[9 June 2011]
Well, the world didn’t end, which means that I can continue my tradition of breaking news late. Today’s top story: the August 2009 remaster of Moose’s debut album, . . . Xyz. Yep, you read that correctly: 2009. But before you close your web browser (because a story about an event this old couldn’t possibly be news, right?), remember that you’ve never heard of Moose, the band, and even if you have, you most likely haven’t heard that much of its music, because virtually all of it has been out of print for well over a decade. In other words, this humble blog post actually is news, no matter how long it took to reach the Web.
By now, it’s been thoroughly established that the term “shoegaze” was, and perhaps still is, pretty clunky. What’s most interesting about the term is not so much the way that it has been sort-of reclaimed by contemporary groups as varied as Animal Collective, Autolux, and Wild Nothing, but rather the fact that it continues to garner so much revulsion, even though it’s not entirely clear where, or when, the genre description originated. Some histories date the term’s origins to reviews of Slowdive’s early shows, whereas others broaden their scope, painting the entire Creation Records roster of the early 1990s with that particular fuzzy brush. Still, others argue that the term was actually first used in a Sounds review of a Moose gig, in which lead singer Russell Yates read his lyrics off of a sheet that he had taped to the floor.
Whatever quibbles we might have with this kind of linguistic trainspotting, it’s fascinating to think that a perpetually obscure band from London might have been the inspiration for what time has proven to be one of the most significant subgenres of late ‘80s/early ‘90s independent rock music. What’s even more fascinating is recognizing that Moose was really never shoegaze. Sure, Swervedriver really wasn’t, either, but there were enough sonic similarities between its oeuvre and the work of fellow noise merchants Chapterhouse, Ride, and, of course, My Bloody Valentine for the label to make at least some sense when it was affixed to them. On the other hand, with the exception of three slight EPs—1991’s Jack, Cool Breeze, and Reprise—Moose never completely immersed itself in the aqueous drones of its Thames Valley peers. Instead, the band preferred the windswept, dusty countryside blazed by the Byrds circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo. . . . Xyz emphasizes those leanings, finding Moose drying off and staring westward at the sun. Thus, the album occupies an intriguing middle space between its early woozy work and its later pure pop, which makes it the perfect candidate for the initial entry in what should be a longer campaign to reissue the band’s entire catalog. Come on, Cherry Red. Soon is never soon enough, you know.
. . .Xyz roughly breaks down into three distinct movements, the first of which contains what is probably Moose’s best known track: the sweet “Little Bird (Are You Happy in Your Cage?)”. Immediately catchy, the track lopes briskly along, gathering strands of acoustic folk and country twang on its breezy way. And with a sing-along chorus to boot! Neighboring cuts “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “The Whistling Song” are tethered to the same wispy fabric, the former blanketing pristine jangle pop with thick Madchester-esque bass, the latter conjuring images of a long-lost Western set on the ocean floor. Likewise, the pretty “Polly” stretches what seem to be slight guitar drones into what sound like understated string arrangements before bending them back again at the song’s conclusion.
The final third of the record is equally breathtaking. “Friends” overlays guitar fuzz on top of textured acoustic strumming and a stomping C&W 4/4 beat. Album closer “XYZ” meanders down similar aesthetic terrain, traversing swells of guitar distortion and settling on sun-bleached Southwestern American ground. Still, it is the deep cut “Screaming” that remains the band’s greatest accomplishment. Perfectly balanced in its composition, it blends elements of dream pop, shoegaze, and well . . . of Moose—of its quirky guitar chirps—into a frothy mix that sounds nothing like any of them. It’s the sound of a land beyond the horizon, a land where music this perfect is not relegated to the whisperings of folklore.
If . . . Xyz stumbles at all, it is in its middle third, which is, ironically enough, inaugurated by a dependable cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”. Though this portion of the record showcases the band’s eclecticism, juxtaposing Neil with a cameo from the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan on “Soon Is Never Soon Enough”, tracks like “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “High Flying Bird” are a bit too precious for their own good. While this middle chunk of the record finds the band refining its pop stylings, it lacks the genre-bending excitement of the opening and closing portions. Nevertheless, it’s a necessary part of the journey, and it’s definitely worth the detour in the end.
Cherry Red’s remaster adds the long out-of-print Sonny & Sam EP to the end of the record. Initially released only in America, this EP collects roughly two-thirds of the songs spread out over Moose’s first three UK EPs. For anyone interested in hearing the band’s short early run as shoegazers, this is the place to start. The epic “Do You Remember?” and “Last Night I Fell Again” show the band standing firmly alongside of Messrs. Shields, Bell, and Gardener—which is not to suggest that Moose were copycats. To the contrary, Moose, even at its greenest, was powerful enough for its particular brand of noise pop to rise above the din of its contemporaries. Indeed, “Jack” is an absolute monster, with teeth large enough to tear a sizable chunk out of the famed Ride EP. “Suzanne” is similarly muscular, at one time even catching the attention of the late John Peel. Whether these early cuts remain mere curiosities or significant archival material largely depends on your perspective. No matter what, it’s important that they remain back in circulation, if only because they’ll help inform that perspective.
In late 1993, Ride initiated proceedings in what would become one of the most prominent, and ugliest, divorces from the shoegaze scene. Celebrating itself a bit too much, Ride entered the studio to record its third LP with its own stash of Byrds and Black Crowes records firmly in tow. Eventually, the band would release Carnival of Light in June of 1994, perhaps the worst record ever to carry a Creation Records logo on the sleeve (yes, I’m including Tarantula here, but I’m also, apparently, forgiving a good deal of Primal Scream’s catalog). Ride’s attempt to refashion itself as a group of wayward flower children was unconvincing not because that lineage was entirely foreign to it—the Byrds were soaring pretty prominently behind Ride as early as “Like a Daydream”—but because the results were so bland. Loz Colbert’s manic drum fills were lopped off entirely; Andy Bell and Mark Gardener had no interest in interweaving their guitar parts (or any of their work, actually); the band abandoned their sort-of impressionistic lyrics for straightforward love songs; Gardener and Bell actually thought they could sing! In simple terms, the band lost the plot—every last bit of the plot—and it would never find it again.
In comparison, by 1994 Moose had long since evolved out of the ooze of early ‘90s British alt-rock and had mastered the skill of marrying the residues of Smithsian jangle pop with weathered Americana. By that year, Moose had become a fully formed left-of-center pop band, writing tunes that largely defied the shackles of its roots and the constraints that neat genre descriptions could place on the group. Moose would continue on its errant way, releasing gorgeous off-kilter pop straight through the end of the decade, with Live a Little, Love a Lot (1997) and High Ball Me! (2000). In many ways, then, Moose was a much more successful band than Ride. Even though that claim is a bit strange, it’s never too late to make it.