[26 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s pretty amazing that a music scene as short-lived and ill-defined as “shoegaze” could have such a lasting effect. Named, to the bands’ chagrin, for the disinterested way they would look down at their feet while playing, the “shoegazers” created ethereal, often majestic sounds by camouflaging their guitars with layers of effects until they sounded more like synthesizers.
The style had its roots going back to texturalists like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, and was more directly influenced by boundary-pushing indie pop bands like Felt, Cocteau Twins, Kitchens of Distinction, and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The British “indie dance” craze of the early 1990s gave the shoegazers a ticket to brief stardom, in the UK at least. The sculpted guitar haze worked surprisingly well with the then-prevalent shuffle rhythms. You could count the major shoegaze bands, all of them British, on one hand. Ride, Slowdive, Lush, and Chapterhouse are the usual suspects, though there were others, some lumped in erroneously because the critics had nothing better to do. When the Happy Mondays and Jesus Jones faded from public favor, the shoegazers followed. The scene was dead faster than you could say “Britpop”.
Yet it never exactly died. The original bands split up, but others started to spring up in the mid-1990s. Curiously, many were American. There seemed to be a consistent audience for bands that inverted the guitar noise of hard rock and turned it into something pretty and ponderous. The rise of electronic dance music gave these bands a new platform for their effects racks and reverb. And that’s pretty much where things stand, 15 years later.
The New York band Soundpool have been compared to Slowdive, but that really wasn’t fair. On the evidence of their first two albums, Soundpool simply weren’t nearly as good as that. You can’t just take a mysterious, pretty girl with a pretty voice, add those guitars, and end up with something substantial. Yes, you still have to have songs. And few of Soundpool’s made a lasting impression.
With Mirrors in Your Eyes, Soundpool have decided to emphasize the disco beats that have always been an element of their music. A good, clean beat that you can dance to can cover a lot of songwriting shortcomings, but leaders John Ceparano and Kim Field have improved in that area, too. This is still mostly in-one-ear-out-the-other stuff, but it provides a pleasurable, danceable experience while it’s there. Mirrors in Your Eyes is a very cool-sounding album, and that goes a long way. It could have come out ten years ago, or 15 years ago. Whether that’s a compliment depends on your perspective.
A crucial key to Mirrors in Your Eyes is that the electronic rhythms work. They’re crisp, sharp, and well-produced, retro rather than dated. Soundpool have gone all-in with the dance thing, too. These are big, club-ready beats, and better for it. The title track opens the album with a blast of filtered noise and what sounds like an actual synth, before the beat and a surprisingly funky disco bassline kick in. Field’s thin but beguiling voice slots in beneath the barrage, just where you’d expect it. This is the formula from which Soundpool work for the rest of the album, and most of the time it succeeds.
The centerpiece is “Makes No Sense”, which finds the all the album’s strongest elements coming together in one three-minute capsule of bliss. With a pounding four-on-the-floor rhythm, acid bassline, melancholy synths, and interplanetary guitars, the song sounds like someone held up a tape recorder in the middle of a packed club in 1992 while Saint Etienne was blaring. In other words, glorious. Elsewhere, “Kite of Love” and “Listen” work a more jazzy vibe, while “I’m So Tired” spins out into space in almost gothic fashion.
Inevitably, Mirrors in Your Eyes begins to suffer from some the tracks’ similar template. Some songs go on too long, lost in their own haze. But the only real dud is the limp Jesus and Mary Chain redux, where Ceparano takes over the vocals. Otherwise, Soundpool’s dancefloor excursion makes a pretty good case for shoegaze’s longevity.