Sunday, 19 March 2017

Indie Top 20 Vol 14 - Lush, Moose, Revolver, Mercury Rev, Throwing Muses

Format: Double LP (plus bonus 12" single), CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1992

This was the beginning of a very brief revamp for the "Indie Top 20" series, which saw it rebadged as "Independent 20". The volume number was not specified on the sleeve (a quick look at the spine and the TT014 catalogue number was the only way you would know if you'd been out of the country or in a coma for some time). We were instead treated to a random and seemingly unrelated image to tell the volumes apart - in this case, some pelicans. Later volumes would include a water slide, and a picture of some smiling children on a day out. Don't ask me why. Presumably this was some kind of attempt to go a bit 4AD/ Factory with the series design and present some sleeves which were a little artier.

The sleevenotes returned too, and were a little less half-arsed this time around.

On vinyl this was a hugely expensive purchase at the time. It came with glossy inner sleeves and a "free" bonus twelve inch single (which mostly consisted of demos and studio doodles, and I honestly don't want to review separately) but I winced at the price tag which was far higher than usual.

The volume also coincided with British independent music hitting a creative and commercial trough. I had a friend at this time who would regularly correct my statement "This has been such a bad year for music" with the answer "Dave, every year is a good year for music". His logic was simple. Whether I knew it or not, good music was being released or played all the time, and even if one year was a particularly fallow period for new sounds, there would still be plenty of brilliant old music I hadn't discovered yet. Fair points all, but for the purposes of this blog, Volume 14 really coincides with a period where the alternative scene seemed to mostly slink back apologetically to the underground.  Bands playing in small bars and groups issuing singles with wrap-around Xeroxed sleeves in polythene bags got more press and late-night airplay than they could have seriously imagined possible. Unlike C86, though, many of the groups were underground punk dinmakers. Nothing wrong with that, and there are some fine noises to be had here - but in many cases, some of these groups we'll be discussing were one-trick ponies who will never feature on the series again.

It's a peculiar LP and I must admit, probably one of my least favourites in the series. It's a very, very good snapshot of the kind of bands you would hear performing in dingy venues with overflowing urinals in late 1991 and 1992, but perhaps inevitably, lots of it fails to stand up to repeated listens.

1. Lush - For Love (4AD)

"Since their formation in 1988 and the release of the first mini-LP "Scar" in 1989, Lush have had to develop under the spotlight of the nation's music media. The 'For Love' EP and the recent Guthrie produced album 'Spooky' have proved beyond a doubt that Lush have been worthy of the attention which has been paid to them over the past three years".

In many respects, Lush kicking off the LP creates the impression that little has moved on since Volume 13. "For Love", though, is a peculiarly fragile little record, with a delicate wind-up music box melody and frail vocals. Here, Miki Berenyi's voice veers strangely close to that of the woman who sang the theme tune to the sit-com "Dear John" - an absurd style, but the high-pitched hushiness of them is well-suited to a song about the naiveté of adolescent romance.

Of all Lush's singles, even the later "Britpop" efforts, "For Love" feels strangely unrepresentative of the group. It's gently reflective and faintly satirical, and presents itself as a piece of fey contemplation on teenage love while biting hard with a noticeably feminist angle if you listen hard enough. "Happy just to be a prize/ Happy just to see his smile" suggests servitude, and choosing the role of the "girlfriend" as a secure badge of identity rather than genuine romance. It's easy to miss that through the chiming prettiness of it all, though.

"For Love" is a rather strange moment in Lush's catalogue, but not an unlikeable one.

2. Moose - Last Night I Fell Again (Hut)

"Moose shot out of musical obscurity in the early part of '91 with the release of their 'Jack' EP on the Hut label. 'Cool Breeze', their second EP, quickly followed and established Moose still further as an important and exciting new band. 'Lsat Night I Fell Again' is featured on their third EP 'Reprise' which sees Moose in a more melancholic mood. Do keep an eye on Moose as they have the talent to produce something rather remarkable in the future".

With its incessant shimmering backing and despairing, hungover sounding vocals, "Last Night I Fell Again" does indeed catch Moose at their moodiest, with their usual love for psychedelic effects pedal twiddling sidelined slightly for a lovelorn feel. While it was tempting for many critics at the time to write the group off as being another shoegazing band, time and more releases would prove that they actually had considerably more talent than that. Also tucked away on the "Reprise" EP is a track many consider to be their finest moment, the heartfelt ballad "This River Will Never Run Dry" - a full six minutes of jangly guitars, and fragile vocals singing of romantic commitment. "I wanna marry in the morning/ with the sunlight in our eyes/ I'm always near/ This river never will run dry" Russell Moose declares to a steadily building, innocent melody. It's one of those moments indie bands excel at where conventional mainstream groups often fail - sometimes you need imperfection, a cheap sounding guitar, and a wobbled vocal note to bring home how cracked but special the blessed ordinariness of life can be.

3. Revolver - Don't Ever Leave (Hut)

"Revolver emerged in '91 as the torch bearers of new order in independent music. They soon signed to Hut and have released two critically acclaimed singles to date. The first, 'Heaven Sent An Angel', silenced those journalists who claimed the band were just hype. The following 'Crimson' EP which 'Don't Ever Leave' is taken from, is a collection of tender tracks which prove that Revolver will definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the months and years to come".

Whatever. To be honest, few things fill me with less hope than the declaration "Here's something from a Revolver EP which isn't the lead track", and in this case that wouldn't be remotely unreasonable of me. "Don't Ever Leave" is four minutes of heavily distorted bass noises, DIY wooden box drum patterns, and woe-filled vocals. Full credit to the group for taking things in a much less obvious direction and experimenting with the possibilities of sound in an unpredictable way, but the song itself is so simplistic that no amount of lo-fi sonic shenanigans can save it. The initial, elephant-thudding, mocking three-note riff dominates throughout, making for a deeply dreary listening experience, and it's a blessed relief when the damn thing is finally over.

4. Mercury Rev - Car Wash Hair (the bee's chasing me) Full Pull (Mint Films/ Jungle)

"Mercury Rev are a six-piece from Buffalo, New York who took the independent music scene by storm in '91 with the release of their 'Yerself Is Steam' LP. They have been compared to various bands such as Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd, Jane's Addiction and Butthole Surfers. 'Car Wash Hair' was their debut single which earned Mercury Rev a Melody Maker single of the week".

"Car Wash Hair" had the distinct advantage of sounding very little like any of the other bands being thrown at us in late 1991. Simultaneously psychedelic, mellow, ponderous and preposterous, it recalled the post-summer of love comedown noises of obscure sixties American psychedelic bands. Few bands had ever entered the fray with such a damaged sounding record - "Car Wash Hair" sounds like the product of a group who have already enjoyed their fair share of hallucinogenic drugs and are now freaking out in Studio Three trying to record their final flop album in a fried and tragic state. The pinging radar noise throughout sounds like a hint that the group are looking for life - something, anything tangible to cling on to.

It's a fine piece of work, obviously. A fluttering, steadily building piece of soft beauty which never quite falls over into total chaos, however much it threatens to. Mercury Rev would eventually reach success with a more conventionally epic sound, but this single indicates that their beginnings were almost entirely grounded in a frail and occasionally frightening kind of psychedelia. There was a slight sense that they didn't quite know what they were doing, but the whole thing worked out fine anyway. It's a thrill to hear the group walk the tightrope successfully.

5. Throwing Muses - Not Too Soon (4AD)

"Over the past six years Throwing Muses have been one of the most consistent bands to have come out of America. Signed to 4AD in '86, they have released a total of four EPs, one mini LP and four full length albums. 'Not Too Soon', taken from '91's "Real Ramona" LP, was written by Tanya Donelly who has since left the group. Both Tanya and the Muses are currently recording LPs for release this autumn".

Perhaps inevitably, "Not Too Soon" ends up sounding more like Tanya Donelly than most Throwing Muses tracks here, and - intentionally or otherwise - appeared to act as a showcase for her forthcoming work with the group Belly. While Hersh was always popularly regarded as the eccentric and creative genius within the group, her stepsister Donelly was often left to flounder somewhere in the background - doubtless a frustrating situation for someone with bags of talent of her own (and a very separate personality with an arguably more conventional charisma attached).

"Not Too Soon" is immediate evidence that Donelly could cope by herself. A killer riff is matched by her growling vocal force, and the tracks bursts into life from the first split second, Tanya snapping the track wide open with the words "She... colourblind, tired eyes..." while the Muses weave their magic behind her. The pounding drums and somewhat absurd, inarticulate chorus reveal that we're still very much in their territory, but this is nonetheless an oddly catchy and compelling single.

With Belly, Donelly would go on to become a mainstream media figure for awhile, and scored a number one LP in the British Charts with her debut LP "Star". Seldom have individuals breaking away from groups had so much success and acclaim so quickly on their own.

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