. We just booked the tour and kinda crossed our fingers and had no idea."
So armed with a newfound confidence and a new lineup with only Sharp and co-lead singer Rachel Haden returning from the first incarnation, Sharp is out to pave the way for the new Rentals album. An EP featuring four home recordings is out in August, and it gives a little hint to the future direction, but Sharp says this whole process of rediscovery and touring will determine what shape the full-length album will take.
"They're all experiencing it for the first time, so we've kind of gone through that stage of having to discover who we were, which other groups don't have to do. In that sense, we're like a group making its first album."
Sharp can only hope the Weezer similarities won't end there. Cuomo's first release after the comeback went platinum, and placed the band firmly back on the music map.
Despite years of on-again, off-again relationships with Cuomo, Sharp knows there might be only one person who understands this bizarre ride his band has been on.
"There certainly are times when I think that Rivers and I couldn't be further apart, and times when I reflect on things and I'm like 'I'm going through this certain process and there's only one person I know who I can really relate to on this.' "