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Half-Life EP (4AD, 1990)
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.
Morningrise EP (Creation, 1991)
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.
Glider EP / EP’s 1988-1991 (Creation, 1990; Sony, 2012)
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.
Going Blank Again (Creation, 1992)
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.