1. Front 242 - Tragedy >For You< (RRE)
"Front 242 -Satisfying feelings and imagination, superseding the unity of body and mind. The single 'Tragedy >For You<' announced the release of the album 'Tyranny >For You<'".
Ooh, they're a bit riled. Front 242 make their first appearance on "Indie Top 20" since Volume Seven with a piece of dystopian industrialism that sounds like someone's kicked over a hive filled with battery-operated robot bees. Whatever they are. Unlike many of their contemporaries, however, Front 242 possess an ability to sugar the pill with various melodic fanfares and flourishes, each one sounding more welcome than the last. The track judders to a broken halt on one of them at the tail end, perhaps trying to prove to us that the ugliness will always win out.
"Tragedy >For You<" (and I quite like the over-emphasis on who the tragedy is being aimed it there) does get a tad silly in places, though, with lines like "I still feel disemboweled" and "The sore in my soul/ the mark in my heart/ her acid reign", even if the latter does sound as if it could have been adopted and used within a different context by Brett Anderson a couple of years down the line. Subtlety was not Front 242's strong suit, and in the end you can only enjoy this for what it is - a ferocious and threatening bit of electronic noise. It's really not everyone's bag, but whenever I revisit their work I always find myself enjoying it more than I thought I would.
2. The Boo Radleys - Kaleidoscope (Rough Trade)
"In fact 'Kaleidoscope', 'Aldous' and 'Swansong' are as crucial as anything made in the name of noise and beauty over the last two years" - Paul Lester - Melody Maker.
There's been a slightly unusual approach taken to The Boo Radleys back catalogue over the last fifteen or so years, which seems to take the view that anything they released before "Giant Steps" should be avoided as amateur adolescent doodlings. The band may have been largely to blame for this, making unflattering comparisons to their early work, but the music press didn't help matters much either. For a brief period, the NME mockingly dubbed them the "Do Badlys" on account of their limited commercial appeal and also the fact that they were the low budget also-rans of the shoegazing scene.
One listen to "Kaleidoscope", however, will prove to you that whatever goodness was apparent on "Giant Steps" had almost flowered during their Rough Trade years. Beneath the downright messy production here lies a sweet and seductive melody, growling guitars with beautiful riffs intertwining with each other, and a low budget psychedelic soup of swirling prettiness. It's easy to overlook this and "Everybird" while sifting through their canon, but both tracks could, with a few production tweaks, have equally happily sat on "Giant Steps" without anyone batting an eyelid.
This is their first appearance on the "Indie Top 20" series, and their peculiar career path also makes them the first Britpop band to appear on one of these compilations - although at this point, the noise they were making was such a far cry from the singles they put out in 1995 that it's safe to argue that this isn't the first appearance of any kind of Britpop "sound".
3. Bleach - Decadence (Way Cool) - Vinyl and cassette only
"...makes me think of jets streaming their way through clouds of white and grey, and of guitars imploding under their own power" - Everett True - Melody Maker.
Far more than The Boo Radleys, Ipswich's Bleach were considered a proper, serious shoegazing proposition, a band who were likely to pick themselves up from the pub circuit to make all sorts of interesting unimaginable transcendent noises. Everett True faithfully sums up some of the early press gushings in his quote above. It really didn't work out as everyone expected. The band made all sorts of rum decisions such as rapping over shoegazing noises on "Shotgun", or splitting their 1992 album recording sessions into two LPs, "Hard" and "Fast", and while they were uncompromising, they were also quite a bit flawed. The Boo Radleys would develop and grow and experiment to a generally positive effect, whereas Bleach didn't really push the envelope so much as playfully doodle a bit around its edges.
Unlike a lot of the bands making similar noises at the time, Bleach did have a charismatic lead singer in Salli Carson, though, whose moody gaze peered from many a provincial gig venue's stage, making the group seem a bit more dark and mysterious than I suspect they really were.
As for "Decadence", I'm afraid I don't really get it. Under-produced, underpowered, immensely repetitious and held together by an unshifting and simplistic rhythm at its foundations, it really is a bit dull. They would go on to release better work, but from this, it's really hard to hear what all the early fuss was about.
4. Buffalo Tom - Birdbrain (Situation Two)
"...smears your ears and leaves your nose runny. A big cacophony with a buried melody and bountiful beat - delightful!" - Liz Evans, Raw.
"Birdbrain" introduces itself with a bruising, almost glam rock, riff before the vocals bark in demandingly. If you thought they might be throwing away their strongest cards before the song really gets going, however, it carries on its goodness from there forth, holding its nerve and occasionally sticking its head into sunshine streaked melodies in the chorus.
Buffalo Tom were an odd group whose initial appeal appeared to lie in their associations with Dinosaur Jr and the American underground rock scene, but actually had some very trad rock ideas at their heart. While "Birdbrain" gnashes and grinds away, future singles such as "Tailights Fade" were seeped in an almost Springsteen-esque American melodrama, and it was this - rather than their slightly grungey leanings - which assured them a strong cult fanbase from 1990 until close to the end of the decade.
They even managed a top ten hit in the UK by default in 1999, with their unconventional cover of The Jam's "Going Underground", though it wouldn't be unfair to say that this almost certainly would have been lucky to climb so high had it not shared vinyl space alongside a Liam Gallagher cover of "Carnations" as well.
5. Pixies - Dig For Fire (4AD)
"Remixed from the LP 'Bossanova'"
While we're on the subject, while we know and love Pixies for their own particularly sharp-toothed barks of surrealism, they too occasionally showed a conventional edge. On "Doolittle" this was showcased by the almost Monkees-esque Saturday afternoon cheer of "Here Comes Your Man" - the track that got your parent's ears pricking upwards and saying "Ooh, who're these? They're good!" On "Bossanova" "Dig For Fire" takes a similar pop-rock tack, this time seeming like some kind of seventies Top 20 anthem. In fact, while I frequently struggle to get fans of the group to agree with me on this point, elements of the guitar runs veer close to the "If we ever get out of here" element of Wings "Band On The Run", something that was apparent to me on the very first listen and I've never been able to shift from my brain since.
"Dig For Fire" proved that Frank Black was actually a damn good songsmith, not just someone who could make a bloody fine and occasionally peculiar noise. It's a rollicking good listen, but unfortunately the stadium chant nature of the chorus causes its obvious charms - and it has many, including those chiming guitar lines and stomping rhythms - to wane more quickly than they would on most Pixies tracks. This is something I played to death in 1990, then didn't return to very often subsequently. Still, the thrills are there to be had for a while.