As mentioned in part one of this, there’s a number of albums timestamped ’93 where the cultural weight involved demands closer attention than the occasional flippant sentences often exhibited here. Something along the lines of if you only own one record by Drimble Wedge And The Vegetations (or whoever), make it this one. It means stunted references to long players such as Bad Vibes by Lloyd Cole or Rid Of Me by PJ Harvey. Blood Music by Chapterhouse receives but a fleeting mention, and whilst Catherine Wheel’s Chrome fits the bill of if you only own one record by, make it this one, it’s being overlooked in this context, trampled underfoot by the thrum of elsewhere significance.
If there’s such a thing as a definitive “shoegaze” album, Souvlaki by Slowdive embraces that proposition in waves of tender reverie. Although I’d argue that the shoegaze tag is something of a misnomer here – another instance of genre politik making things far too simple, for the focus is deceptively wide and fluid for a “genre” record. And perhaps this is in part due to the somewhat serendipitous nature of this record’s arrival; the aborted recording sessions, a bleaching of confidence, writer’s block writ large… sometimes depth is pulled directly from what at first light feels like an artistic dead-end (although it helps when Brian Eno agrees to collaborate, as he does on the masterful ‘Sing’). Thus Souvlaki (which I used to think was romantically titled until learning it’s a dodgy fellatio joke from a Jerky Boys track) is somewhat disjointed album at times, yet in a strange way feels all the better for it. The dreamy, interchanging vocals, that reverb, songs as achingly beautiful as ‘Machine Gun’ or ‘When The Sun Hits’ or (my personal favourite) ‘Souvlaki Space Station’. This is a record to listen to at sunset. With a large glass of wine and a favourite lover close at hand.
One reading of Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins is as a traditional rock album. It isn’t – it’s something far more intelligent than that. For all Billy Corgan’s demagogue tendencies, he certainly knew how to craft songs in which balance is derived from a knowing appreciation of contrast (past tense applied hesitantly in that last sentence, but – I’d argue – correctly). It’s this strength of songwriting that makes Siamese Dream sound fresh, airy, expansive, despite the complex undertones, the multiple overlays, the inter-band tensions never far from the surface of things.
Lead singles ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Today’ naturally grab the headlines, but to dig deeper towards the album’s heart is to be rewarded. The fuzzy poise of ‘Rocket’. The stark, complex beauty of ‘Soma’. The beautiful desperation of ‘Disarm’. This is a record very much in the tradition of the great American rock statement (and like many great American rock statements, its suffers in parts from being over-produced) – yet even now to play is to experience a well-hewn shot of relevance.
At the risk of repeating myself, one reading of Concentration by Machines Of Loving Grace is as a traditional rock album. It isn’t – it’s something far more intelligent than that. Harshly dismissed by some as just another industrial metal outfit, there’s was an aesthetic carefully assembled from a calling of disparate, druggy references. The detritus of pop culture. Stoner-rock haze. An edge of burned-out desperation, buried deep in the mix. It’s a sticky album, a facsimile of another dodgy evening spent in some hot and sleazy alt-rock club – but from time to time I find the soul needs that kind of replenishment.
Records don’t come much cleverer than Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, the second Stereolab album (and they rarely arrive with better titles). I’m not sure if this their most significant record, or the fact that its release segued dynamically with whatever I was up to in 1993. But I love it’s classy audiophilic nature, its invention, at times spooky, others times elemental. ‘Jenny Ondioline’ clocks in at over eighteen minutes, but it’s a rush that’s over so quickly – finely pivoting across krautrock motif, drone effects, toying Farfisa organ, a vox simultaneously sultry and disenfranchised. There be wow within.
Next, and finding appropriate arcs of description for Giant Steps by The Boo Radleys isn’t straight-forward; if certain records are intimate portraits of mood and expression – the aural equivalent of a pen and ink drawing – then this is some extensive, multi-coloured fresco. An expansive journey through sound and influence that could have been an almighty mess if not executed with such panache. One facet of why this works is in the sequencing; by beginning with the frenzied reverb of ‘I Hang Suspended’, the listener is lulled into a false sense of expectation – what scientists call the “ooh, it’s a shiny indie-pop record” effect. That this isn’t a conventional indie-pop LP becomes apparent by track #2, ‘Upon 9th And Fairchild’, in which dub reggae shacks up with psychedelic interplay in a particularly dexterous fashion.
And so it goes; seventeen tracks in which the aperture for scope is far wider than the norm. An album loaded with fleet-footedness, with Beach Boys harmonies, touches of that whole Beatles thing circa Revolver, swirls of stylistic reference points all etched with joyous exclamation. The poppy hooks are delicate and acoustic, or the guitars throb and gristle with an utmost haze. There’s a great deal to take in here, but – importantly – it never feels like too much – ‘Lazarus’ being a case in point; the song’s verse-chorus-verse skeleton isn’t anything we haven’t heard a thousand times before. Yet preluded by that fuzzy dub, and powered by a strident trumpet and cunningly subtle Hammond organ, the overall effect is enticement on a grand scale. A lovely track on a wonderful album.
To end, some kind of album of the year nomination, and New Wave by The Auteurs. As with the Suede début, this was hyped furiously on release by a music press long given over to irrelevance. Unlike the Suede début, New Wave rapidly transcended such self-congratulatory navel-gazing (as if doing so with a louche shrug of the shoulders). Luke Haines may be a contrary bastard, one eye permanently fixed on the scuttling of any traditional career curve, yet even when wired up to a self-destructive initiative the sophistication of his songwriting can’t help but shine through. That the début Auteurs album isn’t some situationist-shaped stunt means that there’s zero distraction – you get to focus intimately upon the endearing, sepia-tinged cynicism of the lyrics (‘Showgirl’; ‘American Guitars’), the pared-back components of instrumentation in which the cello is shaded light and dark (‘Bailed Out’), that unshakable sense of impending anger as the album grows into its junk shop clothes – a causticity of timbre that grows in noticeable patterns. An album that instead of feeling intrinsically of ’93, flaunts its charms like Norma Desmond – I’m ready for my close-up now.
Slowdive / Souvlaki Space Station
Stereolab / Jenny Ondioline
The Auteurs / Bailed Out