The Monochrome Set appear to have stood apart from so many of their peers more by virtue of what they didn’t do than by what they did do. Forming in 1978 for an original run that lasted until 1985, they never quite went for the bile of punk, the starkness of post punk, or the flash of new wave. Any rebellious streak the band might have had didn’t hit on the same notes as other rebellious artists. They swam among the trends of their time, but never crawled aboard one in particular. When they subsequently reformed for the first time in the 1990s, it was already too late to be anything but themselves, had such a move even been under consideration.
In an interview with Iain McNay for Cherry Red Records’ TV program in 2008, this is how central member Ganesh Seshadri, better known simply as Bid, characterized his position on the music business after 30-odd years of working somewhere within and without it: “The music business has always been two businesses running side by side, and that’s commercialism and art, and you get extremes of both, and their not better or worse than each other, they’re just… different, and… if you’ve got a modicum of creative ability you can be very, very successful if you’re also ambitious and willing to suppress parts of yourself… and I wasn’t.”
Bid’s assessment is commendably even-handed, especially for a man who acknowledges that altering his approach to his music for the sake of potentially greater financial gain wasn’t really in the cards. Still, his decision does by its nature identify him as one of those stubborn artist types. Though they were perhaps a noisier band — live, at least — in the beginning than they are on recent albums like Platinum Coils and Super Plastic City, back in the day, the kind of artistic compromise that Bid is talking about probably would have come at the cost of toning it up, not toning it down: new wave clothes and haircuts, that sort of thing.
The Monochrome Set have many devoted fans a good level of general respect on these shores, but it is easy to imagine they would be more widely known in the US if they hailed from, say, New Jersey, home of their spiritual somewhat-peers, the Feelies. Both groups released establishing debut albums in 1980 – the Monochrome Set’s Strange Boutique and the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms — though the Monochrome Set would turn out to be more prolific in the years immediately afterward. Even if both groups are in a class by themselves, those classrooms are adjacent, and it is almost surprising you don’t see the two mentioned together more often than they are.
The influence of their sound can be heard in bands that immediately followed them, like Orange Juice, and, similarly, on the C-86 generation in general. One doesn’t need to dig back into those early ‘80s releases to draw the connection either, all you have to do is cue up Spaces Everywhere. The lightly distorted guitar solos and rambling observational snippets (“Excuse me, have you voted yet?”) strung together into lyrics of “Iceman” feel unmistakably of a certain vintage. “Fantasy Creatures”, with its swirling organ and buoyant chorus, recalls Felt circa Forever Breathes the Lonely Word. Often times, only the crisp, modern sheen of the production gives it away that this isn’t an old reissue.
To observe that Spaces Everywhere feels rooted in a past era is not to accuse the album of sounding dated. The Monochrome Set is one of those groups for whom staying the course works in their favor — or at least is has now. If and when their sound ever went out of style, the pendulum of time has now swung back in their favor. The freewheeling ease of the album never lets up. They can put a flute upfront in the title track or break into a gentle shuffle with “Ciao, ciao” backing vocals on “Rain Check”, and it all flows together without raising any eyebrows. The Monochrome Set may have never been destined for MTV rotation like some of those New Wave peers of theirs, but MTV itself effectively died a long time ago, while the Monochrome Set are still making highly enjoyable albums.