Michael Endelman
May 14, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

There were over 85 acts performing at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, though it seemed like most of the 50,000 sunbaked fans who descended on Indio, Calif., ventured into the 100-plus-degree heat to see just two bands: the Pixies and the Cure. Both are returning this year after a period of hibernation, marking the latest phase in our loop of pop-culture nostalgia. Call it the revival of ”120 Minutes” rock, the subcultural sounds of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Playing their first large-scale show since reuniting earlier this year, the Pixies confirmed their status as post-punk, pre-grunge legends with a fierce set. Led by egg-shaped singer Frank Black, the quartet’s grinding stop-start rhythms and violent dynamic shifts imbued each song with a sense of the unexpected. It’s been 13 years since their last album, but the Pixies sound like they’ve been rehearsing every week. The Cure, on the other hand, couldn’t have felt more out of place and, maybe, out of practice. Their set consisted of a handful of songs from their upcoming June release, along with too many dreamy midtempo tunes that vaporized into the evening’s steamy air. Seasoned showman that he is, though, Robert Smith left the crowd smiling by loading the end of the set with the band’s greatest hits — the ones every art major knows by heart.

Beyond the main-stage headliners, there was plenty of new, forward-thinking music to be heard, from the sensitive-guy emo of Death Cab for Cutie to the psychedelic pop of the Flaming Lips and Air to the garage-funk goofs of Junior Senior (with Fred Schneider of the B-52’s helping out). By catering mostly to the tortured souls of indie rockers, however, Coachella ended up becoming a strange bit of cognitive dissonance: While the crowd looked like extras from ”The O.C.” and the horizon was dotted with palm trees, most of the headliners (the Cure, Radiohead, the Pixies) painted a much darker picture, focusing on alienation, decay, anxiety, and angst. Party on.

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