My patience was wearing thin. After two hours of sampling the new releases at one listening station after another, I was starting to wonder whether I’d ever find something that sounded fresh. And then an album caught my eye. Everything about it was out of sync with its surroundings: the bright, neo-psychedelic colors; the pedestrian sans-serif font; and, most of all, the name it spelled out: Bosnian Rainbows.
I can’t say I was optimistic. The design reminded me of the worst excesses of early-1990s “alternative” culture, when tripping out on drugs no longer seemed that strange or transgressive and everything from children’s backpacks to government brochures looked like a simultaneous homage to Nelson Mandela and Keith Haring. If the album sounded like its cover, I reasoned, it would probably come off like a tribute to Jesus Jones.
But when I began to listen, my presumptions came rapidly undone. Not only did Bosnian Rainbows avoid the everything-is-background quality that annoys me in so many of the bands favored by the Pitchfork crowd — the powerful singing is consistently pushed forward in the mix — it also managed to stay consistently interesting in the margins, with plenty of negative space to let the music breathe.
As pleased as I was by these qualities, I remained wary. There was still that cover to contend with. In my notebook, I wrote that the band was “maybe trying too hard to be all over the map.” The more I listened, however, the harder it became for me to maintain my critical distance. Because, instead of sounding like a rehash of bad early 90s alternative rock, it sounded like a rehash of good early 80s Europop.
“Good” for me, at any rate. I reluctantly acknowledged that I was powerless to resist this particular pastiche, despite having kept myself pure with regard to so many others. It wasn’t simply that Bosnian Rainbows proudly showcased the influence of bands like Siouxie and the Banshees, the Cocteau Twins, and The Cure, but that, unlike most of their predecessors in post-punk revivalism, they had somehow distilled and concentrated what made those bands special in the early 1980s and stirred it into a cocktail too complex to be dismissed as mere nostalgia.
I had originally planned to go home and listen to Bosnian Rainbows for a while on Spotify, my standard practice these days when contemplating a purchase. After standing at the listening station for the length of the entire album, though, it became painfully apparent that I needed to walk out the door with the compact disc in my hands. Two weeks later, I’d listened to little else. It became my improbable mid-summer soundtrack, thereby insulated from the scrutiny to which I subject most records.
I didn’t want to consider the music’s political ramifications or place it in historical context. To the extent that I stopped to think about Bosnian Rainbows at all, it was because I wanted to understand the intensity of its appeal to me. Take the album’s fourth track, “The Eye Fell in Love”. On paper, the lyrics seem obvious and a little silly. They’re the sort that typically turn me off. But the way the guitar part shadows the vocals high on the fretboard exempts them from critique somehow — from my critique, at any rate — giving the words an ironic edge that reinforces their sincerity instead of calling it into question. The album’s final and probably best number, “Mother, Father, Set Us Free” does an excellent job of highlighting Bosnian Rainbows strengths. It starts by conjuring the right kind of early-90s fix, invoking Portishead and American post-rock, and then proceeds to lash it to a propulsive emotional core more in keeping with early Ministry or Sisters of Mercy.
What this layering makes clear is that Bosnian Rainbows have found a way to dissolve the mental block that separates the Lollapalooza Era from the Europop that had helped pave the way for mainstream “alternative” culture throughout the previous decade. They understand that Siouxie and the Banshees played the slot right before headliner Jane’s Addiction at the first Lollapalooza and that indie rock darlings like Pavement grew up listening to Echo and the Bunnymen and The Cure. Or, to be more precise, they remember this vividly enough to not be dissuaded by that superficial mode of music history that focuses on breaks instead of continuities.
Only once I had played Bosnian Rainbows enough to have it memorized was I willing to let the spell be broken and ponder where it had come from. That’s a highly unusual approach for me — my first impulse is usually to check the date and the second to check the map — reflecting my need at the time for something new to feel passionate about. But it also speaks to the trepidation I felt upon first seeing the album’s cover, that sense that it would remind me of everything I disliked about the music industry after Nirvana.
To be perfectly honest, if I had known that the band was the latest project of Omar Rodriguez Lopez, from At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, I probably wouldn’t have bothered sampling it in the first place. While I have nothing against either of those bands per se, and recognize that they mean a lot to many people — particularly the sort who frequent record stores in the American Southwest — neither worked in a musical vein that interests me much.
Even though At the Drive-In became big during the period when I was writing for Punk Planet, their angular take on the emo favored by many of that magazines readers left me cold. And The Mars Volta, while sharply differentiated from At the Drive-In, always struck me as a band that prioritized strangeness at the expense of other musical virtues. To my mind, they were the epitome of excess for its own sake and therefore the last band I could imagine giving rise to an album with as much room to breathe as Bosnian Rainbows.
I decided to revisit the work of both bands before writing this piece, in hopes both of better understanding how Bosnian Rainbows came about and discovering, as I sometimes do, that I had neglected influential music unfairly. But the truth is that, while I found some new details to admire in At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, I realized that I still didn’t like either of them very much and would, indeed, be unlikely to listen to them much in the future.
This insight perplexed me, because it is rare that I will think highly of an artist’s work in one project while having no use for her or his previous endeavors. Was my experience with Bosnian Rainbows simply an indication that I need to try harder to bypass my prejudices, by listening to more records before I have attempted to classify them in my mind? Or was it, rather, a sign that Omar Rodriguez Lopez had himself decided that he needed to rethink his musical origins along more accessible lines?
Certainly, a key factor in Bosnian Rainbows’ sound is the presence of vocalist Teri Gender Bender, who inverts the agitprop feminism for which her band Le Butcherettes is known to reveal a vulnerable beauty. But Rodriguez Lopez hand-picked Le Butcherettes for his own label and must surely have sensed that her voice could make this leap into new territory. Given the level of control he exerts over all the music in his life — a trait that contributed to the demise of both At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta — it is safe to assume that he actively sought the changes her presence facilitates.
Considering the large number of obscure solo albums Rodriguez Lopez has put out in recent years, each of them marked by a restless eccentricity impervious to commercial impulses, Bosnian Rainbows might be considered a savvy financial move, a way to make his undeniable musical gifts turn a profit again. The band certainly has the potential to make it big in a way that even At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta never could be.
But I prefer to think of the band in less cynical terms, as an effort to excavate their pre-history in different places than one might expect. That’s the easiest way to make sense of the name Bosnian Rainbows. It serves, as Rodriguez Lopez has suggested, as shorthand for beauty found in a place of strife and suffering. As a longtime resident of El Paso, Texas, just across the border from one of the most violent cities in the world, he is surely no stranger to the search for such compensatory pleasures.
By displacing it into the early 1990s, however, far from the immediate concerns of the place he calls home, Rodriguez Lopez alerts us to the possibility that redemption may only be possible in the guise of estrangement. Certainly, Bosnian Rainbows will confound the expectations of those who stereotype the American Southwest and Latino culture more generally. If Calexico, the critic’s darlings from my home in Tucson, sound “like” the Border, Bosnian Rainbows must represent its negation.
I think this helps explain why Bosnian Rainbows succeeds where so many other records mining the post-punk sound have failed. Rodriguez Lopez and his collaborators comprehend the escapist dimension to the music they pay homage to. They know that bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy and The Cure weren’t trying to reflect their historical context, but to transcend it. It’s a testament to Bosnian Rainbows’ attention to detail that they do such a good job of achieving that feat themselves. Sometimes being all over the map is the best way to stay whole.