1. Curve - Ten Little Girls (Anxious)
While Curve emerged on the music scene seemingly from nowhere in 1991, both Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia had a long history. Both had previously played in the group State of Play together, who ran up a £100,000 debt producing two flop singles and a flop album for Virgin. Toni Halliday went off to attempt a solo career, which had a slightly higher media profile (though Record Mirror somewhat sniffily referred to her as "another pretty blonde in a leather jacket") but didn't really catch the public's imagination either. While her solo records weren't awful, they were also distinctly unmemorable, slick late eighties pop fare.
Given all the above, when Garcia and Halliday reunited for Curve in December 1989, nobody expected fireworks. Both had enormous talent, but neither had really successfully utilised it outside of a "session musician/ voice for hire" context, and certainly neither had managed to produce anything of particular note while working together. At the time, then, Curve were a huge shock. Toni Halliday re-emerged with jet black hair, pale shining foundation and thick mascara, fronting a rumbling juggernaut of Garcia's soundscapes. There were those who suspected the entire situation was contrived - a last-ditch attempt by two flop musicians in their late twenties to obtain credibility and a mainstream career by stealth. The fact they were signed to Dave Stewart's Anxious label did little to assuage these critics.
The first single "Ten Little Girls" doesn't sound as if it could possibly have been created in a cynical way, though. Garcia clearly took to the foundations of the track with an acute precision. It feels like a finely sculpted piece of industrial noise, smoothed and sanded into softer and more peculiar shapes. While other groups of the era tried to jar the listener with an onslaught of noise, "Ten Little Girls" contains a richness of detail. From the howls of feedback to the rattling rhythm track and rumbling basslines, to Halliday's varied and evolving lyrics and vocal contributions, it manages to feel aggressive and urgent without losing its impact forty or fifty listens down the line. Halliday's voice is also being used to brilliant effect here. Outside of a pop context, it's softness can be made to sound dangerous and threatening. Even the added rap, which was normally a horrible early nineties mistake on indie records, works well here, contributing an added aggression.
Curve became music press icons very quickly, appearing on numerous front covers, aided partly by the fact that Toni Halliday was (let's be honest) not unattractive. My teenage self was fascinated by her looks and neurotic lyricisms, as indeed was just about every heterosexual and bisexual boy at college.
Given all the above, the world should have been their oyster, but as we'll go on to discover, Curve's sound, while sounding fantastically new and startling at first, rapidly became familiar. And while they made frequently marvellous records, all were niche sounds which lacked obvious pop melodies and didn't sit easily on "Top of the Pops"; although they would eventually appear on that show.
2. Throwing Muses - Counting Backwards (4AD)
Next to Curve, Throwing Muses sounded almost conventional in this track sequencing, but obviously they're not. "Counting Backwards" is yet another example of them weaving a hook-ridden pop tune around a quirky and unusual structure. There are moments around the chorus where it almost finds a Talking Heads styled groove, only for the track to slide back into a tumbling rhythm pattern and peculiar howling guitar lines.
With each progressive LP release, the group were steadily reaching more people. When we first met them on Volume Three of this series with "Cry Baby Cry", they were a seriously cult concern, sounding rough around the edges and faintly out of step with the era. As time progressed, however, their eccentricity became a beacon for numerous fans who recognised that Kristin Hersh occupied an intelligent and uninhibited arthouse approach not easily found in late eighties and early nineties alternative music (outside of Sugarcubes records, anyway). They had few rivals, and "Counting Backwards" is an example of an immediately memorable single with beautiful spikes and angles attached. They were now moving away from the world of inky fanzines and into the glossy pages of Q magazine.
3. Kitchens of Distinction - Drive That Fast (One Little Indian) - vinyl and cassette only
With lyrics seemingly taking on the topic of the early stages of a love affair where the conditions and seriousness have yet to fully establish themselves, "Drive That Fast" is simultaneously joyous and paranoid sounding. Whooshing past in a giddy rush, it's elated one minute then cautious the next ("I would never wish this much on you") and the group are asked to keep up with Patrick Fitzgerald's dual emotional state.
It's a lovely take on those early feelings, and utilises a similar roar of guitar effects pedals and multi-tracked ideas to Curve on track one - meaning that this could have more ideally sat as track two. By the end, you're still not quite sure what the romantic conclusion is. The outro is giddy sounding, but sounds equally drunkenly paranoid as loved-up and excited. Fitzgerald sounds as if he has stepped on to a merry-go-round without really giving the option any forethought, and now it's spinning far faster than he expected - a thrilling ride, but if it stops suddenly, he'll be face-first into the gutter with cuts and bruises, and possibly worse if the landing is particularly poor. The thrill wouldn't exist without the danger, but the danger can never be completely eliminated from the thought processes.
While the lyrics are also a simple series of thoughts rather than philosophical musings on the condition, they do have a unique quality by considering the dangers faced by the other half. Quite unusually and generously for pop music, they recognise that two people are facing peril by another possible failed and demanding relationship, not just the singer. The concern expressed is distinctly un-rock and roll and lacking in decadence, and offers to protect the partner rather than view them as a complication.
4. Buffalo Tom - Fortune Teller (Situation Two)
Following the epic sludge of "Birdbrain", "Fortune Teller" was actually something of a let down. A piece of countrified lo-fi, it stumbles along its own particular dirt track occasionally bumping into grungey bits of fury and distortion on the way - but never once really making a coherent case for itself. It's only charm seems to lie in its slightly rugged innocence. Without much in the way of direction, a chorus, or an easily relatable theme, it lurches drunkenly from one segment to the next as if they're inconvenient obstacles and arguments. Frankly, a single it ain't. It's barely even a B side.
Future efforts would be considerably more rounded, and "Fortune Teller" seems to have been the moment Buffalo Tom waved goodbye to any underground roots they had to create better crafted records - and by the sounds of it, that wasn't a bad thing at all.
5. Manic Street Preachers - You Love Us (Heavenly)
"You Love Us" takes the thrilling rush of "Motown Junk" and marries it to a much poppier melody, edging the group that bit closer to the mainstream American rock sounds they admired. Still, while those fiddly, flashy guitar lines did initially seem irksome, "You Love Us" is almost the equal of their Heavenly debut, marrying ridiculous arrogance - whoever heard of a band demanding "You Love Us" in such a direct and obvious way and expecting to be taken seriously? - with an energy which sounds as if it tore the recording studio walls down.
While The Manics seemed surprised by the levels of vitriol spat at them from some quarters, they were clearly doing everything to create a clear dividing line between those who would these days be called "haters" and their fans. "You Love Us" acknowledges both their problem and their attraction with the hasty line "You love us like a holocaust!" and dares listeners to step forward into their camp. It seems like a spectacularly silly gesture, of course, because it is - but then it's tapping into the roots of rock and roll rebellion, only this time the "squares" were the university educated stoners listening to bands like Slowdive, while the hip Manics fans were teenage kids in search of something, anything, remotely glamorous which articulated their frustrations.
To cap it all off, the track finishes with an unashamed steal of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" riff, before spluttering suddenly into feedback and confusion and finally nothingness.
This is the last time we'll meet them for the purposes of this blog. After such a shameless display, they promptly signed on the dotted line with Columbia and got ready for superstardom. Far from achieving overnight multi-platinum success, though, the group would embark on a long and wearisome journey which destroyed one member and left the others sounding prematurely haggard and world-beaten by the time they reached the summit. Whether you prefer the young, spunky Manics, the early Columbia era Manics or the sombre but successful and well-fed Manics is, of course, a debate which has kept the group's forums aflame for many a moon, and one which is too complex to go into here... though I may as well add my ha'penny opinion into the mix by briefly saying that "Generation Terrorists" is one of the most disappointing LPs I've ever bought (even containing a neutered and inferior version of this track) and stacked up next to that, "Everything Must Go" is an absolute masterpiece, even if it reached a broader audience Manics fans felt less comfortable sharing air with.