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.

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