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...)

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