In high school, my friends and I would organize music buying trips to Detroit as badges of our disaffection from the choke chain constraints of growing up in rural Michigan. It was during the height of what was dubbed the “shoegazer” movement and none of us could get enough of that effects pedal witchery, guys that looked a six-pack away from buggery, and vocals that sounded weightless, breathless and drowned in light. One of our favorite challenges was to get stoned to the point where we could practically hear our brains turning into freshly milked Rice Krispies and then try to decipher the lyrics which were alternately brilliant or insipid depending on how much we were willing to hear (i.e. rewrite) them.
Like any critical phenomena “shoegazing” did not always accurately describe the bands thrown in its amorphous net. Such categories make matters worse in that they spur A&R gremlins to comb the streets for any and every band with a washed-out sound and a guitarist who could make woozy feedback without acknowledging such pedestrian details as an audience. Grunge, for example, killed itself in the exploitive mediocrity of its omnipresence on the airwaves. And, of course, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the labeling of “sounds” is that music critics are obsessed with their stash of “cool”, one of the few currencies available to those perpetually in search of a curve to be ahead of. Consequently, as fast as “shoegazing” was heralded for its beauty and entrancing soundscapes it was duly panned for its lack of big-balled rock ‘n’ roll machismo and resigned to the recycling heap where all our outmoded tastes temporarily vacation. If there was ever a band that deserved not to be lost in the fray of a poorly constructed reviewer’s device, it’s The Telescopes.
On their early singles and records, such as 1989’s Taste they were by no means somnambulant Brits of a feather. Songs like “Precious Little” although vaguely dreamy, were hardly soothing, and much more in the vein of early Jesus and Mary Chain or Spacemen 3’s barely reined cacophony. During their tenure at Creation Records, they gradually stripped away the feedback walls, leaving a psychedelic core smoked over in unexpected layers of jazz. Culminating in flawless songs like “You Set My Soul” from their second untitled 1992 LP, the Telescopes had broken away from any tangential connection to shoegazing by becoming a band Marlene Dietrich could take drugs to. After an eight-year hiatus and returning with only two of the original members (Stephen Lawrie and Jo Doran), their entrance from exile provides a mixed bag, both beautiful and gratingly dull.
“Cabin in the Sky”, the album’s opener, reminds me of every single reason I loved the Telescopes. Stephen Lawrie’s voice has a soft, cunning snarl to it that honey pours over a ghostly piano riff and velvety bass. This sort of deep world descending vibe is exactly what made previous outings so warmly encompassing. From here the album seems to break into two different types of songs: those that combine elements from their last album within a dubbed-out fog and those songs that diverge entirely into an ambling Boards of Canada, artsy techno vein.
As much as I hate to have fangs, I have to admit that when the album veered into longwinded downtempo territory I was disappointed and painfully uninvolved. “Tesla Death Ray” steals a page from the Air playbook, but a torn, slobbered on one. It suffers like the abominably tedious “You and I Are the Foxboy Noises” from a directionless series of loops and a flailing sense of ambiance. Many of the more conspicuously techno tracks plod with a false sense of momentum, like the sonic equivalent of a dead body falling down a hill. “Moog Destroys” criminally cribs outdated video game noises and throws them in with a randomly chucked in collection of other sounds to create the album’s most unlistenable venture. Chopped into more merciful lengths, they might make great indie film scores for moments when bleary-eyed pillheads are about to pass out and die, but they make for quizzically long and pointless listening otherwise. The possible exception would be “A Good to Place to Hide” which combines striptease flugelhorns and bass that plunges like a neckline with the paranoid ramblings of what sounds like Elvis (speaking of pill poppers).
Having said that, Third Wave contains just as many tracks with beauty pooled as thick as night. “When Nemo Sank the Nautilus” opens with sonar blips and sounds like the slow fall of a submarine. Stephen and Jo’s vocals harmonize with tentative ease and travel into the song seemingly by osmosis. “Winter #2” brings in dirgy Rachel’s like strings to create a wintered song with a breathtaking, heavy gravity to it. “The Atoms of the Sea” successfully mates the cleft in this record by combining the best elements of their techno turn with the filterless slink of the old Telescopes. What’s most striking on this track is the way the vocals ebb into the song and seem to dissipate like scent. These tracks alone make the album essential for cold comfort autumns sprawled out on the couch looking for a little scratch of solace.
No surprise that after eight years in the mad mad wilderness, The Telescopes have not come back with a simple nostalgic sequel to make me reminisce about the days when I all I had to do was get stoned and sharpen my sense of hipness. They are, after all, a band and not a jukebox. Third Wave maps out a different path which is certainly to be expected from a band that had already morphed from blistering noise crooners to tripped out lounge act practically between gigs. For the most part, I’m glad they’ve emerged from a decade’s cocoon even if their new sound sinks and soars in equal turns.