Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Volume 19 Tracks 11-15 - Boo Radleys, Magnapop, Tiny Monroe, Salad, Sharkboy

11. The Boo Radleys - Barney (... & Me) (Creation)

Opening with a chord pattern vaguely reminiscent of Gary Glitter's "Another Rock and Roll Christmas", The Boos go on to paint a gloriously accurate yet simple wintertime scene ("The lake is almost frozen/ the grass is silver hair") before descending into doubt and moody, introspective tones. To this day, I can't really get through winter without playing this track at least a couple of times.

It's by no means as simple as it first appears, though. The single morphs almost effortlessly from one sound to the next, from disjointed, fluttering psychedelia, to attempted Beach Boys styled close harmonies (singing "Faye Dunaway" for some reason) to the epic, dramatic outro. These should rightfully feel like tattered fragments of ideas which have no place together across the same single, but they all glue together remarkably well - there are ambitious Paul McCartney tracks out there which sound more stilted and less natural than this.

"Barney (... & Me)" was also the first sign, on 45 at least, that The Boo Radleys were developing a sharp pop sensibility amidst the denseness of their ideas. Large elements of this single are propulsive and heartlifting in the way the best pop can be, and serve a different purpose to a lot of the other contents of "Giant Steps". It's an idle comparison which was inevitably bandied around a lot at the time, but this is Pop as Brian Wilson imagined it to be circa "Pet Sounds" and "Smile". Sometimes complex, occasionally a bit dizzying, but nonetheless remaining true to the thrills a three-and-a-half minute tune could afford. I'm not claiming that "Barney (... & Me)" is as good as Wilson's productions in his prime, before readers queue down the street with baseball bats to wreck my modest home, but it showed the group were capable of exploring those possibilities in more depth if they chose.

12. Magnapop - Slowly Slowly (Play It Again Sam)

It must have been twenty years now since I last bothered to listen to this track, and having had another spin of it for research purposes, there's no particular reason why I should have left it so long. Filled with tick-tocking guitar rhythms which quickly move into rough, distorted chord patterns, and weary, cautious female vocals, this really could have been released at any time between 1989 to the present day. If Magnapop formed tomorrow and "dropped" this video on to YouTube - as the kids might say - there's little doubt that the blogosphere (as the kids also might apparently say) would lap it up. It's a slice of timeless, faintly alienated US college rock whose stylings haven't gone away, and whose more unexpected and eccentric guitar stylings make it stand out.

Trouble was, Magnapop didn't release "Slowly Slowly" on Soundcloud in 2017, and while their US reception was quite positive, in the UK things were changing fast. As a result, this registered briefly with evening radio listeners before being rapidly forgotten about by everyone, including me. In North America, however, they were keenly appreciated by Bob Mould of Sugar, and given a support slot on an REM tour, and remain a going concern to this day. REM and The Eels have both covered the group's songs, and their cult status is now completely assured.

13. Tiny Monroe - VHF 855V (Laurel)

It's perfectly possible to draw some parallels between Magnapop and Tiny Monroe. Both singles contain sharp and angular guitar work, but where Magnapop's sound exerts a weary Stateside nineties cynicism, Tiny Monroe sound caffeinated and sparky. Norma Jean Wilow, the lead singer, exudes attitude throughout, and the whole thing swaggers with an almost glam rock pout on its chops (the song's title was apparently named after Norma's car reg plate number, which might be a call back to the same idea in Roxy Music's "Remake Remodel").

Trouble is, while it may stride confidently over the horizon giving you an Elvis sneer as it goes, "VHF 855V" is a treble-heavy and somewhat slight slice of new wave inspired pop. You can certainly hear the early stirrings of Britpop here, but sadly it's the least interesting elements. There's nothing artful or likably pretentious about it, nothing well observed, or even sublimely catchy. It arrives in a hail of scratchy guitars then exits having made little lasting impression beyond the fact that the group wholeheartedly believed in their own efforts. The confidence shines through, but it's not enough to hold the rest of the song together.

This kind of energy and spark would become apparent in numerous British bands from 1994-6, and while at its best it was responsible for some astonishing music, at its most mediocre it felt like a failed confidence trick. In 1994, that was forgivable. By late 1996, it became a source of deep, burning irritation, like being hassled by pushy young door-to-door sales representatives in retro Adidas tops a hundred times a week.

14. Salad - Diminished Clothes (Waldorf)

None of this applies to Salad, though, who have recently reformed and are enjoying a spate of positive press and cult fan worship all over again. Somewhat cynically disregarded by critics in their nineties pomp and largely sidelined by daytime radio, it's impossible to begrudge them their present lap of the Britpop revival circuit. A reassessment of their work has been long overdue.

Salad at their best sounded as if they had spent half their lives absorbing and assimilating all manner of influences from across the musical spectrum, utilising grunge's quiet/loud dynamics, prog's unpredictable gear shifts and changes, glam rock's fake fur coats and sparkly glamour, as well as the best bits of all the ideas ambitious frontwomen or solo artists had had from 1970 onwards... as stated in my previous entry on the group, only the fact they were fronted by a very successful model and MTV jock prevented most critics from appreciating their best moments. Why bother to listen carefully to an apparent vanity project when there's a new Tindersticks LP to quietly assess?

An additional problem was possibly the fact that their earliest releases didn't quite sound fully formed. "Diminished Clothes" is probably the best of the bunch, and was still a regular feature at live gigs until very late in the band's day. Filled with tribal drum rhythms and Marijne Van Der Vlugt's excellent pleading, bluesy vocals, it's minimal, hypnotic and faintly creepy in the way PJ Harvey's work of the same period could often be - not a high water mark for the group, but certainly a sign that they were moving far beyond their slightly raw and unfocussed roots.

Sadly, Salad would jump to the Island Records owned boutique indie label Island Red in due course, and for whatever reason "Indie Top 20" would not see fit to include them again. A shame, as some of their best moments such as "Drink The Elixir", "Motorbike To Heaven" and "Cardboy King" would get considerably more gushing write-ups from me, just as they did first time round. Damn it. All I can really ask is that you dip in and explore them properly for yourselves, if you haven't already.

15. Sharkboy - Razor (Nude)

Sharkboy were a short-lived proposition signed to Nude Records (home of Suede and, um, not much else) and fronted by the striking and charismatic Avy. Their frequently understated, smoky, subtle and melancholic sounding singles sounded out of place up against the ferocity of grunge and the razzle-dazzle of Britpop, and as such fell into an awkward no-man's land. While disappointingly few people bought their records, or indeed bother to listen to them on YouTube to this day, they were certainly wildly appreciated by some. Their debut LP "Matinee" was issued to an almost rabidly enthusiastic Melody Maker review, but this failed to translate into an awful lot of copies being taken up to the counter at Our Price.

While elements of Sharkboy's sound could easily be placed alongside the likes of Mazzy Star or Tindersticks for ease of reference, there was actually a faintly gothic, stagey edge to the group's sound I never quite took to at the time. Avy's earliest vocals do occasionally sound like an attention-seeking drama student doing her best world-weary Morticia Addams impression. Listening back over their best moments now, however, I'm warming to them considerably more than I did back then, particularly "The Valentine Tapes" which showed the group growing in warmth, ambition and scope, with Avy managing to find a way pull the listener into their world rather than putting up walls. "Razor", on the other hand, is cold, minimal and hard to find a way into.

As a postscript, it's possibly worth mentioning that I was sent to review a support slot gig of theirs at the time, and they failed to show up. Myself and a friend tracked down the tour manager to find out what was up, and we were snappily informed "Look, I know you're the last person I should say this to, but how the hell should I know where they are? They're MISSING, that's all I know! They've been nothing but unreliable the whole tour. I mean, if you ask me, they could have a bright future ahead of them, their vocalist is a fantastic frontwoman, but if they're not going to get their shit together..." and this rant continued in rather dull detail for some time, consisting of a long itinerary of complaints from a man trying to get on with his job but being foiled at every turn. The band never materialised that night. The review copy was never filed. Then, not long afterwards, they were no more.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Volume 19 Tracks 6-10 - Suede, Depeche Mode, Bjork, Saint Etienne, Stereolab

6. Suede - My Dark Star (Nude)

Another Indie Top 20 compilation, another Suede B-side. With just about any other group of this period, this would seem like being short-changed, but "My Dark Star" sat as the third track on the twelve inch format of the sprawling and mediocre "Stay Together". While that single did provide Suede with their first top three hit, it really was a triumph of hype and expectation over substance on that occasion. There are fans of the group who applaud it for its drama and excess, but I'm afraid I'm not among their number, and I can't even remember the last time I voluntarily sat down to listen to it.

"My Dark Star", on the other hand - which surely didn't give David Bowie any ideas towards the end of his career - is yet another one of Suede's pieces of understated but highly effective songwriting. A pulsing drone punctuates the chorus, providing an exotic, almost psychedelic feel, while Butler's fretboard work is pleasantly ambitious rather than bombastic. Along with Anderson's brilliant, impassioned vocals, this creates yet another flip side which could quite have easily sat comfortably on the tracklisting for "Dog Man Star" instead. The only thing standing in its way is a subtle but powerful sense of optimism which the album in general lacked.

7. Depeche Mode - In Your Room (Zephyr Mix) (Mute)

And with a distorted mechanical roar and some chiming guitars, the Butch Vig remix of the rather more electronic album track bursts into view. Given Gahan's precarious state of health at this time and poor internal relationships within the group, there were some - video director Anton Corbijn in particular - who speculated that this might be Depeche Mode's last ever single.

It's certainly the end of their capital "r" Rock phase, with electric guitars never featuring so prominently again on any future Mode singles. Still, Butch Vig does an incredible job of making the synthetic and analogue elements of the track work in tandem with each other, complimenting the sound rather than battling it out for dominance. It's almost a complete deconstruction. The use of meaty beats and a full palette of guitar effects here predate his later work with Garbage, and turn a song which originally sounded like a middling album track into an interesting and exciting piece of work packed with dynamics. It's one of the few examples I can think of where a Depeche Mode remix has actually improved on the source material.

Aided by an elaborate, collectible multi-CD package, it climbed to number eight in the charts then rapidly slid down again, and has become a somewhat forgotten part of the group's catalogue since. Third or fourth singles from albums usually fare badly in the collective consciousness, and it's often for good reasons - in this case, however, I can't help but think that a lot of people might be missing out. If they had split up after this release, it seems almost certain that it would have had a stronger impact and we'd hear a lot more of it now.

Depeche Mode's future adventures occur outside the timeline for this blog, so this is the last time we'll be discussing them.

8. Bjork - Violently Happy (Massey Mix) (One Little Indian)

"Violently Happy" was also the fourth single to be plucked from "Debut" - or the fifth, if you count the fact that "Play Dead" was made available as a bonus track on some versions - and at the time it seemed peculiar that anyone would have bothered. "Violently Happy" in its original guise is pulsing and minimal, never moving far from its simple root riff. While working within the context of "Debut", it really doesn't sound like much of a single, though the use of Bjork in a faintly unusual "padded cell and scissors" video helped it get a lot of MTV exposure in Europe at least.

The Graham Massey mix pumps things up quite a bit, though, turning the track into a banging, didgeridoo backed war dance. Again, it's not necessarily a view that would be shared by her fans, but it repeats the trick of the previous track on this LP by adding a vast array of colour, adventure and dynamics to a previously rather simple piece of work. I far prefer it to the original and wouldn't be at all surprised if a lot of clubbers bought the CD to own this version rather than the 7" edit.

9. Saint Etienne - Pale Movie (Heavenly)

While Pete Wiggs has described this song as a "bit of a failure" since, this almost sounds like Saint Etienne at their shiniest and poppiest. Stick petroleum jelly in your ears and ram your head under a pillow while this plays, and you could almost convince yourself that it's one of Geri Halliwell's Spanish sounding singles given a bit more depth and drama. "La Isla Bonita" for the indie-kid set, if you will.

Of course, that's a very simplistic overview, and in fact the song has a lot more going on than that. The lyrics in particular are beguiling and fascinating, moving from fairly bog-standard observations like "He's so dark and moody/ she is the sunshine girl" to "In the bed where they make love / She's in a film on the sheets / He shows dreams like a movie / She's the softness of cinema seats" almost effortlessly. Like The Pet Shop Boys before them, Saint Etienne were at this point taking commercial, electronic pop sounds to considered, intelligent and occasionally beautiful or interesting places. Some critics at the time debated whether their ambition was their undoing at this point, with the NME in particular noting that "Pale Movie" was lyrically too unusual and considered to be a proper pop hit in 1994. That's a tad cynical, but they did turn out to be correct - it managed one week in the top thirty at number 28, a respectable enough showing for an indie group, but a lot less than the track deserved.

According to an unverified source on Wikipedia, it did apparently get to number one in the Lebanon, though. I very badly want this to be true, so I'm going to call it a fact unless anyone can prove otherwise.


10. Stereolab - French Disko (Duophonic)

The last time we heard Stereolab on "Indie Top 20", they were embryonic and sandpaper rough. While by the point of the "Jenny Ondioline" EP - from which "French Disko" stems - they remained addicted to minimal drones combined with trilling, cheery calls to a socialist revolution, by now they seemed to have fleshed out their ideas beyond the straightforward template of "Lo Fi". The title track "Jenny Ondioline" was a startling and breathtaking piece of work which recalled the minimalism and the relentless and addictive nature of the best krautrock whilst also having a strange, rushing and shimmering identity of its own.

"French Disko", on the other hand, is close enough to Pop. Laetitia Sadier sings something very close to a nursery rhyme about continuing involvement in political action through difficult times. "Though this world's essentially an absurd place to be living in/ it doesn't call for total withdrawal" it begins, before eventually reaching the chorus's key clarion call of "La Resistance!" A luscious, chiming guitar melody repeats throughout, and the analogue synths bubble and squeak beneath. Never has the idea of political engagement sounded so joyous and hopeful, so downright thrilling.

Stereolab's cult status was pretty much sealed at this point, and they spent the next decade as the go-to group for often different strands of the record-buying public - fans of psychedelia, krautrock, twee indie, shoegazing, and even exotica found something to admire in the band, and while they never truly rose overground, they became an example of an old-school "indie" group with clearly defined ideals and principles who survived healthily during the commercial onslaught of Britpop.

No YouTube video for this, I'm afraid (unless you count a live appearance on "The Word") so Spotify will have to be your friend in this instance.