[12 September 2012]
By now, it’s commonly accepted that the term shoegaze isn’t the most beloved genre description that NME ever invented. However, quibbles with the term aside, it is difficult to ignore the giant steps that the scene has made in the 20-odd years since My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything dropped. Indeed, shoegaze has left footprints all over contemporary pop music—from the mainstream to the aspirational to the progressive.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why this is the case. Shoegaze’s trademark sound—rippling sheets of guitar noise—is endlessly pliable, easily molded into sonic textures smooth and abrasive alike. Yet, what is often overlooked is how innovative the rhythm sections of many shoegaze bands were. Since the genre stood squarely at the crossroads of Madchester baggy and jangle pop, many shoegazers infused their Byrdsian chiming with the reverberations of dance music. In many ways, alternative/indie rock’s beat connection started here.
Even more significantly, shoegaze has revealed itself to be a more egalitarian scene than perhaps anything that preceded or followed it. Truly, women musicians played an unprecedentedly large role in constructing the genre, making it—as I will argue to my dying day—much more forward-thinking than some of that other stuff that was popular at the time.
What follows is a brief survey of ten shoegaze songs that have remained somewhat unsung. Though the bands included here are not entirely esoteric, they were not necessarily known for these particular tracks. As always, this list is defined as much by what it includes as it is by what it excludes, so it is in no way definitive. If you’ve got additions to it—and I’m quite sure that you do—add them down in the comments section. Seriously, bring us Catherine Wheel, Sennen, and Televise. Bring us Mahogany, Manitoba, and Autolux. However, for Stuart’s sake, don’t bring us Mogwai.
The apocryphal story is that lead Lily Kurt Heasley believed his debut album, In the Presence of Nothing, to be a stronger record than My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, claiming that he could have written the latter in his sleep. Here’s to hoping that there is little truth to that story, because In the Presence of Nothing isn’t anything but a faded facsimile of its woozy influences. Still, the record has a few highlights, and “Claire Hates Me” is arguably the brightest one. Despondent but not weepy, “Claire” is anchored by tight, muscular drumming that provides the song a certain amount of physicality. Crank it up, and trust me, it will hit you where it hurts. Though it might not reach the nosebleed heights of shoegaze’s noisier tracks, “Claire” will still get you high for a while.
Since Moose had abandoned shoegaze’s signature guitar squalls by the time that it released its first full length, 1992’s ...XYZ, the links between the band and that particular scene have always seemed tentative and flimsy—until, that is, you hear the early stuff. “Jack”, the lead track from Moose’s first EP, was—and still is—a howling monster. Supported throughout by gauzy fuzz, the song slowly builds a wailing wall of guitar racket that sounds almost symphonic. Though Moose would ultimately purvey some of the most pristine pop music of the 1990s, its pre-...XYZ work reveals the band to be one of shoegaze’s most significant architects.
Fittingly, Curve warped the boundaries separating early ‘90s alternative rock from industrial, dance, and electronica. Helmed by Dean Garcia and Toni Halliday, the band made a whole lot of glorious noise with its early EPs and its impossibly strong debut, 1992’s Doppelgänger. “Horror Head”, that album’s second single, effortlessly blends strands of Eastern-tinged vocals with thunderous hip-hop drumming and all kinds of airy guitars. It’s an unimaginable combination that results in an unimaginably gorgeous track. The threads of Halliday’s singing as they weave their way through Garcia’s elliptical strumming create one of the more textured tapestries ever to adorn the UK Singles Chart, where it peaked at number 31. (Doppelgänger, by the way, went to number 11 on the UK Albums Chart). So, come on now. Come clean. The song makes you feel kind of funny, too, doesn’t it?
If Whirlpool is remembered for anything (and all too often it isn’t remembered at all) it is for the single “Pearl”, a track that incorporates a John Bonham drum sample and backing vocals from Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. It’s an undeniably catchy cut that is instantly hummable (because, of course, no one can possibly know the words to it), but it—and, truth be told, the rest of Chapterhouse’s thin catalog—withers in the face of “Breather”, a mainline shot of sonic adrenaline if there ever were one. From its opening seconds, “Breather” gallops forward at full steam, each pile-driver drum fill threatening to knock the whole thing off course at any moment. But yet Andrew Sherriff and Stephen Patman’s vocals smooth out the song’s frayed, flanged edges. At one point, the line “Make believe that you are mine” floats through the mix. It’s a heartbreaking moment that is redeemed in the track’s closing seconds, where Sherriff and Patman direct their guitars heavenward. “Breather” is utter rock transcendence, and it’s only one of the nine tracks on Whirlpool.
If the members of Swervedriver ever were shoegazers—and I know many of you would argue that they weren’t (or that the designation doesn’t matter)—it was during the recording sessions for their full length debut, 1991’s Raise. “Hands” initially emerged from those sessions, but until Raise was expanded and reissued in 2009, the song remained out of reach for most fans. Comparatively speaking, “Hands” is relatively restrained, allowing breathing room for what might be the only acoustic guitars that Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge ever played while in the band. It is that restraint, however, that proves one incontrovertible fact: collectively, Swervedriver had the best songwriting of its contemporaries. Franklin’s lyrics romantically sketch the scenery of a parallel world, a place of absolute freedom and, apparently, really good food. To manifest that freedom, “Hands” avoids the typical claustrophobic clamor of shoegaze and instead allows us to traverse that open space. When Graham Bonner’s cymbal crashes cascade over the song’s conclusion, it is a baptismal moment. Truly, the world never sounds the same after hearing this band.
The Pale Saints’ “Half-Life, Remembered” embodies the perfect combination of elements. For most of the track, Chris Cooper’s rumbling tom-tom patterns undergird Graeme Naysmith’s plaintive guitar ripples and the ethereal vocals of Ian Masters and Meriel Barham. Then, with under a minute left, the song slowly opens outward, incorporating Caribbean bongo beats while building toward an ecstatic, explosive conclusion. Taken on its own, that last part of the song seems wholly out of place. However, when considered alongside of the Pale Saints’ remaining discography, it makes perfect sense. “Half-Life, Remembered” bridges the gap between the band’s early off-kilter dream pop and the more polished sound they would offer on 1992’s In Ribbons. Barham essentially built that bridge, as she would become a permanent member of the group after Half-Life‘s release. Though the Pale Saints only recorded three humble records, “Half-Life, Remembered” makes the band unforgettable.
Split (1994, 4AD/Reprise)
There isn’t a wasted moment on Lush’s Split. Unlike its overly precious predecessor, 1992’s Spooky, Split comes with a vengeance, exuding a confident, almost sinister swagger on all 12 of its tracks: “I know you think it’s wrong / And maybe you’re right but this is my song”, Miki Berenyi sneers on “Hypocrite”, the album’s lead single. At first, “Kiss Chase” seems delicate, perhaps even fragile. It begins with gossamer guitar streaks that immediately recall the Cocteau Twins and, well, Spooky. But then the band opens the roof, airing out the vapor trails of its prior work and giving itself room to move forward from the past. As the track progresses into the chorus, Berenyi and Emma Anderson descend from the heavens and grind their guitars against Chris Acland and Phil King’s taught groove. The friction ignites brilliant sparks that, like light from a dead star, are still visible today.
Slowdive’s Souvlaki (1993) casts a long shadow over the remainder of the group’s discography. Heard through that record, the band’s follow-up, 1995’s Pygmalion, can sound somewhat disappointing, while its full-length debut, 1991’s Just for Day, can come off as an especially rough rehearsal. Both of those characterizations are unfair, because each Slowdive record is enjoyable in its own right. However, as with many of the band’s peers, Slowdive wrote some of its most intriguing music early in its career, when it was still, shall we say, primal. “Morningrise” stands as the first (and arguably best) expression of the group’s signature breezy aesthetic. The twin strands of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s guitars and vocals blow gracefully through the Gothic soundscapes carved by the Cure, while drummer Neil Carter makes sure to push the tempo enough to keep everything airborne. At first, the overall atmosphere appears a bit murky. However, when the band arrives at the bridge, things begin to shine, just like a clear blue sky at dawn.
The Glider EP represented My Bloody Valentine’s initial full-throated articulation of the sound that would become synonymous with the term shoegaze. While 1998’s Isn’t Anything certainly displayed the band’s ability whip its assorted instruments—including the band members’ voices—into a frenzied, frothy mix, the album remained conceptually muddled. Need proof? Check out Kevin Shields as he attempts to rap. Glider avoided these missteps not simply because it found the band decentering its vocals but because it, along with its sister release—1991’s Tremolo EP—showcases MBV at full strength. Drummer Colm O’Ciosoig fell ill during the recording sessions for Loveless (the full-length follow up to Isn’t Anything) and was unable to play live on most of that record. Here, however, he is locked in, his sharp attack stroked by Debbie Googe’s sensuous bass. All the while, Bilinda Butcher spins a tale of sadomasochism, her deadpan delivery simultaneously sexy and disturbing—which is, precisely, the genius of this band. The sexiness MBV offers—and it offers a lot of it—is loveless, violent, and sometimes bloody. And by the time we realize all of that, it’s too late.
With the recent reissues of Ride’s catalog, “Cool Your Boots”—a contender for the band’s strongest effort—has finally received some long overdue attention. In its gripping six minutes, “Cool Your Boots” accomplishes two things: 1) it demonstrates that Loz Colbert is a jaw-droppingly awesome drummer; 2) perhaps more productively, it showcases shoegaze’s boundless possibilities. With Loveless, My Bloody Valentine laid down the template for the genre. With this single track, Ride filled it in, highlighting how overblown guitar pandemonium does not have to obscure song structure. Indeed, “Cool Your Boots” thrusts itself equally into art and prog rock with its Withnail & I samples, merry-go-round keyboards, and frenetic tempo changes. Steve Queralt is the director, his bass guiding the song everywhere all at once, while Andy Bell and Mark Gardener vocalize some of Ride’s best lyrics. “How can I see stars / If my feet are on the ground?” they ask. Simply put, none of us can, which is why shoegaze isn’t such a bad term after all. If nothing else, shoegaze’s gale force sonics lift us up and out of ourselves. Therefore, the only way to descend safely—to cool our boots—is to look down.