[10 May 2011]
Sound Affects Editor
This week sees the British DVD release of Upside Down, a documentary tackling the history of seminal UK indie label Creation Records, which was extant from 1983 until 1999. Primarily dedicated to propagating 1960s-influenced alternative rock of all sorts and permutations, Creation was a collision of rockist traditionalism, hyperbolic bravado, and influential innovation, responsible for bringing the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Oasis, and Super Furry Animals to the world at large.
Of all Creation’s myriad releases, it’s Ride’s 1990 debut Nowhere that I adore the most. Yes, Oasis’ first two albums are more tuneful, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is a visionary work by an uncompromising musical auteur, but it’s Nowhere that touches me like no other record in the Creation back catalog. Long held as the second-best band in the shoegaze genre (after My Bloody Valentine) and the second-best band from Oxford, England (after Radiohead), Ride has never really gotten its proper due. As such, I held hope that the 20th anniversary deluxe reissue of its first album this year (yes, the record actually came out 21 years ago—don’t ask) would go a ways towards drawing attention and accolades to the dreamy melodic charms of the disbanded foursome’s music.
The funny thing was, when I sat down and listened to the first half of the Nowhere reissue (the US version of the album plus the Today Forever EP) all the way through, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. See, I never listen to the record in its correct running order. It’s not just that I am inclined to skip certain tracks—the iPod and other MP3 players have allowed moving around recording tracklists to be a painless process, as they remove the halting fits caused by going through each song one by one on a CD player. This means that my vision of what Nowhere is is not the same as that displayed on the back cover. Once I engaged Nowhere in its proper sequence for the first time, well, ever, I found its pacing unimpressive, with “Seagull” going on too long to be an effective opener, “Kaleidoscope” being a weak-follow up, and too many of the lesser tracks lumped together. The overall impression was disheartening: Ride sounded stymied for good ideas to sustain an LP, which in retrospect they apparently exhausted on the superb EPs that preceded the album.
Going back to the idea of an individualistic interpretation of how an album can be ordered due to modern technology, it’s crucial to impart that Nowhere is best judged by separating its songs for individual consumption. On its own, “Kaleidoscope” clicks into place, its blazing, hazy swirl of guitars demonstrating that shoegazers could indeed rock out. “Decay” has an insistent aura of foreboding driven by chilling snare hits and an ominous bassline. Despite is creaky vocals, “In a Different Place” cuts through to the heart via a ringing guitar riff that is the aural equivalent of slowly wiping a tear from one’s face. Amazingly, the pinnacle of the album is an anomaly created by Sire adding cuts from the Fall EP to the American release tracklist. “Vapour Trail” (the album’s original closer) and “Taste” are an unconquerable pair, standing back-to-back as Ride’s most transcendent moments. Driven by an aching, chiming rhythm guitar that plays the same four-chord progression throughout and augmented by strings, “Vapour Trail” is unrequited love personified, an utterly perfect recording that is one of the few songs I can honesty say makes me tear up. On the flip side to that tune’s melancholia, “Taste” is an explosion of pop delight, its jangly guitars and soaring harmonies bathing the body in an optimistic glow even if its lyrics are loaded with the twinge of regret.
“Vapour Trail” and “Taste” exemplify the pure, sighing feel that permeates the album. Nowhere has a very adolescent quality about it—not just because it’s audibly the first long-player by a group of promising up-and-comers still refining their sound, but because the band members’ youth and inexperience shines through every facet of the record. Mark Gardener and Andy Bell’s harmonies are positively boyish, delivering frequently clunky rhymes preoccupied with existential sadness and romantic heartache. If you listen past the distortion and the feedback, the songs are often astonishingly simple, built on straightforward chord changes and brief guitar hooks that are disappointingly repetitive when stretched out for the longer tracks. The most astonishing musician in the group, drummer Loz Colbert instills the album with boundless energy, always ready with thrilling drum rolls that betray his eagerness. When all these elements are at play in perfect alignment, Nowhere becomes a magical record, one that you can see deserving of its reputation as one of the best shoegaze has to offer.
Frustratingly, I find it hard to weigh Nowhere’s lesser moments properly against its luminous bright spots. “Vapour Trail” and “Taste” aside, I admit Ride did better work elsewhere. Yet it’s Ride’s musical approach on this record as well as the sensation that Nowhere imparts upon me that always draws me back to it. Fuzzy/poppy alt-rock before it became a dirty phrase, this album simultaneously embodies longing, youthful possibilities, and a lack of self-consciousness. My relationship with Nowhere is really the story of being in love. Objectively, there are faults to be acknowledged and superior contemporary works to be lauded. But those guitar sounds, those harmonies, those killer drums—I can’t help but be smitten by them every single time.