Sunday, 27 November 2016

Volume 8 Side 3 - Sugarcubes, Kitchens of Distinction, Fatima Mansions, Wire, Field Mice, Pale Saints

1. The Sugarcubes - Regina (One Little Indian)

"Four, Five, Six, Seven... and Bjork suddenly bursts alight, trilling, preening, calling, beckoning, the scarlet ethereal voice hitting the topmost notes with a heart-stopping clarity, the jiggering rhythm folding across her shoulders" - Melody Maker. 

The pop world hasn't been overburdened with songs penned in tribute to columnists who write for evening newspapers, but The Sugarcubes corrected that matter in 1989 with "Regina". Of course, being The Sugarcubes, the topic of the song was no ordinary woman, being an Icelandic columnist who mainly wrote about the achievements of her neighbours and said very little about the news at all, and their praise to her is occasionally eccentric and rather blurry in its aims. At one point Einar screams "I really don't like lobster!" in a manner usually reserved for political protest songs.

Business as usual back at the Bad Taste camp, then, although rather like the last time we met the group with "Deus", there's a slickness and poppiness to this track which barely matches the lyrics or indeed Einar's demented ramblings. The track clops along at an even pace, and the chorus is a simple, trilled refrain of "Oh oh, Regina!" which threatens never to end in the last minute of the track. The net result is that once the novelty of the sheer absurdity of the lyrics and the subject matter fades, you're left with very little to get excited about.

The album "Regina" stemmed from, "Here Today Tomorrow Next Week" is widely regarded to be a sophomore slump effort, and the fact that "Regina" acted as the lead single from it didn't bode well.

2. Kitchens of Distinction - Elephantine (One Little Indian)

"....hail from Tooting, South London, which is on direct route southwards to Timbuktu. Really. The band form two years ago after a chance encounter at the frozen food section of Safeway in Streatham!"

As the baggy movement began to gather pace and indie-kids started shaking their fringes and imaginary maracas on the dance floor to an assortment of Mancs singing to funky drummer beats in hushed tones, Kitchens of Dinstinction actually began to seem even more out of sorts than they were when they first arrived. For all that, "Elephantine" was possibly their biggest sounding single yet, with a huge yet disconcerting chorus. The track overall lacked their usual dependency on effects pedals and atmospherics and instead launches itself headlong into something approach a traditional tune, albeit one filtered through some peculiar prisms.

Perhaps due to the epic nature of the chorus, "Elephantine" did give the band their biggest indie chart hit yet, but their popularity would never rise much above cult indie appreciation.

3. Fatima Mansions - Only Losers Take The Bus (Kitchenware)

"Fatima Mansions is that very rare thing, a sound that sounds like nothing so much as itself" - 20/20
"The hungry, incredulous 'Only Losers Take The Bus' is perfect" - NME

Microdisney split up following the undeserved failure of their last album "39 Minutes", an unorthodox and astonishing album which featured fierce anti-Thatcherite lyrics backed with smooth Steely Dan styled arrangements and backing vocals from Londonbeat on session duties. The Londonbeat boys apparently sorely objected to getting in the studio to croon along to lines such as "There's nothing wrong with the young would-be rich/ That a head full of lead would not cure" but happily took their paycheque anyway. The record company Virgin didn't see the point of the entire affair, dropped Microdisney, and the group collapsed in disarray.

Lead singer and lyricist Cathal Coughlan wasted absolutely no time in forming a new band, and Fatima Mansions were the swift result. He was out of the traps so fast that, unfortunately, their first mini-LP "Against Nature" did still bear hallmarks of the Microdisney sound on a few tracks, containing familiarly brooding Scott Walker-ish ballads. Among those, however, were also pounding social rants ("The Prince of Caledonia he drives a diesel van/ When he's peddling skag in Hamilton/ He's a reality man!") and perhaps more unusually, Stock Aitken and Waterman styled indie-disco, slightly akin to Robert Lloyd. The group's lack of identity at this point confused more punters than it delighted, and their early work remains relatively overlooked to this day.

The first single "Only Losers Take The Bus" is most definitely remembered, however, being a thunderous, rattling juggernaut of a track, filled with Cathal spouting obtuse lyrics with a righteous fury and demanding, angular guitar riffs. Inspired by Margaret Thatcher's declaration that anyone aged 30 or over who still takes a bus has failed at life, some of the other lines - "Get these dead bodies off my race track!" in particular - hint towards a surreal attack on individualistic, self-centered Conservative values.

Musically it gave few clues about the fury the group were about to unleash on the world, instead hinting that their future lay in quirky indie rock - but nonetheless, it was far from ignored by the press, who were there to wave their flags enthusiastically from the sidelines.

4. Wire - In Vivo (Mute)

"Those masters of uncompromising melody do what they bloody well like (once more). Another slice of unholy Ecstacy on vinyl".

For all the talk of Wire being uncompromising, "In Vivo" really marks the final moment of an uncharacteristically poppy phase for the group. From the release of "A Bell Is A Cup" onwards, a clear sense was beginning to emerge that Wire were now a peculiar but faintly commercial group. "Eardrum Buzz" was proof positive that they could pen in an infuriatingly catchy track, and "Kidney Bingos" and "Silk Skin Paws" showed they could play their grown-up punk associates equally well at the "atmospheric adult pop" game. After this, though, Wire would become much more jarring and experimental.

"In Vivo" offers slick, catchy riffs sliding into an anthemic chorus, and while it never truly puffs its chest out, it's still a comparatively trad single by Wire's normal standards, with barely a sharp edge or unexpected twist or turn to be found. For those reasons, I find it possibly the least interesting of their Mute singles - and the fact it sold less well than many of them possibly indicates that the public felt the same way.

That's not to say it's bad, mind you. There very rarely ever was such a thing as a bad Wire single, and "In Vivo" is bold and shiny enough to be among the finer tracks on "Volume 8". It just doesn't excel.

The album this came from (provided you didn't own the vinyl copy) was "IBTABA", or "It's Beginning To And Back Again", which consisted almost entirely of reimaginings and reconstructions of other recent Wire songs, with the group often pulling the structures to pieces and building songs up again completely from their basic foundations. Frequently regarded as a substandard album in their catalogue, it was actually the first Wire long-player I ever bought, and I initially didn't understand what it was, believing all the tracks on it to be the original versions. When I backtracked later on, I actually thought the true original versions on "A Bell Is A Cup" were inferior, a view I've subsequently revised in some but absolutely not all cases. I still believe that (for example) the moody acoustic take of "Public Place" is the definitive version. "IBTABA" is definitely worth tracking down, but it may take a little bit of adjusting to get used to the parallel universe versions of the tunes on there.

5. Field Mice - If You Need Someone (Sarah)

"Taken from the double 7 inch EP 'The Autumn Store'".

While it's tempting to argue that The Field Mice were a huge cult band at the time, their subsequent influence on bands such as Belle and Sebastian means that their name is even more likely to be uttered by indie kids these days than it was in 1989. Indeed, a compilation of their work "Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way?" released in 1999 sold more copies than anything released during the group's lifetime.

It would also be tempting to argue that the fey, ponderous approach "If You Need Someone" takes is typical of the group's output, but they actually played around with a wide variety of sounds, as future "Indie Top 20" appearances will prove. There's no question that it's something of a stereotypical Sarah Records release, however - dripping with wide-eyed teenage romance, sensitive promises, buttery guitar lines and plodding drum patterns, it's an indiepop Valentine's card to all women with duffle coats and cute bangs everywhere. And I actually have to confess that as a grown man, I find it slightly tough to get anything out of - this is a dream of a love affair written through the prism of boyish innocence, and it's a pretty listen, but not a very emotionally engaging or inspiring one. Unlike some of their other output, if you created an acoustic version of this and got a female vocalist to take the lead, nobody would really notice anything was up if you put it on a pet food advert in the present day. A strength or a weakness (or a sign that my true vocation lies in soundtracking adverts)? You decide.

6. Pale Saints - Sight Of You (4AD)

"This, the first to benefit from the band's jigsaw theory of song A songwriting pregnant with meaning".

WHAT?! Did "Indie Top 20" get that piece of blurb from a bad translation of a Hungarian music press review?

Anyway, "Sight Of You", from their "Barging Into The Presence Of God" EP, was such a huge track at the time that it hung around the Indie Top 10 seemingly forever, and featured in the final 10 of John Peel's 1989 Festive Fifty.

Along with the work of My Bloody Valentine, there's an arguable case to be made for it being one of the first "shoegazing" tracks as well. The droning organ, buried and cherubic vocals, and finally the sheer wall of guitars that hits you at the track's end seem to predict the emergence of sonic atmospherics rather than funky beats. That bassline, which almost appears to be leading the melody in places rather than anchoring it, obviously owed a bigger debt to Peter Hook, however.

Given the relative success of the track at the time, it's slightly surprising that it's heard so infrequently now, and also that Pale Saints failed to really build on it. Subsequent singles - more on those when we get to them - are actually much more adventurous and interesting in my opinion, but the group's appeal never did become as large as their early promise seemed to indicate. "Sight Of You" really should be regarded as one small element in their career rather than their crowning glory, but it's possible that the group paid the price for arriving with a certain type of noise far too early.

1 comment:

    How about Elephantine?
    or Tom Verlaine ?