Dateline 8 September 1996: Sebadoh and Elliott Smith are playing the "new" 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. (Seeing as how the club had only been open about nine months, it really was "new" then.) Not too far away, Britpop darlings Sleeper are playing the "old" Black Cat club (the one that seemed smaller, about half-a-block down 14th Street from the current location).
I chose to see Sleeper instead of Sebadoh and Smith, forgoing the hip American ticket that night in favor of the chance to see one of my then-favorite U.K. acts here on these shores. Sleeper burned through most of their first two albums in the course of delivering what I'd rank right up there with one of the best concerts I've ever seen in this city. And I saw Loop and Nirvana in 1990, and The Pixies and Happy Mondays in 1989, so...
Sleeper went on to release a third album the next year, the underrated Pleased To Meet Me, and Britpop tottered on, with this fan obsessing over Kenickie and theaudience in the next few years after that. Still, Sleeper were remarkably good back then, which makes it more shocking to report how wonderful they still sound now in 2019. Here with a reunion record no one asked for (and even fewer people expected), Sleeper are dropping The Modern Age via their own Gorsky Records label this Friday.
The line-up this time around features three original members -- Louise Wenner on vocals, Jon Stewart on guitars, and Andy Maclure on drums -- and one new player -- Kieron Pepper from The Prodigy on bass -- but the group sounds nearly the same as they did in 1996. Opener "Paradise Waiting" echoes "She's A Good Girl" but with more punch, while lead single "Look At You Now" recalls, despite some sleek production effects, the louder songs on the band's fine debut LP from so many decades ago. Wenner, one of the best front-persons in rock ever, leads this material into a few new places, while offering up the very kind of thing that made The It Girl such an essential record back in '96.
And while lots and lots of The Modern Age has more heft than the band's last official release, I found myself drawn more to the mid-tempo selections here like "Car Into The Sea", one of Wenner's finest vocal performances, I think, and "More Than I Do", a languid ramble that seems of a piece with "What Do I Do Now?" but with a far bigger pay-off in sonic terms. Still, even with numbers like those, and the odd-but-lovely closer "Big Black Sun", fans of this band are going to line up here for tracks that sound a whole lot like the sort of thing that propelled this band to popularity in the first place. So rest assured that "The Sun Also Rises", "Cellophane", and especially "Dig" can safely sit next to lots of the best stuff from Smart.
The Modern Age works very, very well. It's the rare reunion album that actually feels necessary. So much of what's here is more urgent than what was on Pleased To Meet Me and a fan could be forgiven for wishing that this had been the band's third album, and not their fourth, some 22 years removed from their last public offering. Produced by Stephen Street, The Modern Age roars and soars where necessary, reminding again just what a fantastic singer and songwriter Louise Wenner is, especially when fronting a tight outfit like this one.
The Modern Age is out on Friday via the band's own label, Gorsky Records.
More details on Sleeper via the band's official Facebook page.
[Photo: Uncredited photo from the band's official Facebook page]