[18 April 2014]
Demo recordings can be a tricky proposition when taken out of context. A number of recent reissues have done a wonderful job of contextualizing the creative process, pairing early demos with their finished products and helping to show the oftentimes less-than-logical progression. Stripped of context, demo recordings often come across as misshapen misanthropes better left in the artists of the artists rather than afforded a wider audience. With its limited vinyl release of Weekend’s The ’81 Demos, London-based Blackest Ever Black skips contextualization altogether in favor of exploring a virtual missing evolutionary link between two influential recordings, one that very much holds up on its own.
Best known for her work with the groundbreaking minimalist post-punk group Young Marble Giants, Alison Statton’s detached, icy warm vocal delivery influenced dozens of indie pop artists following the release of Colossal Youth in 1980. After the unfortunately premature dissolution of Young Marble Giants, Statton teamed up with Mark “Spike” Williams (violin) and Simon Booth (guitar) to form Weekend. Their 1982 debut, La Variete, would go on to become a musical touchstone for a number of twee pop acts over the years, including Belle and Sebastian.
Between these two landmark moments in indie-pop, however, resides The ’81 Demos. Not quite the fully realized indie-pop gem of La Variete and not all that far removed from the icy post-punk minimalism of Colossal Youth, The ’81 Demos serve as a glimpse into the evolutionary creative process, bridging the gap between the two to create something new altogether; a minimalist hybrid with maximalist leanings, one foot firmly in the future, the other nostalgically in the past.
Consisting of a scant four tracks, all of which would later appear in reworked, fully fleshed out form on La Variete, The ’81 Demos seeks to capture the sound of a band finding itself, coming into its own while coming to terms with its collective past and looking to reconcile its future endeavors. Gone are the jagged, brittle edges and knife-like guitar tones, replaced by warmer overall sonic textures and fluid, rounded bass lines that have none of the visceral punch present on Colossal Youth. That album’s post-punk edges have been smoothed over in favor of a warmer, less robotic take on minimalism, incorporating organic elements lacking in her previous group’s sound.
Beginning with an audible inhalation, the appropriately titled “Drumbeat” (“Drumbeat For Baby” on La Variete), features a steady, shuffling drum figure joined by brittle guitars, a slightly-behind-the-beat bell kit and Statton’s languorous vocals, still sounding very much in line with her previous work with Young Marble Giants. Statton’s lyrics here, delivered as almost a begrudging afterthought, though completely devoid of the studied indifference and pretention hindering so many today, evoke the mundane repetition of the modern world, all the while accompanied by appropriately repetitive, ramshackle guitar work that never really goes anywhere, yet still complements the lyrical sentiment.
“Red Planes”, the highlight of this collection, sounds very much like a proto XX track (not surprising given Young Marble Giant’s influence on the group) by way of the late-‘60s English folk revival. (one could easily imagine Sandy Denny and company updating their revivalist sound with a similar new-meets-old aesthetic.) With primitive drum machines deploying a heavy artillery bass drum on the one, warm, melodic bass and Booth’s brittle guitar work, “Red Planes” begins a burbling, hypnotically repetitive figure that complements Williams’ emotive, soaring violin lines. Statton, employing a borderline monotone vocal tonality that makes her sound like Nico’s younger sister, slips effortlessly into the mix creating a track that, despite its nine-minute runtime, never for a second overstays its welcome.
“Nostalgia” relies on a distinct, skittering percussive figure before a heavily reverbed single-note guitar line enters, accompanied by a complementary bass line. Meanwhile, a sweetly, heavily distorted line of indeterminate origin hovers in the background like a distant, hazy memory you can never quite pin down but are nonetheless comforted by. All told, “Nostalgia” embodies its name, becoming a melancholic paean to the aging process that strikes just the right tonal balance, evoking the palpable longing brought on by nostalgia itself and before finally devolving into wordless vocalizing atop the circular instrumental figures augmented by an often shrill line wending its way through the backdrop of the track. A lyrical exploration of the very definition of nostalgia, “Nostalgia” creates a strange dichotomy for modern listeners who will find themselves exposed to a fairly nostalgic sound in the then-current electronic/synth embellishments which in turn create an additional level/meaning within the song itself perhaps unintended at the time.
“Summerdays Instrumental” immediately evokes a summery theme and feel that would not have been out of place on any number of recent releases by bands on Mexican Summer, Captured Tracks, Carpark, and the like. With its verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure it was clearly ripe for the pleasant vocal melody that would appear on La Variete, though unfortunately with less of a Felt/Durutti Column feel and with more schmaltzy saxophones and strings that weigh down the song in its final state. As it stands, “Summerdays Instrumental” is a pleasant enough way to end such a criminally short release from this minimalist trio.
Shorn of the jazz-indebted saxophone flourishes these tracks would later sport on La Variete, they show a clear link between the work of Statton’s previous group and where Weekend would ultimately find themselves, influencing a generation of twee-minded pop acts. Stripped of their fancier musical adornments, the structural bones of these songs remain fully intact, creating something new and different and providing a glimpse of what could have been had they stayed the course plotted by Young Marble Giants. The icy remoteness of that group is still essentially present on these demos, though with a slightly warmer edge that seems to indicate the direction the band would take on their debut. All in all, this is yet another great archival release from one of the myriad such labels popping up in Europe and the UK.