November Music #2

1990 – “Slowdive” EP – Slowdive

It was one of those purchases where I trusted the reviewer entirely. It was joint single of the week alongside the “Sunburst” EP by Chapterhouse, a record I would purchase four years later. It was definitely Melody Maker, probably Chris Roberts. And there it was – a new band on Creation, a band and song named the same. “Slowdive” by Slowdive. Had I heard it on the radio? Possibly. But I knew from the description that I had to have this single, it sounded right up my street. I loved all these bands emerging in the wake of My Bloody Valentine, the scene that would eventually get called shoegazing. Lush, Ride, Pale Saints – fuzzy guitars, vague lyrics, walls of noise. Sonic Cathedrals Of Sound. Slowdive sounded like that from the description. So on a journey back from Treforest to Penarth I stopped off at Spillers in Cardiff and bought the CD single.

At this point I should claim that I never was and never will be a vinyl purist. If a record was only on vinyl then vinyl it was, but if I could get it on CD then I would rather have it that way. The shoegazing scene was defined by 12 inch EPs of three or four songs but I had them all on CD instead. Even the two MBV EPs from ’88 – I refused to buy them until Creation issued them as a shrink wrapped pair of CDs in early 1990. I hurried home and played it as soon as possible.

“Slowdive” is swathed in reverb. Actually swathed isn’t the right word – my dictionary says swathed means wrapped in a layer of fabric, like bandages. Just goes to show how you can use a word without knowing the meaning of it. So let’s try again. “Slowdive” is awash in reverb. The opening riff is a hugely distorted guitar that hangs on one note then bends it upwards before descending on a chord or two. And it just plays over and over as more instruments are added – drums that are heavy on the ride cymbal, rumbling bass and more guitars. Lots and lots of guitars, all maintaining that same riff. Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell start singing in unison an octave apart and are swamped within the noise and reverb, it’s hard to make out the words and they’re not trying to be forceful, it sounds like they don’t give a toss about anything, just sing words into the maelstrom around them. There is a chorus of sorts but it just goes “Slowdive, you can’t touch me now” for a bit then returns to the riff. And so it goes for five minutes, towards the end a high piercing guitar wails over the top as Goswell repeats the chorus line. And it works. It bloody well works. It doesn’t get boring, it just builds upwards. The b-side “Avalyn” is similar, a slow two chord bass riff then more guitars adding to the noise and some singing too and again five minutes pass without you noticing. And if you’re really lucky “Avalyn II” is the same song, but carries on for eight minutes – without vocals at all. A great way to get lost.

I adored the single and picked it as one of my favourites at the end of the year. I was in the Poly of Wales and the trips from Penarth to Treforest were long – a walk to the train station in Penarth, train to Cardiff, another train to Treforest. A lot of time to eat up batteries on my walkman playing music and stare out of the windows of the trains as odd little places like Taff’s Well and Radyr passed by. The “Slowdive” EP soundtracked those journeys and fitted in with the numbed feeling of travel. And I hoped Slowdive would get better…

1993 – “5 EP” by Slowdive

How times change…. By November 93 I’d been working as a computer programmer at the Central Statistics Office for nearly eighteen months, and while the crush on M (see “There must be a better life”) was slowly fizzling out, due to her moving away from the IT department, there were at least two others females around the offices I was also crushing on. I was still commuting between Penarth and Newport, but was in the process of purchasing a house in Newport and would move there in January – so most of November was spent dashing around building societies and estate agents. My favourite record shop – Spillers in Cardiff – were also running a promotion, when you bought records there you got stamps and filled up cards with stamps – like Green Shield Stamps. And I bought so many records there I ended up with five cards, which gave me money off other records and the cards were put into a prize draw, which I won. Ha ha ha. I was clearly consuming a hell of a lot of music at the time and it was a ridiculously fertile period for new music – I was listening to records by Northern Picture Library, Tindersticks, Insides, Medicine, Moose, Seefeel, One Dove, Harvest Ministers, Fluke… And yet the one record which reminds me of this time more than any is the “5 EP” by Slowdive.

Slowdive were pretty uncool by the end of ’93. They had early success with their first three EPs during late ’90 to early ’91 but by the time their debut LP was issued in September ’91 the backlash against the shoegazers had started in the press. By the time their second LP “Souvlaki” was issued in late Spring ’93 they were deemed passed it, and while I enjoyed that album I felt it was lacking somewhat. Its best moments were the Eno collaboration “Sing” and the delay-heavy “Souvlaki space station” – everything else sounded pretty limp to me. (This is why I am bemused whenever I see a discussion on how great “Souvlaki” is). When “5” was issued it was pretty much ignored in the press, except for a few sneering reviews which noted their move into electronica as “shoe-techno”. But it did indicate a fresh direction for the band….

I may be wrong about this but I have a definite recollection of Slowdive doing a gig with Chapterhouse and Reload around this time. The link was Reload – also known as Global Communication – who had remixed “In mind” for Slowdive and taken Chapterhouse’s entire “Blood music” album and transformed it into “Pentamerous Metamorphosis”. Reload were signed to Creation’s dance offshoot Infonet and would issue “A collection of short stories” there while GC would be on Dedicated alongside Chapterhouse and issue their classic “76:14” there. So there was this congruence of influences together… And then there was the EP itself. The first three tracks were where the electronica influence came in – “In mind” was powered by an electronic bass drum pulse and waves of synth chords with Rachel singing over it, “Good day sunshine” was built on repeating and echoing patterns playing against each other over a beat, “Missing you” used synth chords over pulses again but with high register sounds and some disquieting dissonances in the background. Not at all like Slowdive, except for the general overuse of reverb. Finally “Country rain” is the only song that sounds like a band playing, but it’s a different sounding Slowdive. Still awash in reverb, the tempo is slow, the drums have rolling tom toms, there’s bass guitar and mellow synths and … A slide guitar as lead instrument. Rachel is singing in harmony and it’s lovely – “I’ve seen you fall apart, I know you wouldn’t care but I wish you were mine”. There’s a gentle hush about the song, nobody is moving too fast, the arrangement is spare and sparse and haunting and it just places me straight back there in those times. I played that song over and over again and it ended up as one of my favourites that year. It still conjures up memories of that craziness, trying to sort so much out at home and at work too (this was around the time a new printing system I had been developing for six months went live so it was pretty stressful). And that line – “But I wish you were mine” – resounded like a bomb in my heart. Goodbye M forever.

1995 – “Pygmalion” LP by Slowdive / “Ask me tomorrow” LP by Mojave 3

More changes… Still at the Stats Office, I finally have a girlfriend after years of trying, I finally have a band after years of trying, I have a small house and a large collection of music and instruments and … Isn’t it grand? Well the relationship is a little up and down due to me being an arse half the time and not knowing how to deal with someone else in a relationship, the band is about to kick out the bass player (who has been in bands with me since I was 16) for him being an arse most of the time – if he didn’t like a song he’d refuse to play parts of it, so I’d have to double his bass part on keyboards. Which is OK as long as I was playing keyboards and not guitar on that song…. While I was now living in Newport it was still two bus journeys to work and two bus journeys back so plenty of time to absorb music, waiting at rainy bus stops and watching the droplets hit the bus window. And how come the bus always went the long route? I didn’t know Newport and frequently got lost, getting off at the wrong stop or just being too tired to care. The relationship was hard work but rewarding, it was nice to feel loved and to love someone else. And November 95 was a month of gigs with the band, and buying a digital delay pedal for my guitar and starting to realise the potential of echoes. But there’s music to be heard all the time. Britpop is at its peak – Blur vs Oasis and I’m firmly in the former camp, but there’s more interesting music happening on the margins as usual. I was listening to Tortoise and Flying Saucer Attack and the Young Gods and LaBradford and anything else interesting.

Earlier in February 1995, the release of “Pygmalion” had passed me by. It was Slowdive’s third and final album but it wasn’t promoted at all. I remember small adverts in the press but not much praise – nobody seemed to care, least of all the band (which was breaking up) or their label (which was concentrating on Oasis and the Boo Radleys at the time). So “Pygmalion” sat on my “to buy” list but didn’t seem that important. I was finally prompted to buy it when Mojave 3 issued their debut album “Ask me tomorrow” in October ’95. Mojave 3 was Rachel and Neil from Slowdive in a new band, and I’d heard their “Love songs on the radio” on Mark Radcliffe’s late night show on Radio One. So I took the plunge and bought “Pygmalion” and “Ask me tomorrow” on the same day in early November, found they fitted nicely on either side of a C100 cassette, and both albums became my soundtrack to November.

They were very different albums though. “Pygmalion” continued the progression from the “shoe techno” of the “5 EP”. There were repetitive patterns everywhere, guitar or keyboard figures, vocals smeared in effects eradicting meaning, not a lot of drums and percussion, and lots more reverb. The music was slow and deliberate, with hints of dub in the feedbacking delays at the end of some songs. But now there seems to be a new awareness of space and silence. “Rutti” starts with three minutes of one guitar part and a vocal deeply echoing into an abyss before the rest of the band emerge behind strange noises like spaceships passing by. Drums are lightly touched, a bass plays a repeated pattern, more guitars are added – and it repeats for ten minutes before it slows falls away. “Crazy for you” is as fast as the album gets, one looping pattern echoing against itself and a constant guitar chord. It’s still not conventional though, it sounds like they don’t care what anyone thinks anymore and just want to play around and see what happens. Every song establishs a mood and just runs with it. “Trellisazz” features a ticking clock, not unlike that track on “76:14”, but soon gets irritating. “Cello” is an intriguing interlude of less than two minutes, sounding for all the world like the start of a slow Philip Glass piece but makes a welcome relief at this point. “J’s heaven” has unsettling dischords around its folk style acoustic guitar arpeggios, “Visions of la” is Rachel’s only vocal appearance on the album and could be a medieval folk song (though the guitar playing reminds me of the story song “A tale perhaps” from Kaleidescope’s first album). “All of us” continues that folk diversion and is a suitably serene place to end the album.

But there’s one very special song on the album. “Blue skied an’ clear”. It’s Slowdive doing late Talk Talk by way of Bark Psychosis, drums with brushes, organ drones, tremelo guitars, high keening backing vocals (not unlike the strange screams behind the main vocal on “Dizzy” by AR Kane) and echoes and echoes and it’s a quiet beauty. Sometimes the feedback and echoes try to overwhelm the song, entering the chorus is like a crescendo of noise but the music wins through. Oh it sounds like love. Not Love, but love. Total bliss, and an equal to their debut single.

“Ask me tomorrow” was nothing like that though. For a start they’ve left Creation and moved to 4AD. And now there’s no waves of effects, there is a simplicity to the songs and arrangements, less reverb, no distortion, the guitars are clean and mostly acoustic, there’s the return of the slide guitar last heard on “Country Rain”. The songs are slow and sad, but the words are now clear. I always felt like Halstead was writing about the fall out from the end of his relationship with Goswell but I could be wrong. Now there’s a need for clarity, for expression. Reading the credits helps – half the songs were recorded at EMI’s demo studio and while it doesn’t sound like a demo it sounds simple and concise. No songs reach the ten minute mark, though a few do reach five minutes. The chord changes are simple and not unexpected, and the melodies are quite lovely. Goswell sings more vocals than on “Pygmalion”, which gives the songs more personality. But songs do take swerves – “Tomorrow’s taken” proceeds for three minutes before diverting into darkness, low cellos hang over the end of the song as unexpected chords are thrown into the song. “Candle Song 3” is a favourite of mine – a 6/8 waltz with gentle acoustic guitars. It feels like the end of something, the small room is suffocating the relationship. “Chained to my lover as she’s chained to me” – is this masochistic or just mental torture? They sing in unison then soar into unexpected harmonies, a beautiful demonstration of a relationship in freefall. There aren’t many songs as great as that here, but it’s a very consistent album and very lovely. Closer “Mercy” is more forceful, almost menacing compared to the gentility and has the only overdriven guitar on the album, the pain hiding in the darker corners of the album finally breaks free – drums roll, guitars scream – and while it may be cathartic it sounds out of place and out of character and for me spoils the album.

I would continue with Mojave 3 for a few years longer but lost interest – the country element on “Ask me tomorrow” was submerged and they seemed to become Nick Drake wannabes and I wasn’t so fussed on that. Maybe I should go back to them at some point. But for that month, those two albums were perfect. And as I often say, that’s enough for me.

Next time : More November music. 1997? 2007? 1984?

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