Monday, 29 May 2017

Volume 17 - Side One - Depeche Mode, Inspiral Carpets, Saint Etienne, Pulp, Verve

Formats: CD, Double LP, cassette
Year of Release: 1993

This is by far the oddest Indie Top 20 sleeve of all, looking rather like a continuity slide for a BBC Television children's programme. (Tim Worthington was the first to point out to me on Twitter the odd way in which the "Independent 20" LP sleeves often look like continuity slides, but this one really takes the cake).

It's one of the best albums in the series, though. I bought this one and played it close to death at home, before it followed me to university later in the year and got spun morning, noon and night as the soundtrack to my earliest months in that new place. I do have to confess that some kind of nostalgia may cause me to over-rate this LP, but the tracklisting tells no lies - there may not be a cohesive strand or dominant musical style throughout, but it does contain some absolute corkers, including some high John Peel Festive Fifty entries for that year.

This was also the very last Indie Top 20 LP to only contain music from independently distributed labels. After this point, Indie got treated as a musical genre by the series. If you're a purist, you could therefore argue that this was the last "proper" Indie Top 20 LP. More on that particular subject and my feelings on it when we get to that point, though.

1. Depeche Mode - I Feel You (Mute)

Depeche Mode's supposedly harder sound and rougher image was actually an enormous shock to many people in 1993, not least a friend-of-a-friend who lived in Basildon near Dave Gahan's parent's house and still glimpsed him on his occasional visits. Gahan's new face fuzz caused him to yell from an upstairs window in a horrified voice: "Dave, why have you grown a BEARD, you twat?" (If this makes Dave Gahan's life sound a bit like Vince's in "15 Storeys High", that might not be inaccurate. Possibly everyone's life in Basildon is a bit like Vince's in "15 Storeys High". Somewhat bizarrely, the main character's full name is also Vince Clarke).

Rude though this person's outburst may have been, I'm inclined to partly agree. Depeche Mode were (and are) one of the world's best electronic bands - their sudden bout of grungey self-consciousness around this point is one of the only times they've swayed to the dominant forces of fashion around them, and as such was a disappointing move.

Musically, though, "I Feel You" may be somewhat distorted and growly, but it's not a million miles away from their last hit with 'Proper Instruments' "Personal Jesus". Driven completely by one repetitive blues riff and some shunting railroad rhythms, it's arguably one of the simplest singles they ever recorded. Dave Gahan's performance manages to convey the lustful message in numerous different ways, though, from subtle and seductive murmerings to downright RAWK hollering, and while this song isn't overtly commercial, it does go to prove that he had become an incredible frontman who could sell any song to the listener. Radio One happily playlisted this without any questions being asked.

Sadly, this would also prove to be a period of disorder and disarray for the group, where endless touring and decadence took its toll on Gahan's health and frayed the nerves of other members. Sometimes there's not a lot to be said for being given the grown up's keys to the dressing up box and cocktail cabinet of rock and roll, as Tommy Vance probably never said.

2. Inspiral Carpets - How It Should Be (Mute)

That said, all was not happiness and light in the Inspiral Carpets world either. While so far as I know none of them were taking speedballs recreationally, "How It Should Be" was a new single, not available on any LP, which failed to enter the Top 40. It was the first fresh Inspiral Carpets track not to be a proper hit since "Move", released on their own Cow label in 1988.

That's not entirely surprising. "How It Should Be" is a fierce sounding single which almost harks back to their stripped back garage days, but it's not an obvious 45, sounding more like something which might be buried halfway through an LP. "You're just a nail I can hammer home/ This is how it is and how it should be!" chants Tom Hingley obsessively, while Clint Boon's keyboards swirl all over the shop. It's a mite psychotic sounding, and it was never going to capture the general public's imagination.

These days, it's a likeable curio in the back catalogue, not to be found on any studio LP (presumably left off their fourth platter "Devil Hopping" either due to the poor public response to it, or because it was only ever supposed to be a standalone single). It's a nice burst of noise I like to return to every now and then, but I doubt it would appear in any list I'd make of Top 30 Inspiral Carpets tracks (should I have the inclination to make one) and at the time it felt like a slightly questionable release, a sign the group might be going off the boil.

In the comments on YouTube, someone is getting quite rattled and insisting that the Inspirals ripped the tune for this off him. I can only vaguely hear what he's talking about, but even if his accusations are true, it hardly seems worth bothering the group with a lawsuit over lost royalties. "The Inspiral Carpets stole my idea to produce one of their biggest flops!" is hardly going to gain you much money or push your career any further forward.

3. Saint Etienne - You're In A Bad Way (Heavenly)

And this is an absolute gem. It sounds as if it could have been written and issued in any year from 1966 to 1993, containing the shuffling basslines and digital sheen of a modern 1993 single, but also the deceptively simple sounding chiming melodies and conciseness of a mid-sixties girl-pop track. There's a slight sneer about the central lyrical message - "Don't you know that crew cuts and trainers are out again?" Sarah Cracknell asks the object of her affections - but it's backed up with promises to lift the badly dressed man out of his rut.

The lyrics also mention Bruce Forsyth on the Generation Game, bringing to mind instantly a terrible 9-5 life with solo quiz show watching in the early evenings being the only form of numbing light relief. In doing so, it does actually effectively evoke those shite moments of your life where you temporarily drift off-radar, leaving the television on in the evenings for company, working a job where your colleagues are indifferent to your presence. We've all been there, and probably all wished for a Sarah Cracknell (or her nearest male equivalent) to emerge and promise a definite shift in the routine.

"You're In A Bad Way" still rates as one of the group's finest tracks to me, being near perfect pop - fluid, seamless, with every melody line and element feeling completely effortless. It's one of their biggest hits, and it feels like it could have been a hit at any point in pop history.

4. Pulp - Razzmatazz (Gift)

But then this ups the ante. "Razzmatazz" was greeted with confusion by a few (but admittedly not many) critics at the time for being a 'somewhat depressing' follow-up to "OU" and "Babies". Somehow, the idea had got into some people's heads that Pulp were now some kind of kitsch funtime party band with lots of quirky songs about sex. "Razzmatazz", on the other hand, was actually bloody spiteful.

Throughout, Jarvis points his elongated index digit savagely at an ex-girlfriend and bombards her with insults. Some are childish playground taunts ("The trouble with your brother/ he's always sleeping with your mother" is the actual opening line) others are disturbing home truths. The line "Started getting fatter three weeks after I left you/ Now you're going with some kid/ who looks like some bad comedian" is particularly cutting (and some would argue misogynistic, though the blog "Freaks, Misshapes, Weeds" does a very good job of explaining that away).

In the end, we're given the impression of someone whose life has completely gone awry, in a similar but much more tragic way than the individual in "You're In A Bad Way". Whereas he had a routine to cling on to, the woman in "Razzmatazz" is clearly having an absolute chaotic crack-up - "Your mother wants to put you away" clearly hints at that. This is the noise of someone hectoring an old partner who has completely gone to pieces in his absence.

Well, I say that... but is it really? "Freaks, Misshapes, Weeds" explains that the lyrics "use empathy as a weapon" which is a fantastic description, but to me there's always been a little bit more to it than that. The exaggerated high drama of the single has never wholly convinced me that it's just a piece of straightforward observational spite about one person's misfortune. What it actually sounds like is the noise of someone exaggerating or possibly even imagining or fantasising how badly off an ex partner is without them. It's suspiciously like the words of one jilted, frustrated lover ranting to his friends in the pub and convincing himself that the life he's left his old lover with is pathetic, an endless round of cheap chocolates, weight gain, early nights and ugly boyfriends. Some of the above may be correct, but all of it? I've always thought it's just a scenario the singer desperately wants to believe is true. There's just too much fury between the lines for me, and an overload of spite. The end impression I'm left with is of someone who is just as tormented and screwed up as his ex. Perhaps they should get back together again. It's clearly what he wants, even if he can't quite bring himself to admit it, though the line "I was lying when I asked you to stay" comes damn close to revealing the truth behind the situation.

This is the kind of dark, layered nastiness you would expect to find in a single by The Auteurs, so it's not altogether surprising to learn that it's Luke Haines's favourite Pulp single.

Musically though, "Razzmatazz" is much busier and more complicated than the lyrics might have otherwise let it be. Full of bright synth lines and dramatic interludes, and soaring, almost Gloria Gaynor styled pieces of melodrama and defiance at the end, it's another piece of expertly produced pop. Indie bands - and God knows that Pulp were at one point one of the most low-budget, mend-and-make-do indie groups ever - were now getting incredibly good at this. This packs plenty of drama and so many little flourishes and detours into one song without ever feeling forced or unnatural that it's a marvel. I would also have to say that it's probably my favourite Pulp single, and one that's undeservedly tucked away behind their more obvious anthems.

5. Verve - Blue (Hut)

In which Verve manage to invent those particularly smoky, hazy, guitar overloaded tracks Oasis ended up specialising in a few years down the line. Disorientating, dizzy, psychedelic and riddled with then-unfashionable backwards drum sounds, "Blue" feels more like a representative soundscape in places than a traditional verse/chorus/ middle eight song. Rather than soaring upwards, Ashcroft sounds particularly rattled, paranoid and agitated here.

Verve hadn't broken through to the mainstream yet, and this sure as hell wasn't going to push them up over the line, but "Blue" is still thought of by fans as being a fine early single. I must admit, though, I find it rather messy sounding, inconclusive and dull. Each to their own.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Volume 16 Side Four - Moose, Belly, Swervedriver, Smashing Pumpkins, Come

1. Moose - Little Bird (Are You Happy In Your Cage?) (Hut)

This, really, is as jaunty as Moose ever got - a single ominously entitled "Little Bird (Are You Happy In Your Cage?)" combined with bouncy sunshine riffs and Russell's voice stretching itself to cracking point on the bouyant high notes.

Naturally, this is false optimism, a song reflecting a situation that is imperfect where one person is so blissfully happy in a relationship that all the power rests with the other, more indifferent, party. "Oh, I need so much more than YOU/ but in your eyes it's getting more wonderful" he sneers, "If you could see the things I do/ you'd know that it's all for me..."

As love songs go, this is superbly grouchy and skips down the road sarcastically, acknowledging the seldom spoken truth that sometimes the power of love can be an ensnaring and delusional thing, rather than a "beautiful" thing. If you're not listening to this song properly, you could kid yourself it's an innocent piece of fey romanticism. And if you're rushing high on adoration, you could trick yourself into believing that the "significant other" in your life cares about you, rather than tolerates having you around in lieu of any other better options.

2. Belly - Dusted (4AD)

Following her departure from Throwing Muses, Tanya Donnelly formed Belly who dropped into our lives with this, the likeable but inessential "Dusted". Sounding like the work of a band who were still beginning to understand each other's styles and working methods, and certainly inferior to the group's later work, it passes as an introduction to their world but is seldom talked about with great enthusiasm these days.

Largely propelled by one simple riff and Donnelly's obtuse lyrics, the actual single version - rather than the more polished LP track - isn't available online, leaving me to suspect that it may have been suppressed. It's surprising to hear how much of Belly's sound was nailed from the earliest baby steps of the group's career, but I doubt many non-fans of the group would hold this up as a must-listen of any kind. Indeed, my initial thoughts that Belly would probably be a very quickly done and forgotten prospect were proven horribly wrong when their debut LP "Star" shot to number one in 1993.

3. Swervedriver - Never Lose That Feeling (Creation)

Swervedriver were, along with Adorable, Creation's big new hopes. Emerging in 1992 with the defiant sounding "Son of Mustang Ford", they sounded like a band who were just as immersed in classic rock as they were shoegazing and The Jesus and Mary Chain. "Mustang Ford" in particular contained a lot of unapologetic and rough (and really thrilling sounding) fretboard workouts.

"Never Lose That Feeling" isn't quite the same sound, but is still as washed-out and dreamy sounding as hard guitar sounds allow themselves to get. Like a snowplough piling through a residential property in slow motion, it's a thundering, crashing noise taking place at a calm, undisturbed pace.

4. Smashing Pumpkins - I Am One (Hut)

Meanwhile, The Pumpkins enter into our lives again with some rumbling, thundering, inconclusive riffola which never progresses, moves, or wanders from the first heavy few seconds onwards. This is Hard Rock with a grunge tag slyly slipped on to it in the hope nobody would notice - although unlike an enormous amount of hard rock, it's a tedious slog of a listening exercise.

Bottom heavy, fussy sounding and minimal but lacking in adrenalin or groove, "I Am One" is a knuckle-dragging piece of work which probably sounds amazing if you come into the office on a dress-down Friday wearing double denim. I, however, won't be sorry if I don't have to listen to this dreck again for another twenty-five years. It's almost impossible for me to understand how something so loud and gut-thumping can induce so much yawning.

5. Come - Fast Piss Blues (Placebo)

It's hard for many people to remember now, but Boston's Come were actually huge press news in 1992. Fronted with the throaty, rasping vocals of Thalia Zadek, their music fitted in neatly with the dominant grunge scene of the time, but also (unlike the Pumpkins) could be incredibly edgy and threatening sounding, filled to the brim with dark chords and ominous rhythm patterns.

"Fast Piss Blues" gives a strong impression of their power, featuring meandering, demonic riffs combined with Zadek's furious vocal delivery. Sneering, kicking and screeching its way into the Indie Charts in 1992, this really was the group's only real commercial exposure in the UK. By the time they followed up their debut LP "11:11" with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 1994, though, heads were being turned by other sounds and they slid back underground. For a few brief moments in '92 Come seemed like a very powerful emerging force, but the threat wasn't followed up with anything bigger.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Volume 16 Side 3 - Verve, Spiritualized, Pulp, The Jennifers (Supergrass), Spectrum

1. Verve - She's A Superstar (Hut)

While I slightly struggled with Verve initially, "She's A Superstar" was an enormous, towering single which emerged very early in their careers. Riddled with scaling riffs, chiming, music box guitar elements buried deep in the mix, and rumbling basslines, it seeps mood and atmosphere rather than clubbing you around the head with nagging hooks.

Unfortunately, if the finger of suspicion can be pointed at any band in particular for starting the lazy lyrical tropes of Dadrock, it's probably Ashcroft and company. "She climbs so high/ I don't know why", sings yer man airily and lazily, possibly inspiring the by-numbers lyricism of Oasis and their many minions along the way.

Still, "She's A Superstar" scales, swoops and turns at graceful angles like a majestic bird - even if Richard Ashcroft had contributed no lyrics at all and this had been an "Albatross" styled instrumental, it would be hard not to be impressed by it. It's a Verve track you won't hear often on adult rock or alternative stations, but really, for me it was the first sign that some of the hype was possibly justified.

2. Spiritualized - Medication (Dedicated)

Spiritualized were getting more sophisticated too, moving on from being blissed-out underground hippies with a mighty fine lightshow, to creating songs with tight, ambitious and occasionally almost unwieldy arrangements. Their epic and absurdly long single "Feels So Sad" acted as evidence to listeners that they weren't afraid of a challenge, and even if that particular attempt was perhaps too bloated for its own good, it was clear that they had an intent to be more than just an indie group.

"Medication" is a moody and bitter pean to drug addiction which is filled to the brim with dizzy jazzy riffs, eerie organ work, and rushing guitar noises. It's a single that sounds impressive rather than having much impact emotionally - it's difficult not to be taken in by its ambition and conviction initially, but I suspect I'm not alone in saying that I didn't end up listening to it much after 1992 waved goodbye. But for anyone looking for evidence that Jason Pierce had moved beyond his Spacemen 3 roots and was now creating finely sculpted and detailed work rather than the lo-fi psychedelic druggy drones of yore, it was here, and things would only get better.

3. Pulp - Babies (Gift)

Pulp had been around for over a decade by this point, and could actually have featured on Indie Top 20 Volume One had Beechwood been inclined (1986's macabre "Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)" would have been a cracking addition to that cassette, actually). But they were probably never close to being in the running. Pulp were very much a sideshow act in Indiepop's boom years, churning out dark, morbid and slightly twisted songs with claustrophobic, under-produced atmospheres to very select audiences. While I don't count myself among the fans who will argue that every LP the band has ever recorded is great, their debut 1981 Peel Session contains the amazing "Wishful Thinking" (the most under-appreciated Pulp track ever?), the 1983 debut LP "It" is uneven but worthy, and 1992's delayed "Separations" LP is riddled with cheap synthesiser squelches and early eighties dancefloor rhythms as well as Scott Walker-esque patches of melodrama, and is probably their finest pre-fame effort. Only 1987's "Freaks" is a completely undercooked and joyless experience.

Pulp's time had been by no means wasted, but most bands would have packed up before "Babies", going off to get proper jobs and raise families and being satisfied with having a footnote in the world of eighties British indie. The press were not all entirely welcoming by this point. When the group jumped ship from Fire Records (who they felt didn't have their best interests at heart) to Warp's subsidiary label Gift, this was greeted by some journalists with extreme scepticism. The NME were heard to make an off-the-cuff complaint that if those C86 chancers Pulp were being labelled as bright hopes, then something had gone truly, horribly wrong with British music. Others, however, were wowed by Pulp's increasingly energetic live shows, and charmed by Jarvis Cocker's eccentric and charismatic on-stage demeanour.

By this point, they even had a shit-hot Canadian manager who nonetheless didn't seem to quite understand how to best market the group. She wandered around talking to people of influence telling them that she had "the next Right Said Fred" on her hands. Clearly, even at this point, things weren't entirely locking into place.

Thank God for the songs, then, which by now were becoming truly staggering. "Babies" is one of their finest ever singles, and one the marvellous blog "Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds" does a great job of unpacking (though I agree with the statement that it's hard to critically dissect and analyse something so effervescent and enjoyable). The foundation of an incredibly simple, if faintly unusual, two chord riff acts as the basis for all kinds of instrumental diversions for the group, from Candida's synthesiser squelches to twanging guitars and ambient interludes, to the downright euphoric ending... if Pulp described themselves as a "garage band" in the mid-eighties, they had travelled far beyond that now, and were as fussy (if not fussier) than Verve and Spiritualized... except they were playing with shaggy dog story lyrics and pop hooks, not scaling epic rock mountains. Pulp at this point were about smalltown stories and awkward situations and sex, rather than drugs and astral flying.

"Babies" would become the hit it was always supposed to be when reissued in 1994 by Island Records. For now, though, it was a curio, a marvellous single which did get some radio and television exposure - the fact it ended up on "The ITV Chart Show" marked an enormous leap forward - but wasn't really heard as often as you might suspect in 1992. I was a reasonably regular indie/ alternative clubber and gig-goer at this point, and I heard it played by a DJ once, at a small bar called Saks in Southend. Myself and a few friends strode on to the dancefloor to give the DJ our vote of confidence while almost everybody else ignored it. It was a sublime single, and everybody who liked "Babies" wanted to believe that Pulp might finally enter the mainstream... but the odds seemed so frighteningly long at this point.

4. The Jennifers - Just Got Back Today (Nude)

Another Britpop big name checks into "Indie Top 20" incredibly early. At the nucleus of this group were Danny Goffey and Gaz Coombes, both of whom would later form Supergrass. At this point, though, they hadn't even finished school, but after hometime and at the weekends their lives were consumed by the very young indie group The Jennifers.

"Just Got Back Today" sold rather poorly and it's somewhat miraculous it ended up being documented on "Indie Top 20" - I suspect that Nude Records approached Beechwood with a deal where they would pick up the license to a Suede track at a reasonable price if this effort was also guaranteed a place in the track listing.

Nonetheless, you can hear bags of promise in this, and while there's absolutely no evidence of Supergrass at their most turbo-charged, it does sound exactly like one of the group's maudlin moments. A wailing harmonica joins hands with a despairing vocal line, and the band sound heartbroken beyond their years. It's not a perfect track by any means, though. The chorus is rather too laissez faire for its own good, and the ending is clumsy and inconclusive, but given how downright young the group were, it's staggering to hear how developed they already were. This mood and sound would recur throughout Supergrass's career, from the rainy Sunday evening loneliness of "Late In The Day" to most of 2005's understated and under-rated "Road To Rouen" (so much so that I once actually padded my personal CD Rom copy of that LP out with "Just Got Back Today" as a bonus track, feeling that it acted as a sweet, innocent echo back to their early days).

Neither Danny or Gaz were quite ready for the big-time yet, but there's enough here to help you understand how some critics and record label bosses were already excited. In a couple of years time, they would be enormous news.

5. Spectrum - True Love Will Find You In The End (Silvertone)

If Jason Pearce left Spacemen 3 to scale musical mountains, it was starting to become fairly obvious that Pete Kember was quite happy to remain a minimalist. The more time progressed, the harder it was becoming to imagine them ever having been in the same group together.

"True Love..." is a shimmering and simple cover of a naive and hopeful Daniel Johnston track. If Johnston's original is childlike and sounds in danger of toppling over at any second, the Spectrum version is tight and psychedelically inclined, with ringing bells, wailing guitars, and Christmassy glitter toppling all over the well-meant intentions of the original. It manages to make the song sound both still more childlike, and also more stately.

For all that, it respects the simplicity of the original, and manages to make it sound like a hymn to the possibilities of life-long partnerships. There have been moments in my life where I've scoffed and even groaned at the sentiments in this song, but as a middle-aged man I've now come to appreciate that there was some wisdom in it after all.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Volume 16 Side Two - Inspiral Carpets, Adorable, Throwing Muses, Stereolab, The Sugarcubes

1. Inspiral Carpets - Bitches Brew (Mute)

For reasons clear only to Beechwood, the career of Inspiral Carpets was completely ignored since "She Comes In The Fall" on Volume Ten until this point, meaning we've skipped past the critically mauled but actually damn bloody fine second album "The Beast Inside", the moody "Island Head" EP, and most of the third album "Revenge Of The Goldfish".

But for the lack of time (and the fact that we do have other things to talk about today, and - I'm sure - places to be and people to see) I'd love to write in more depth about these periods of the Inspirals career, as they saw the group move from producing a bouyant, punchy take on sixties garage pop to something much more nuanced and sophisticated. This moved one NME critic to disgustedly comment that "It's like they've gone from the first album to their twentieth overnight!" and to allege the band had developed an interest in Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This showed quite spectacular ignorance. "Beast Inside" probably owes a debt to The Stranglers and late sixties psychedelia far more than it does progressive rock, and would have been given a much fairer hearing at almost any other point in pop history; but with Baggy considered to be yesterday's news, it appeared that the ageing punks in IPC towers were looking for reasons to carp and whine.

"Revenge of the Goldfish" saw the group returning to poppier sensibilities, but this time their sound had become infused with world-weary experience. "Dragging Me Down" was their most convincing hit since "This Is How It Feels", but the slightly naive, pondersome "Why is the world such an unfair and brutal place, Mum?" musing of the latter had been replaced with stabbing melody lines and a sharp aggression. "Two Worlds Collide" reprised the dark moodiness of the "Beast Inside" tracks slightly, whereas "Generations" was a snarling, distorted and catchy animal of a three minute single with some suspiciously Big Country styled bagpipe guitar work (but it managed to stay on the right side of the line to remain acceptable).

Fourth and final single off the LP, "Bitches Brew", was a very minor hit which saw the group meandering down dark melodic alleyways again. Opening with a riff which sounds rather similar to elements of Carly Simon's "Coming Around Again", it then turns into a brooding sulk with driving beats and demonic organ work. Of all the singles from the LP, it's probably the least radio friendly 45, but it stands up well in its own right. The only aspect I'm unsure about is the ending, where the abandoned and solitary guitar line ends inconclusively on an awkward hanging note - it's probably meant to sound dramatic, and represent an unresolved situation or argument, but it also sounds as if the group weren't quite sure how to wrap up the loose strands at the end of the song.

Whatever, I personally think the Inspirals were at the absolute height of their creative prowess at the point of their second and third LPs, and if you believed the critics and didn't fully investigate their work at this point, track back and listen again. There are some wonderful thrills to be had.

2. Adorable - I'll Be Your Saint (Creation)

I think it was possibly around this point that we all realised that whatever Adorable were, the "future of British music" probably wasn't it. If "I'll Be Your Saint" sounds like anything at all, it's the Next Psychedelic Furs rather than The Next Big Thing. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but it's the first time the group sound like a pure post-punk throwback rather than anything that was going to define where music might be headed to.

Opening with a simple riff which dominates throughout the whole track, this single has plenty of attitude but mooches along to the point where you get the hang of all their ideas within the first minute. It's like a pouting but empty James Dean character leaning against the wall at a house party - the striking opening impressions you get are literally all there is on offer. The sheer arrogance on display here, encapsulated most obviously perhaps by the very practice of calling the song "I'll Be Your Saint" and telling the object of the singer's desires "I'll be your God", did act as a precursor to some of the coke-addled sneers of Britpop, but there the comparisons end.

3. Throwing Muses - Firepile (4AD)

The loss of Tanya Donnelly might have inspired The Muses to return with a much more stripped back, bluesy single. "Firepile" actually sounds like a take on early sixties rock and roll, with distorted (and quite amazing sounding) drums, simple, sandpaper rough guitar lines and plenty of abrasion. The echo on Hersh's voice also adds to a slight Joe Meek feel, and the band sound as if they've bashed the whole thing out in a session in a cupboard somewhere.

It sounds lovely for that, though - the group had slowly been working their way towards a certain kind of radio-friendly quirkiness prior to "Firepile", and this would have sounded like a vicious attack on a transistor's speakers by comparison in late 1992. Crashing and thundering its way into your living room, "Firepile" proved that Throwing Muses were weathering their line-up changes very well indeed.

4. Stereolab - Low Fi (Too Pure)

Talking of "rough around the edges", I'm afraid to say that this, by comparison, is something I never really "got". A buzzing minimalist drone of a single which is clearly very inspired by "Sister Ray", you either fall into a trance bewitched by its magic, or feel dumbfounded... and while I love a lot of Stereolab's work,  I've always felt completely cold-shouldered by this one. Deliberately cheap sounding and proudly standing apart from just about any other noise that was occurring at the time, this is interesting but too threadbare to hold my attention. The trilling vocals and chiming piano lines rub up pleasingly against the buzzing static of those rusty guitar lines, but that's all I can find to enjoy.

It's also worth noting just how baffling Stereolab were at first to McCarthy fans like myself, who anticipated that Tim Gane would return with a new band who had very similar ideas. Instead, Stereolab were a complete dive into unknown territories and waters for us - nothing about McCarthy's work had given any hints that one of the group's key members would become immersed in the world of sixties and seventies drone music and electronic sound experimentation. Yet here we were. Perhaps if we'd paid more attention, we might have realised that the pre-McCarthy roots of his musical career were based on this kind of sonic experimentation rather than relatively straightforward left-wing indiepop.

5. The Sugarcubes - Birthday (William & Jim Reid Christmas Eve Mix) (One Little Indian)

The Sugarcubes were no more, with Bjork headed off to the glossy covers of magazines like The Face and ID for her new career in Dance music, and the others off to run pretty much all official Icelandic artistic and cultural affairs for the national Government (this might be an exaggeration, on the other hand it may not).

Their final LP wasn't a new studio effort, but a compilation of remixes entitled "It's It" - possibly helping fans get used to the idea of Bjork's future as a Dance diva, possibly as a contractual obligation effort, or maybe a bit of both. This, the Jesus and Mary Chain remix of "Birthday", doesn't find a place on that LP but was included as part of a double EP consisting entirely of remixes of their British debut single.

It's a stark effort, to be honest, which strips away the intricate wooziness of the original and replaces it with feedback, skeletal guitar lines and sledgehammer drumbeats. For me, it just doesn't work, and feels like someone has sanded down the original recording to tatters. I suspect it was supposed to sound haunting and eerie and slightly dangerous, but it utterly fails on every level. Whereas the original version put the fear of God into me on first listen, this - remixed by a group who at one point were renowned (in the tabloid press at least) for being dangerous riot-inciting hooligans - somehow manages to make the track feel like a matter-of-fact demo. It's not without its fans, but it's something I suspect most people have forgotten (including everyone involved with it).

Anyone wondering what I made of the original version can go here to read me musing about what a strange and disturbing sound it was in 1987. And yes, I think this is the only single to appear on the "Indie Top 20" series twice in different guises (bafflingly, The Beloved's "Forever Dancing" appeared the most frequently overall, on "Volume Two", "CD88" and "The Best of Indie Top 20 Volume One". You would have thought it was some sort of in-demand stone-cold lost classic rather than a quaint obscurity...)

Monday, 1 May 2017

Volume 16 Side One - Sugar, Curve, Suede, Pavement, Drop Nineteens

Format: Double LP, Cassette, CD
Year of Release: 1993

Volume 16 felt like any other "Indie Top 20" release at the time, albeit one which had an unusually good track listing compared to more recent efforts. In retrospect, though, there are signs of the shape of things to come here. Two more huge Britpop bands are buried under the rubble of more commercially popular tracks here. They're given slightly hidden and cautious places in the tracklisting, but in time they would come to shape large swathes of the scene.

Beyond that, this is a pleasingly varied album which reflected the shifting sands of the scene very well.  There are still some mighty howls of underground rock here, but slowly shuffling into their place were considered pieces of pop songwriting and lyrical character portraits, as well as the invention and eccentricity the indie scene was generally celebrated for.

Beechwood also seemed to have given up on the idea that baggy bands were all dead in the water, and Inspiral Carpets emerge again for the first time since Volume Ten. The atom bomb that was grunge didn't destroy all life on Planet Madchester as we knew it, and the strongest and least "troubled" groups began to scuttle out of the wreckage with tunes that actually fitted the emerging new aesthetic very well.

Another minor development in the series is the fact that they ditched the sleeve notes for this volume, meaning I'll waste less time typing them up for you all. And thank God for that, to be honest.

1. Sugar - Changes (Creation)

One of the most cheering results of late 1992 was the reemergence and critical and commercial resurgence of Bob Mould of Husker Du. There had been a widespread belief that Husker had been dealt some particularly unfortunate cards in their career, including signing to a major label (Warners) who didn't seem to know what to do with them. As a result, they were heaped with critical garlands but very little in terms of sales either here or their native US.

A quick listen to any Husker Du tracks now shows how much they managed not just to lay the foundations for some of the poppier elements of grunge, but also influence some of the bands in the Scottish underground. Hard, snappy and punkish, but with a clear sense of classic pop and rock song structures, it's somewhat surprising that bands like The Soup Dragons managed to command magazine covers in Britain in the mid-eighties while they remained confined to the black and white sections of the press (albeit talked about with colourful, florid praise). One suspects that their distance from the press and promotions department of the UK branch of their record company did them little favours here.

When Husker Du split, with members of the band going different ways due to their changing lifestyles, Bob Mould carried on as a solo artist for a period with releases which fell somewhat under the radar, then returned with a fully-fledged band in Sugar, who were signed to Creation. "Changes" was their debut single, and it startled the underwear off many listeners in 1992. You can also say what you want about Alan McGee, but there's little doubt in my mind that Creation Records managed to get Mould more press and radio exposure in the UK than Warner Brothers would ever have been bothered to.

It's not that "Changes" is a significant development in style, but it is a shockingly good track. This is lovelorn alternative rock at its most growling and ensnared, with Mould underlining his predicament clearly: "Change for the better/ change for the worse/ changes with summer and fall/ Now you're a stranger/ spare me some change/ so I can find someone to call my own" he snaps, before a high pitched, wire-on-the-nerve guitar solo chips in.

"Changes" is the perfect bridge between the nowheresville angst of early nineties grunge and the lonely bedsit romance of classic indie. For something that appears so simple on first listen, it's also - appropriately enough - shot through with changes of its own, from the track's simple and addictive refrain for the first two-and-a-half minutes, through to the sudden change of gear for the rest of the song into a more scuzzed up piece of shit-kicking rock and roll.

In the UK at least, "Changes" changed Mould's life, to the extent that he would soon be bragging to his US friends on the phone "I'm in the charts in Britain - the PROPER charts!" It would be a comparatively short-lived period of success, but it's fantastic that at least one particularly grand dog got to have his day.

2. Curve - Horror Head (Remix) (Anxious)

The second and final single off Curve's "Doppelganger" possibly wasn't the best choice in the world, to be honest. The band seemed to be leaning on tracks with repetitive refrains to launch themselves towards that "all-important" Sunday Top 40 rundown, when in fact now might have been a good moment to try a track like "Already Yours" or "Lillies Dying" - something with more atmosphere and meat on its bones.

Whatever, it mattered not, really. The fans had already bought the LP anyway, the floating voters had made their decisions, and the single climbed to number 31 but was largely forgotten about the following week. "Horror Head" is not Curve's strongest single, being repetitive and mantra-like and doggedly stuck on the central riff and its own chugging groove for four minutes. The main aspects acting in its favour are Halliday's particularly confident and occasionally bewitching vocal performance, which is at some moments breathy and seductive, at other times snarling and deranged. That's the aspect that lifts the single and retains my interest - the sheer commanding drama of her performance. She had established herself as an extraordinarily good frontwoman.

3. Suede - He's Dead (Nude)

Another Suede B-side, this time from their breakthrough single "Metal Mickey". Unlike "My Insatiable One", though, I've never been wholly convinced by "He's Dead". Suede are a band who have written so many exceptional B-sides that the compilation LP covering their work in this area, "Sci-Fi Lullabies", is a bloody fine album in its own right. "He's Dead", though, is not a high point, being a spindly, skinny, scratchy little thing which feels rather overlong - that distorted, chaotic breakdown at the end could do with having at least a minute shaved off it - and underproduced.

Not that it mattered a jot. Suede's career was going berserk at this stage, with fans of theirs swarming gig venues up and down the UK for a chance to see the band, and their reputation as the "Saviours of British music" was beginning to gain traction. And even if we are being petty and weighing up B-sides, "Metal Mickey" also featured the gorgeous "Where The Pigs Don't Fly", acting as further proof that Anderson and Butler were one of the key songwriting forces to be reckoned with in 1992. This was material most bands would never toss away on flipsides, but the duo had songs to spare.

4. Pavement - Trigger Cut (Big Cat)

Just as Britpop would allow unlikely figures like Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Tiger to get media exposure in the mid-nineties, the high water mark of grunge seemed to wash up a number of very tangentially related American underground acts - the kind your greasy young long-haired cousin Rob probably wouldn't have liked because "you can't mosh to them", but your more enlightened Peel listener would.

Pavement are the quintessential cult US band of this period, dwarfing the likes of the Archers of Loaf and even (at the time) Mercury Rev. From the press and late-night radio exposure they received, you would assume they were a mighty force to be reckoned with, but in reality their singles sold to selective audiences who were just very, very noisy about how good they thought they were. And that's understandable. "Trigger Cut" is brilliantly simple and simply brilliant - a sharp, insistent chorus is surrounded by post-punk riffing and an uncertain, lopsided style.

Whereas the track prior to this, "He's Dead", is slightly hampered by its sketchiness and simplicity, "Trigger Cut" needs nothing more than the slight sum of its parts. Comparisons to The Fall have been rather overstated where Pavement are concerned, but they do share that group's love of unusual and often quite ambitious ideas approached with the minimum of fuss. Like being slapped around the cheeks with a refrigerated table tennis bat, "Trigger Cut" is direct and leaves a firm impression, but it's not quite what you expected to happen. It's something I still regularly return to and listen to, and while I can't claim to be surprised by it anymore, I still find myself sucked into its angular little world with incredible ease.

5. Drop Nineteens - Winona (Hut)

Shoegazing groups weren't really much of a "thing" initially in America, so the music press leapt on the arrival of Boston's Drop Nineteens as vindication that British music did still have an audience outside of our borders after all - something we really needed to convince ourselves of during those particularly dark times. And lo and behold, shoegazing did eventually become a North American sound and movement too, but it took the Internet age to really spread the word beyond the glacially slow process of cassette swaps among Anglophilic US music fans.

If Drop Nineteens were first out of the traps, they haven't really been thanked much for it since and seem to have become a largely forgotten force. But "Winona" is actually marvellous, a psychedelic Eastern drone of a track which is firepowered by the naiveté of youth (the group, as their name suggests, were all nineteen year olds trying to make a noise they were particularly geographically disconnected from) the heavy-handed nature of the guitar riffs, and the willingness of the group to let the song meander in whichever way it fancied. It's complete nonsense and lyrical piffle which gives the pie-eyed pop of the late sixties a run for its kaleidoscopic money, but so certain and sure of itself that it drags you along regardless. Unlike a lot of shoegazing tracks, it's rich on atmosphere and playfulness. You wouldn't have caught My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive naming their songs after Winona Ryder.

What "Winona" resembles most, though, is probably the early work of Dandy Warhols, who became a mainstream group at the height of Britpop. For all the possibilities it might have opened up, "Winona" and the follow-up single "My Aquarium" were probably Drop Nineteen's only significant single releases in the UK, however, and internal bickering lead to an unstable line-up and some rather limp-sounding later work. In spite of that, for this track at least we have to doff our collective caps to the group.