It's tempting to call To the Happy Few a comeback for Medicine after an 18-year hiatus, but is the new album actually a return to form when it's more of an improvement on previous efforts than a nod to the past?
With the benefit of a little hindsight, it's easy to claim that Medicine came along at the right time, just in the wrong place, a fish-out-of-water L.A. shoegazer act seemingly exiled a continent and ocean away from the bands with which it had the most in common. As logical as that account seems now, things weren't so clean and easy during Medicine's early/mid-'90s heyday, since shoegaze was hardly part of everyone's alt-rock consciousness in the U.S. when it actually happened, leaving Medicine lumped in the amorphous category of "modern rock". While the group became the pick-to-click opening act for like-minded Brit bands when they go stateside, Medicine seemed hamstrung career-wise by not fitting neatly into any pre-defined box during the Alternative Nation era, its thick, melodic sound too free-form to be post-grunge and not exactly dark enough to put on industrial-pop airs and take advantage of its placement along side the likes of Nine Inch Nails on The Crow soundtrack. So even though Medicine had garnered a little bit of 120 Minutes airtime and some critical kudos -- especially for 1993's sophomore effort The Buried Life -- the band met the fate of so many guitar-driven alt-rock outfits, packed away in the Buzz Bin of pop music history.
Except there's one thing Medicine has going for it all these years later that eluded so many of its cohort whose work became so dated not so far down the line: Medicine's music hasn't just aged well, but it almost feels timeless now that elements of shoegaze-pop have become so thoroughly immersed in the indie vernacular these days. In 2013, Medicine might actually have a bigger profile than it ever had in the past as America's answer to My Bloody Valentine -- and actually every other legendary Brit dream-pop act -- bestowed with something of a legacy after its first two albums were posthumously celebrated with re-release last year through Captured Tracks' shoegaze archives. If anything, there's a greater anticipation for To the Happy Few, the first new material from the original Medicine lineup of impresario Brad Laner, singer Beth Thompson, and drummer Jim Goodall since 1995's Her Highness, than there ever was for just about anything by them during their initial run.
That wait has definitely paid off, since To the Happy Few is not so much a continuation of what Medicine had been doing in the past, but a progression in the approach and the quality of the work. It's hard to say whether the ability of the re-formed group to basically pick up where it left off -- then push further -- speaks more to how far along Medicine once was or to how densely melodic soundscapes just come so naturally to them. At least, that's what comes to mind when you first hear the buzzy feedback and guitar squall that kicks off the album on the sprawling opener "Long as the Sun", which comes off less like an intro than in-media-res noise play, as if the trio had just kept its amps on and instruments plugged in for the whole 18-year hiatus since recording together last. Then, as if to show that all of Medicine's skills are still intact, "Long as the Sun" switches gears halfway through, going from a shoegaze-y daze to something more rhythm-oriented, taking the same distortion-laced elements that create a vertiginous headrush to generate a trance-like groove as well.
On the whole, To the Happy Few finds an older, wiser Medicine freed from any limitations of form and style that its original incarnation had to grapple with, since there's an open playfulness with the structures they use here, like how they move breathlessly on "Burn It" from weighty melody to grinding, slicing riffs, from feather-light strings to propulsive bass beats. And while "The End of the Line" seems to space things out a bit more with woozy, multi-tracked vocals and mid-tempo guitar lines, it's still syrupy sweet in tone and texture, as Medicine lays all the levels of melody on thick here. Sure, the excess can get too excessive at times, especially with the A.D.D. experimentalism on the snippet-y collage of "Butterfly's Out Tonight", which turns on a dime multiple times from deep, guttural guitar to swirling dream-pop to some jazzy bits too abruptly and jarringly. But even these occasions only go to show that there's a high level of intuitive interplay between Laner, Thompson, and Goodall after all these years, as they're able to change things up without ever losing anyone along the way.
Instead, Medicine is at its best on To the Happy Few when it pushes its sound to the point of indulgence, then finds a way to pull everything together. The wrongly titled "It's Not Enough" is either more than enough or just right, depending how you look at it, as it somehow packs space-pop atmospherics, a rumbling Krautrock groove, and tripped out psychedelia into a self-contained, sugar-coated composition. Even more complete is the soaring "Pull the Trigger", as honey-dripping vocals and billowing instrumentation build on one another as each tries to outpace the other, while everything is in its right place on "Find Me Always", which is like a lost Olivia Tremor Control single that just flips the balance between dizzying dream-pop and neo-Beach Boys melodicism in favor of the former.
So maybe it's literally appropriate to call To the Happy Few a worthwhile comeback for a band that'd been fondly forgotten then remembered nearly two decades after what you assumed was its prime. But can you really consider To the Happy Few a return to form for Medicine when it's more like an improvement on previous efforts than a nod to the past, when it feels more like the next step in the group's development than simply a reminder of what came before? Because that's what Medicine has actually achieved on To the Happy Few, however you want to describe it.