Thursday, 31 August 2017

Volume 20 Tracks 11-16 - Pop Will Eat Itself, Ride, Sugar, Velvet Crush, Sleeper

11. Pop Will Eat Itself - Everything's Cool (Infectious)

There's a rumbling noise emerging... could it be a spot of distant thunder? No, it turns out it's just another one of Pop Will Eat Itself's late singles playing loudly on your middle-aged pink-haired neighbour's stereo. The group had begun their careers on Volume One of this series as a trashy, slapdash Grebo outfit with songs that sounded as if they'd been recorded on a budget of fifty pounds, then became a slightly lumpen indie/dance/hip-hop hybrid nobody took that seriously, then had slowly worked their way towards some minor, but nonetheless noticeable, underground credibility.

"Everything's Cool" is one part tribal rhythms and world music samples - so the placing next to Transglobal Underground on the tracklisting does make some sense - one part gut-churning, buzzsaw racket. Its predictions of a dystopian, riot-riddled future seemed faintly quaint and sci-fi in 1994, as if Clint Mansell had become an eccentric "The End Is Nigh" self-delcared prophet, but as I'm sat here listening again now, I'm slightly chilled by the record. PWEI were never lyrical geniuses as such, but what if this record and "Ich Bin Ein Auslander" proved they knew all along? We would be forced to re-write rock history before humankind's inevitable bedtime; PWEI 1, Morrissey 0.

Musically, parts of "Everything's Cool" sound slightly dated in their industrial churn and grind now, but the track still pins you to the floor by force. They were far, far better at this kind of caper than they were given credit for at the time, and while they quit the music industry on a creative high, it's a pity most people tend to remember the rather less interesting earlier material instead.

12. Ride - How Does It Feel To Feel (Creation)

This was the first time Ride had ever featured on "Indie Top 20", choosing instead to gallivant around on any number of major label "alternative rock" compilations like "Happy Daze". Sadly, while the group had produced a number of astonishing singles prior to this, "How Does It Feel To Feel" is just an unnecessary record.

The pop-art/ mod group The Creation (who Creation Records were named after) first issued this track in 1967, and two versions emerged. The UK single was a piece of relatively clean mod riffola, which fell on to the release schedules at least two years past the point where such things had become yesterday's news. The US single, on the other hand, was a searing mix of feedback, guitar abuse (the group used to occasionally play electric guitars with a violin bow to a discordant and noisy effect) and fizzing psychedelia. That version is one of the finest singles to emerge in the sixties, during a period where it wasn't exactly bereft of competition.

Ride seem to take the blueprint of the UK single for their cover version, and manage to produce something that sounds as good as neither the sanitised issue nor the towering US release. Really, it's a slice of pub rock which would have been better utilised as a B-side, if at all. The only good thing that could possibly be said about it is that it might have caused more listeners to investigate the original version. Let's not waste any more time thinking about it.

13. Sugar - Your Favourite Thing (Creation)

"Your Favourite Thing" is a surprisingly bright blast of rock music from Sugar, who prior to this point had been more popularly renowned for the darker, more frantic efforts. While the response to their debut two LPs had been ecstatic in the UK, by this point they were beginning to lose a bit of momentum, and no amount of sunshine was going to change things.

Sugar broke up not long after the third LP "File Under: Easy Listening" was released, and it's possible that the ongoing shifts and changes in musical tastes in this country caused Bob Mould to fall back underground, and he's one of the least deserved casualties if that's so. "Your Favourite Thing" proves that beneath the grease and grime of the average Sugar 45 lay a skilled songwriter with years of experience who could turn his hand easily to all manner of moods.

14. Velvet Crush - Hold Me Up (Creation)

Velvet Crush were a peculiar anomaly in alternative US rock, having had records released by the quintessentially English Sarah Records in the UK in an early incarnation as The Springfields. Eventually, the core members Paul Chastain and Rik Menck developed a power-pop sound and emerged as Velvet Crush. A cover of Teenage Fanclub's "Everything Flows" caught the ears of Alan McGee, and they ended up on Creation Records.

Sadly, despite their association with arguably the UK's most watched independent label at this point, their records didn't sell in huge numbers, and their 1994 LP "Teenage Symphonies To God" was their last for them.

"Hold Me Up" is bright and breezy, but given the sheer volume of competition from other groups making similar noises at this point (does anyone want to produce a definitive "early nineties Big Star inspired power-pop" compilation?) it's possibly not that surprising that it didn't break through. The UK press were strangely indifferent to the group too, not granting them the same amount of enthusiastic column inches they would for their labelmates. Nonetheless, they had enough of a cult global following to carry on in one form or another until 2004.

15. Sleeper - Delicious (Indolent)

Hard to fathom it now, but when Sleeper first emerged they were actually a rather spiky, jabbing little proposition of a band, their energy and drive matching the force of Louise Wener's softly spoken sarcastic observations in the British music press.

By her own confession, Wener's fear of the group being dropped and sinking into oblivion fired her resolve to start writing good old fashioned songs the milkman could whistle, and "Delicious" is probably the last example of the group sounding like they truly belonged in session on the John Peel show. At this point, a slight pop sensibility is coming into play, but it's an absolutely fantastic record for all that, which has hardly been on the radio since due to its lyrical content and the fact that it fits nobody's popular preconceptions about the band.

Three minutes of celebration about the joys of sex, "Delicious" is less graphic than it sounds - half the sauce is actually in the vocal delivery - and contains a line which according to Wener has frequently been misinterpreted. It should not be written or heard as "We should both go to bed until we make each other raw", but "We should both go to bed until we make each other roar". No, I don't believe her either. Still, "Delicious" is an exhilarating pop-punk rush about the drunken bump and grind of millions of lustful Saturday night drinkers everywhere, and uncannily manages to simulate the rush of desires and the - er - slightly dazed post-come comedown through its delivery.  It somehow also manages to be witty rather than trashy in the process.

It peaked in the British charts at number 75, with a lack of airplay possibilities perhaps restricting its success. It did, however, create enough gasps among the "chattering classes" at IPC to improve the group's standing in the media, building a higher platform for them to drop their poppier efforts from in future. As for the rest of us, we probably wouldn't hear a record like this again until Ida Maria's similarly rushing, exhilarating "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked" in 2008 - and even that didn't quite match it.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Volume 20 Tracks 6-10 - Gene, Inspiral Carpets, Mark E Smith, The Charlatans, Boo Radleys, Transglobal Underground

6. Gene - Be My Guide, Be My Light (Deceptive)

Gene last featured on volume ten of "Indie Top 20", peculiarly enough, albeit in their Martin Rossiter-less guise of Sp!n. If that group had an edge to them, Rossiter brought along the melodrama, and while Gene were often compared to The Smiths or Morrissey, the force of their instrumental delivery was occasionally more akin to sixties mod groups or even 70s pub rock bands.

"Be My Guide, Be My Light" doesn't particularly highlight that diversity in their sound, with Rossiter's hollering, woebegone vocals taking centre stage and the band trailing along behind, but it was the first single of theirs to chart within the UK Top 75, and became something of a favoured anthem at gigs from that point forward.

While the group were quickly lumped in with Britpop, there was a clear lyrical sensitivity to their work which certainly didn't bear comparisons with Oasis or Northern Uproar. "Be My Guide, Be My Light" appears to be about an evening's worth of drunken shenanigans, though, which doesn't do a great deal to back up my claim - but there's plenty of alternative evidence available.

7. Inspiral Carpets featuring Mark E Smith - I Want You (Mute)

If absolutely nothing else, "I Want You" is the song responsible for putting Mark E Smith on "Top of the Pops". His somewhat wayward performance resulted in Tom Hingley desperately trying to get him back on track lyrically, side-eyeing him in increasing desperation while Smith ambled around the stage plucking lyrical phrases from the track at random. "Right, OK... thank you boys", said a perplexed and typically dry Simon Mayo at the end, and the paths of Smith and BBC TV prime-time would never cross again. Frankly, it was somewhat miraculous that they ever did.

"I Want You" is also an absolutely rip-roaring track, sounding for all the world like The Fall at their most frantic featuring Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets on guest vocals. It somewhat proves Smith's point that "if it's me and your granny on bongos, it's The Fall". It starts as it means to carry on with an enormous ramshackle juggernaut riff, then rallies along, incorporating some quality Smith-isms on the way. "The Dutch East India Company in the USA of A think they can fool/ with their sincere usury" seems to be about the American independent distribution company who he had clearly experienced difficulties with at some point, though God knows who "lost two stone in weight".

The song sticks doggedly to its chosen path, never really developing or choosing new roads. It's akin to a full-force naive sixties garage track in its approach, in total love with its own noise and poking a finger in the eye at the Inspiral Carpets usual considered tunefulness at this point in their careers. It went on to top the 1994 John Peel Festive Fifty, and no wonder. It also went on to reach number 18 in the UK charts, which was somewhat less expected under the circumstances. In all, it's one of the better tracks either party has been involved with, and it makes you wish they'd actually done a few more things together.

Sadly, this is the last time we'll be discussing The Inspiral Carpets or Mark E Smith on here. The former split up after being dropped by Mute Records, and the latter continued ploughing his way through numerous record labels and dozens of singles and LPs, but was just never featured on the series again.

8. The Charlatans - Jesus Hairdo (Beggars Banquet)

The Charlatans take a musical journey into the bluesy swamps of the American South. Though to be honest, elements of "Jesus Hairdo" sound similar to the theme to the long-forgotten Dave Lee Travis and Craig Charles starring action/quiz show "Go Getters", so perhaps they were actually taking a musical journey to Cheltenham to take a ride on a hot air balloon. Who knows?

"Jesus Hairdo" managed to join Primal Scream at the voodoo punch bowl at around the same time, and while it couldn't have sounded less like The Charlatans at their moody baggy peak, it did do a lot to show that the group were more than just a bunch of floppy-fringed blokes who belonged to another point of the nineties.

For my personal taste, "Jesus Hairdo" is one of the least pleasing Charlatans 45s, though. It's all bluesy jam and no bread, and a slightly odd choice for a single. That it failed to reach the Top 40 wasn't actually hugely surprising.

9. The Boo Radleys - Lazarus (Creation)

"Lazarus" appears on Volume 20 of "Indie Top 20" by dint of its reissue in 1994. This upsets the lineage of our discussions about the Boos somewhat, but it probably makes sense to start at the beginning - when "Lazarus" first emerged in 1992, it felt completely unexpected. While the group had developed their sound in leaps and strides prior to its release, there were elements to the track which had never really achieved such prominence before.

It begins with throbbing, echoing dub reggae noises before they collide into a mounful, surrendering trumpet clarion call, which would repeat itself throughout the track at regular intervals and act as the chorus. "I... I must be losing my mind" sings Sice through a crackly, treble-heavy treated vocal, "I keep on trying to find a way out/ there's no need you don't lock the door anymore". Eventually, the other group members join him, "ba ba baing" their way through his vocals like a Beach Boys tribute band drunk and walking in the wrong direction on the way home from the pub. Psychedelic elements twitter and stir their way in their background, and "Lazarus" becomes an incredibly afraid, lonely, lost  sounding record, but wonderful for it. Like The Factory playing "Path Through The Forest" meeting King Tubby meeting Guy Chadwick meeting The Beach Boys in some kind of ludicrous supergroup who could only exist on the continent known as the imagination, this is not what anyone expected. Oh, and Toni Halliday appeared in the video for reasons which were never completely explained.

That Alan McGee opted to give the single a second chance once their LP "Giant Steps" had become acclaimed isn't that surprising. If he expected a proper hit, though, he'll have been disappointed. "Lazarus" was far too unorthodox and mournful to wow daytime radio listeners, and it was left up to the latecomers and stragglers to support the reissue, along with the Radleys fans who wanted to pick up the remixes on the B-side (the Saint Etienne one is particularly ambient and worthy of investigation).

10. Transglobal Underground - Protean (Nation)

Since the whole "Indie Top 20: House" debacle, the series hadn't really gone out of its way to showcase independent dance music much, obvious exceptions such as A Guy Called Gerald aside. The appearance of Transglobal Underground here is something of a surprise, then, though their fusion of world music styles with dance music did make them a bit more of an IPC journalist's dream than a lot of the club music around in 1994.

"Protean" showcases why Transglobal Underground were so respected by so many different audiences. The different elements of their sound aren't lazily bashed together in the form of tossed-off ethnic samples, but fully incorporated into the work. "Protean" therefore sounds both unique and hypnotic, showcasing the fact that the euphoria surrounding communal, danceable music is a global phenomenon rather than a niche youth consideration. "Protean" twitters and shimmers along, sounding joyous and tranquil at the same time. It's hard to hear quite how it fits in with the rest of this LP, but it's nice to have it here.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Volume 20 Tracks 1-5 - Oasis, Echobelly, Lush, Veruca Salt, Tiny Monroe

Formats: CD/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1994

If Volume 19 seemed to express some of the confusion that existed in a pre-Britpop, post-Grunge liminal period, and filled itself with a big old jumble of styles and sounds, Volume 20 is a clear pointer. In fact, it's probably one of the closest volumes in the series to what the "Shine" or "The Greatest Album In The World... Ever!" series became. At almost every turn there's a pointer towards alternative stars of either middling or stadium-filling potential (though there are admittedly honourable exceptions and a few instances of arguable filler).

The Melody Maker sponsorship has suddenly returned out of nowhere as well, like a long-lost friend. Other versions of this LP with a differently ordered track listing have also apparently emerged, as documented on another very old Indie Top 20 chronicling website (which contains many spoilers if anyone is actually waiting to see what other surprises are in store). I've never seen such a copy myself, and nor does Discogs seem to document them, but if anyone has the rogue version, please let me know.

By the time this came out, I was the music editor of my university's magazine, a role I took far too seriously given that it was a scruffy, poorly designed paper barely anybody actually read (bar the "sportos" looking at the university match reports in the bloated sports section). The more effort I put into it, though, the more guest list places, singles and albums I was sent, meaning that by the time "Volume 20" emerged, my attitude to this series had become "Huh! Tell me something new, Grandad! I've already heard that band's next single!" It's at this point that new "Indie Top 20" releases stopped becoming records I bought within the first couple of weeks of their release, and often left on the record store shelf for months before buying. Of course, had Beechwood sent me any promo copies I'd have happily waxed on about them to the five readers who cared, but they were too thrifty and sensible to bother.

1. Oasis - Supersonic (Creation)

Oh Jesus. Where do I even begin? Track one, straight out of the traps, The Future (for the next few years at least, anyway). And if you think giving a completely new band like Oasis prime spot on this album was an obvious thing to do, I urge you to think again. While some journalists in the mainstream music press were convinced of their status as huge stars, there were plenty of other people who were cautious about their possible chances. The phrase "reheated baggy" was used a lot around Oasis by generally astute people like Justine Frischmann, who told her record label Deceptive not to bother investigating the band.

Her tag isn't necessarily as lazy as it sounds. The general public's first chance to hear the group came with a demo of "Cigarettes and Alcohol" slapped on to the NME cover mount cassette "The Mutha of Creation" in February. It sounded half-arsed and unimpressive, a limp piece of bar-room boogie worthy of any number of unimpressive ageing local bands I'd had the misfortune to watch that year. Liam Gallagher sounds as if he's doing guide vocals - they have no charisma or power behind them, and the trademark punk sneer he later adopted is absent. In retrospect, the fact that Alan McGee felt it was worth showing off to the public seems like a staggering piece of misjudgement. If, as he claimed, he knew he was sitting on the best band in Britain at that time, why the unflattering introduction? Did The Beatles introduce themselves to the world with free give-aways of their failed Decca audition tapes?

Then came a round of hysterically funny press interviews, and then the release of "Supersonic", which was a vast improvement on the "Cigarettes and Alcohol" demo but was (and is) good rather than great, surely? There are moments that sound thrilling - Liam's confident new vocal style, Noel's crashing guitar slides, the sheer bloody swagger of the thing. Still, though, go back to old recordings of bands like The Real People and Bedazzled (in particular!) - the latter of whom were brutally slagged in the music press for having the audacity to emerge at the tail end of baggy - and the sound Oasis finally emerged with was frankly not terribly far off. We may privately chuckle when pesky foreign types get confused about Britpop and place The Stone Roses and other assorted baggy bands into a long timeline in error, but it's an understandable mistake.

Still, while I strongly suspect that "Supersonic" would probably have climbed to number 94 in the charts before buggering off again if it had been released in 1992, it does pack such a punch that you're forced to stop and listen. Oasis did, seemingly within a matter of months, manage to change their sound into something that sounded slightly threatening, powerful and adrenalin-packed.

I was offered a guest list place for their gig at the Portsmouth Wedgwood Rooms, a 350 capacity venue. It probably speaks volumes about my laissez-fare attitude towards them at the time that, due to an impending exam the morning after, I sent someone else along to review the gig instead with his choice of plus one. The reports I got back were both mocking and confused, probably not helped by the fact that their support band were local progressive rockers Strange Attractor, a bunch who were perfectly good at what they did but couldn't have been a less suited choice if everyone involved had tried. We were surprised to learn that the supposedly vicious, dangerous Gallagher brothers were courteous, friendly and encouraging towards them on the night. Maybe they were pussy cats after all. Cuh! Imagine Damon Albarn even giving them the time of day, eh?

"You won't believe what the lead singer said after the gig as well, Dave!" one of the attendees told me. "'Right, now I'm off to pull some birds!' That's their credibility in the dustbin! Ha ha!"

They were different times, viewers. The 1993 intake of indie listening university students were largely right-on and really couldn't have predicted what lay ahead. Lad culture hadn't come back into fashion again yet. Oasis, at this point of time, felt like some kind of weird outlier to some of us, a quaint act reviving ideas from a mere few years before and attitudes from decades before that. Giggling up our sleeves at them seemed like the only course of action. "First they laugh at you...."

2. Echobelly - I Can't Imagine The World Without Me (Fuave)

There was clearly something in the air by mid-1994, though. Echobelly may have been collectively much more right-on and politically astute than the Gallaghers, but "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" was essentially lead singer Sonya Madden's celebration of her own ambition. This obviously has an entirely different context and layer of meaning when it comes from the lips of an Asian woman in 1994 at a point in time where the BNP were gaining political ground. However, it doesn't, as a whole, make the song itself particularly interesting or effective.

In fact, "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" is essentially one big amphetamine rush whose lyrics sound incredibly contrived, as if a back-room Denmark Street songwriter penned them in 1963 to describe the sensations of teenagers. "And in this world we spin and shout/ We want it all we want it now/ They said 'oh shut your mouth/ You don't know what you talk about'" sings Sonya, not long before finishing the song by singing the word "me" multiple times over. To be honest, it would have been more interesting, and more hilarious, if she had just sung the word "me" throughout.

This pretty much sets the template for the worst elements of Britpop to come. A belief that self-belief is somehow an important or interesting message in itself, combined with a series of high speed, distorted riffs and copped Beatles elements (in this case, the Sgt Pepper styled horns and peculiarly out-of-place psychedelic spasm the group have halfway through). Echobelly produced some good singles, but by Christ, this wasn't one of them, and it actually seems more cringe-inducing with the passing of time. Horrendous video, too.

3. Lush - Hypocrite (4AD)

Lush lay accused of cynically adopting Britpop sounds towards the end of their existence, but the fact that "Hypocrite" can be placed next to Echobelly in this tracklisting and not sound like a jarring gear change is telling. In fact, the group had always "had a Britpop element to their sound", as it were, and "Hypocrite" is actually one of the finest examples.

Allegedly penned about a female friend in another Camden scene indie band at this time, "Hypocrite" is a hurt, agitated, spiky and occasionally spiteful rush of noise with Miki and Emma's vocal harmonies providing the only sweetener in sight. It's much more of a New Wave styled thrash than any of their previous singles, though "Deluxe" clearly had the same aggressive rush beneath its surface.

Bizarrely, 4AD took the decision to issue two Lush singles on the same day, this and "Desire Lines". The impact of both was diluted by this perplexing marketing decision, and neither broke through in quite the way it should have done.

4. Veruca Salt - Seether (Minty Fresh)

"Seether" hung around the indie charts seemingly for an entire season and remained an evening radio favourite, proving that while the times were changing, there was still a huge appetite for fresh American alternative rock at this point. "Seether" didn't really do anything particularly new - though it has considerably more zest and zing than the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins, sitting closer to Elastica on the treble-heavy punk thrash spectrum - but did strike an enormous chord with the indie kids on dancefloors.

Having an almost Ramones styled rock and roll simplicity to its structure and a nagging chorus, "Seether" was brilliantly naive and could probably only have emerged from a new, relatively inexperienced young band making their first tentative steps. Like a much needed kick up the arse and slap to the face, it still sounds strangely invigorating even now.

Formed in Chicago, Veruca Salt went on to release numerous albums, including one for the major label Geffen, and are still an active concern today. Their presence in the UK waned a little after their first LP "American Thighs", but their following the US remained strong enough to ensure that they remained a powerful cult band.

5. Tiny Monroe - Cream Bun (Laurel)

With this single, Tiny Monroe show a considerably more diverse set of influences than the last time we met them on Volume 19. Slowly awaking to life like an early Verve track with an eerie, stoned and foggy atmosphere, it doesn't take long before the guitars brickwall their way through your speakers with malevolent intentions.

"Cream Bun" is at least an interesting and incredibly meandering 45, though, with the big bold stripes of the chorus cutting between periods of black melancholy 3am pondering. I'm not convinced it completely works as a whole, and it's certainly incredibly hard to remember anything about the record an hour after the needle leaves the single's grooves - but it has a clear ambition many of their peers at the time clearly lacked.

Tiny Monroe would continue for another couple of years before releasing their solitary LP "Volcanoes", after which they called it a day.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Volume 19 Tracks 16-20 - Gigolo Aunts, Blue Aeroplanes, Compulsion, Pop Will Eat Itself, Rancho Diablo

16. Gigolo Aunts - Where I Find My Heaven (Fire)

The opening guitar lines of the theme from the nineties sitcom "Game On" - or the film "Dumb and Dumber" depending on your preferred reference point, since it was confusingly used in both - burst through loudly and confidently. From those opening bars right through to the end, "Where I Find My Heaven" sounds like an almost flawless pop song, rammed to the brim with bittersweet lyrics and bouyant but intricately woven melodies. At the time, my first thought was that this sounded like a single Teenage Fanclub could have released if they'd decided to pander just slightly to the mainstream.

What's truly surprising is how, despite its mainstream presence and clear potential, "Where I Find My Heaven" really wasn't the huge hit it could have been. On its 1995 reissue it managed one week in the Top 40 at number 29, then disappeared from view. The finger of suspicion in the UK's case probably points in the direction of Fire Records who never were terribly good at maximising the potential of their artists, but its failure on RCA in the US is truly baffling.

Gigolo Aunts had a long history as a band prior to this point, having their roots in the 1981 power-pop band Sniper. Therefore, they had already spent over a decade penning the kind of effortlessly memorable melodies much beloved of that genre. This makes comparisons with Teenage Fanclub somewhat unfair, since they had a considerable head start over that Scottish band.

"Where I Find My Heaven" remains their most known song, partly due to its mass media use, but the group had a strong cult following globally and managed to sustain their careers until 2002, when one final LP "Pacific Ocean Blues" was released. Despite the apparent finality of this, I absolutely wouldn't bet against a comeback tour of some kind.

17. Blue Aeroplanes - Broken & Mended (Beggars Banquet)

Why, hi there, Blue Aeroplanes! How's it going? Haven't seen you since Volume Two. I think we lost you back at the, uh, junction with the eighties and nineties when you signed a piece of paper in that huge glass building up there. What have you been up to? Oh, I see. So things haven't changed that much, then? You kept the Russian dancer, and you still have those, uh, super-piquant conversational spoken word lyrics? HEY, well I guess, uh, dig the consistency, yeah. [CHORUS]

There's something amazingly stubborn and determined about The Blue Aeroplanes, and what's more astonishing still is how long a career they've been allowed. It's perhaps a tribute to the patience record labels in the eighties and nineties had, however much they were derided at the time. If such a group were to be formed now, they would be saddled to a very small indie label with a limited budget, whereas the Aeroplanes had a cultish stint on Fire Records, followed by a major label deal with Ensign/ Chrysalis, then on to the independent powerhouse Beggars Banquet. All for a group who are almost one of the quintessential arthouse indie bands, whose only real hope of mainstream success would have been to accidentally write a song which made some kind of popular sense. 1990's indie dance remix of "...And Stones" came the closest to that, but still no cigar.

"Broken & Mended" isn't remotely similar to that record, and is effectively the group returning to basics. Jagged guitar work combines with almost beatnik vocal ramblings, and the whole thing slams around the room sharply. For all that, it's not their finest single, and while I can't quantify why this doesn't work as well as the likes of "Jacket Hangs" or "Tolerance" - the group appear to be operating to their own agenda, so it's hard to draw comparisons to anything or anyone else - it nonetheless isn't a track of theirs I feel compelled to return to often.

18. Compulsion - Mall Monarchy (One Little Indian)

Irish punk band Compulsion were actually a pretty big deal for a few months in 1994. Bracketed in with the NME created and frankly somewhat damp squibbish New Wave of New Wave scene, they also had an abrasive, distorted sound and pounding energy which made them palatable to the grunge kids. In another world, at another time, they might have been enormous.

"Mall Monarchy" appeared on the "ITV Chart Show" not once but twice, and received a healthy amount of evening airplay, but perhaps failed to launch the group in the manner expected. It's a snarling piece of work with a distinct anti-consumerist message, and sounds like the stuff of dreams for frustrated teenagers and adult anarchists alike. It's certainly more memorable than the material being offered to us by S*M*A*S*H at this particular point in time.

Unfortunately, it was all a bit of a dead end, and while "Mall Monarchy" is an unquestionable anthem, it would rapidly be usurped in the UK by other groups who wouldn't dream of using the word "mall" in a song lyric. Unless it was used in the context of "Pall Mall", that is.

19. Pop Will Eat Itself - Ich Bin Ein Auslander (Infectious)

The latter stages of Pop Will Eat Itself's career are often baffling. If their confused, hyper-random video for "RSVP" weren't enough to contend with, "Ich Bin Ein Auslander" was an unlikely anti-fascist racket which charted in the Top 40 in the UK and was showcased on the rather staid, beige, pensioner-friendly "Late Late Show" chat show in Ireland. Over on YouTube, there's a clip of the band on the programme looking utterly inebriated, miming over enthusiastically to the song with their faces wrapped in sellotape. It probably didn't even make any sense at the time either, though Gay "Bykers on Acid" Byrne does at least seem to agree with the song's sentiments (rumour has it that the programme's security personnel took a dimmer view of their antics).

While the song itself is no masterpiece, it does capture the group at their most angry and raucous, and reminds you that towards the end of their careers they were heading in an increasingly ferocious and politicised direction. It's hardly the most radical thing you'll hear today, but it is still, unfortunately, horribly relevant, and its defiance is a tonic.

The meshing of the band's electronic, Hip-Hop and sampling influences to this kind of firepower also works incredibly well - almost as if they only realised the group they wanted to be at the point of the original line-up's last album.

20. Rancho Diablo - Plan B (13th Hour/ Mute)

"Indie Top 20" featured a lot of obscure bands during its 23 volume run, but I'd be willing to bet that Rancho Diablo are high on the list of the least known and appreciated. Signed to the Mute subsidiary label 13th Hour, you have to wonder if the group were perceived as some kind of nineties version of Fad Gadget. Wobbly porno trumpet noises meet with thundering industrial basslines, wails of feedback and growled vocals to create something very unique sounding, but sadly not something that works even remotely for me. It's most certainly an acquired taste, and it's possible that their sinister sex dungeon funk might gain new fans after this blog entry goes out, but for me there's no easy point of entry.

Rancho Diablo's recorded career was brief and failed to last very long into 1995, but was proof that Mute's profits from Depeche Mode, Erasure, Inspiral Carpets and Nick Cave were being ploughed back into difficult projects that wouldn't have shamed the label in its earliest days. This seems like a very strange inclusion for the "Indie Top 20" LP, but I strongly suspect a "take Rancho Diablo, get Depeche Mode much cheaper" styled agreement is responsible for their presence here. That or the compiler Tim Millington was just a massive, and very unlikely, fan of their work.

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.