Tag Archives: Sweetest Ache

Debut Albums #26 – #30

I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums twenty six to thirty

“Quique” – Seefeel

It felt like Seefeel emerged fully formed when they issued their initial EPs in the summer of 1993. I was interested by what I’d read about them, plus they were on Too Pure – another label I trusted thanks to Stereolab and Moonshake – and I always suspected they took their name from a line in “Celeste” by The Telescopes, though I’ve never seen that clarified anywhere. Their first EP “More like space” was like Mike Oldfield brought into the 1990s with “Time to find me” as the standout song – soft cooing female vocals, harsh drum machine beats and drifting synthesised chords with little bursts of feedback amid the noise and crackle. The second EP “Pure impure” was more developed, “Plainsong” and “Moodswings” were near perfect and “Milky starshine” was over ten minutes of drift. The main selling point of the EP were three remixes carried out by The Aphex Twin who had expressed an interest in what Seefeel were doing.

“Quique” was released just before the end of 1993 in amongst a flurry of great albums, some of which I’ve written about it stood out simply because it was so different. It fell between so many stools – it wasn’t indie, it wasn’t dance, it wasn’t ambient but it was a little bit of all of those genres. It’s difficult to describe really… Sounds have no logical source, they are edited and looped and filtered, drum patterns are regimental and change incrementally, the bass is pulsing and deep, dropping out into vertiginous freefall, vocals are just additional sounds. It’s definitely a post-“Loveless” sound, abstracting My Bloody Valentine’s ideas to a further level, less about the power of noise and more the power of small changes within repetition. (I keep thinking Terry Riley here). There’s some industrial clanging on “Polyfusion”, drones hovering in mid-air throughout “Industrious”. “Imperial” is percussion free sound shaping… The latter half of the album gets better. The version of “Plainsong” is more propulsive than the single version. “Charlotte’s mouth” is almost normal – the sounds being almost recognisable as guitars, Sarah Peacock’s vocal is almost a conventional vocal, but there’s big gaps in the music, strange surges. “Through you” sounds like it was recorded in a wet and dank cave, the acoustics all dark reverb. “Signals” is five minutes of closing sound. But the best song is “Filter Dub” – sounds being bent, a lazy rhythm, a dub-like bass line (for once the bass is the melodic focus of a track) and guitars swooning and arcing like doves in a courting ritual. Sounds stupid? Yes. Sounds lovely? Yes.

“Quique” would be the last record Seefeel made for Too Pure, in 1994 they moved to Warp Records which would feel like a logical home for them. In February ’94 I saw them live supporting Cocteau Twins in Cardiff – a wonderful pairing. My main memory of Seefeel live was the enormous wash of sound and the bass player swinging his guitar by its strap on his little finger. And I bought the white label 12 inch of alternate mixes of songs from “Quique”. Bet that’s worth tuppence now. Seefeel moved further into abstraction but still made lovely records, but “Quique” catches them at the perfect point between songcraft and loopcraft. It also makes an excellent soundtrack to painting and decorating, which is why I’m listening to it today while painting the spare bedroom. 😎

“Spoonfed Hybrid” – Spoonfed Hybrid

Pale Saints didn’t feel quite the same as any of the other shoegazing bands they were lumped in with. For a start, they had existed for some time – I remember their name cropping up in the demos page of the short lived “Underground” magazine in early 1988 when they sounded like the Wedding Present. Well, they were from Leeds. And they were named after a quite obscure Eyeless In Gaza song, which was intriguing enough. They could make a glorious racket when they wanted to – “She rides the waves”, “Babymaker” and “Holding back the apple” were ample evidence of that – but there was always an off-kilter side to them, odd time signatures, peculiar song structures and odd dynamics. They also had a delicate side – see “A deep sleep for Steven” or “Neverending night” or “Shell”.
And more than anything they could be unsettling – see “The colour of the sky”, an extra track on the “Half life” EP. Yes they could be sweet (Ian Masters’ choirboy vocal style saw to that) but they could be sour as well – the “Flesh Balloon” EP in ’91 summed them up well. “Hunted” built up layers of dread in 5/4 time. “Porpoise” was a six minute instrumental. “Kinky love” was a sweet cover of a Nancy Sinatra song and “Hair shoes” was a shimmering heat haze of guitars (and you can draw a line from that song’s instrumental siren melody through “King of the rocket men” by The Clouds to “Karma Police”). So they weren’t quite in the same boat as the Thames Valley boys and girls – no wonder their second album “In ribbons” had a message inscribed in the run-out groove – “Scene but not herd”. Ouch!

In 1993 Ian Masters took his skewed sense of pop craft and choirboy voice away from Pale Saints, teamed up with Chris Trout from AC Temple and created Spoonfed Hybrid, a studio concoction who would issue one album on the 4AD subsidiary Guernica. (It was released on the same day as “Euphoria” by Insides on the same label). But I didn’t buy it until Wednesday 5th January. This was my last day of living in Penarth with my parents before the big move to my new house in Newport. Everything was packed and ready to go, we’d hired a van to move everything the next day, I just needed something to listen to which would take my mind off being nervous. All my hifi was packed away so I took my newly purchased CD / radio / cassette ghetto blaster out of its box, dug out my headphones and listened uneasily in bed that night.

“Heaven’s knot” starts with a stereo noise darting left and right, as it will do throughout the song. The song is more structured and precise than any Pale Saints song – tightly sequenced – but Masters sings like an angel with a halo of wordless vocals behind him. Those wordless vocals will be a trait throughout the album. Not sure what he’s singing about, but once a series of descending guitar solos start appearing in harmony who cares. Good opening. “Naturally occurring anchors” is a seemingly simple song – acoustic guitar and voice – made extraordinary by the complex layering and switching of guitar sounds – I counted about fifteen different sounds and treatments and they flick between sounds and across the stereo spectrum within a strum of a chord in some places (The song credits read Iain McKinna as “King of Mutes” – a feat of mixing desk dexterity in those days). The song closes with a descending string section, which is mirrored by the introduction to “Tiny planes”, a mid tempo song based around “queasy cellos” and clockwork percussion. Again Masters sings in enigmas – “Tiny planes fluttering against my skin… The noises of their wings excites me still” – but what the hell, the music is rich and peculiar. “Stolen clothes” starts with washes of twelve string acoustics and tablas, it sounds idyllic until you concentrate on the words which Masters sings gently “Whisper to me, hear all my fears… I’m finally beginning to grow”. Is he saying Pale Saints was holding him back? “Wash away these terrors of mine”. Some strange things are happening. “Lynched” is an uneasy take on jazz, a double bass maintains stability while strange guitar chords strum into a background of radio noise, the song is cut through with sudden bursts of noise. “1936” has a rhythm track not unlike chirping crickets, with multiple pianos holding the music together. Masters sings of “Dreams and their lies” before a section of kettle drums, marimbas and a chorus of wordless Master choirboys, then zithers and a feedbacking guitar, followed by a jazzy piano solo. None of these individual elements make sense outside of the songs but together they work perfectly.

“Getting not to know” is the most Pale Saints-like, a swirling guitar figure and a raucous chorus but there’s still more wordless Masters choirboys in the background, and the end is intriguing – an ascending guitar solo followed by a slow half tempo descent as two synth notes slide downwards. Most odd. “Somehow some other life” is built up around repeated piano patterns – it feels very systems music – and Masters putting the past behind him – “Farewell to all the things you love so dearly, several skies you felt part of”. A peal of bells and kettle drums lead forward amid a swarm of ebow guitars. “A pocketful of dust” is the fulcrum for the whole album – the only song sung by Chris Trout rather than Ian Masters – and the words are now clearer, a relationship falling apart, a love triangle…some of the words are horribly painful (especially this week). “Ecnalubma” (try it backwards) comes as a moment of relief – turning the pulse of “Heaven’s knot” into an instrumental. Finally “Boys in zinc” feels like an emotional conclusion, slow chimes and strings, it almost feels Christmassy, more odd words, stately like a hymn, then after a crescendo a little guitar turns around, stops and starts, and a choir of Masters appears at the end, cooing sweetly, but the song ends on a dischord. It’s worth listening to “Eva” from Butterfly Child’s debut LP “Onomatopoiea” (released around the same time) which sounds very similar in style and music to “Boys in zinc”. Intriguing.

That first listen reflected how uneasy I was that night before I moved out. Once the move was complete and I was in my house alone the first thing I did was dig out the same ghetto blaster and play “Spoonfed Hybrid” to christen my house. Four years later it was the last record I played in that house and the first I played in the house I live in now. At the time the album was released it was uneasily lumped into the initial stirrings of post-rock – the aforementioned Seefeel, Bark Psychosis, Insides alongside Butterfly Child, Pram, Disco Inferno and others. There wasn’t much to link these bands’ musics except a forward thinking attitude to technology and atmosphere. Listening now, Spoonfed Hybrid sound like a form of psychedelia – playful yet pensive, a music for the mind. And if I move house again, it will be the last album I play at the old house and the first at the new house. It has to be done.

“Switched on” – Stereolab / “Peng!” – Stereolab

What constitutes a debut album? The obvious answer is “the first album issued by an artist”. But what if the first album issued by an artist is a collection of previously released singles? The number of times I have seen “The First Three EPs” by The Beta Band in debut LP lists… But it’s tricky with Stereolab because…well… “Switched on” was only supposed to be for the French market and a few copies were issued in the UK, and “Peng!” was issued about a month after “Switched on”… So what the hell, I’ll pick them both together.

The first I heard of Stereolab was when Peel started playing “Super-electric” in September ’91. It was the first time I’d heard a band take on board the motorik pulse of Neu! and La Dusseldorf and make something new out of it. I’d picked up the old Krautrock LPs in the mid 80s and felt like I was the only person who loved “Hallogallo” and “Rhienita”. But Stereolab loved it too. I loved “Super Electric”, all the layers of vocals and guitars and organs, especially that really loud dirty organ that threatens to overload the song around the four minute mark. So I kept an eye out for Stereolab and picked up “Switched on” a week or so before I started at the Stats Office – I probably bought it for my birthday. The album didn’t sound like a bunch of singles and b-sides, it was consistent and wonderful. “Doubt” was a 60s pop dream, the two versions of “Au grand jour” complemented each other, “High expectations” was a different kind of melancholy – “Do you really want to love someone who does not love you?” – I wish I’d listened to those words. , It felt like Stereolab had found a new way to make two or three chords sound different. It wasn’t shoegazing, it wasn’t indie, it was their own sound based on their influences. But the lyrics were something else – I didn’t really understand them, but they made me want to investigate books, learn more, learn French, be a more rounded person, they had far more knowledge and I felt like they were trying to pass that on in one form or another. But I didn’t read my books, I just enjoyed the music. That’s how shallow I am.

As “Peng!” was issued in late June 92 it may well have been the first album I bought with my first Stats Office pay packet. It certainly sticks in my mind as being there alongside “She’s a superstar” by Verve as the earliest records I bought in that ‘new era’. I’d read the Melody Maker review which stated that it sounded like they hadn’t used a mixing desk (that’s a paraphrase, I don’t subscribe to Rock’s Back Pages) so that sounded good. It wasn’t quite like that… “Super falling stars” had no drums, just guitars strumming, bass and droning organs but a lot more layered vocals. There were typical motorik songs like “Orgiastic” and “Peng! 33”, but there were experiments too – “K-stars” was built on a backwards loop of drums and organ, and had a quite gorgeous coda… (Listening to the lyrics, is this song about the Situationists in Paris, those Durutti Columnists who “just drifted”?). “You little shits” had a stilted rhythm pattern, like limping towards heaven. “The seeming and the meaning” was a pop hit waiting to happen (I put it on a mix tape for Lucianos bar and the barman loved it, even if he thought it was by Lush). You know it’s really easy to type things into Google like “Enivrez-vous” and finding it’s a Baudellaire poem. I feel really dim sometimes – why did I not know this stuff at the time? I bet Nicky Wire knew that. Sigh. “Stomach worm” was indie Status Quo and nowhere near as bad as that sounds. “Surrealchemist” is another percussion free drift of rhythm guitar and organ. And again the lyrics were intriguing, sometimes like an argument, sometimes like a lecture, but always interesting. Or in French. It did sound very upfront – not a lot of effects, not a lot of artifice – but that was probably deliberate too.

So which is the debut? Take your pick, they’re both rather good. Neither is Stereolab’s masterpiece – take your pick from “Transient random noise bursts…” or “Mars Audiac Quartet” or “Dots and loops” or “Emperor tomato ketchup” or… But as early indicators for their style, they are both near-perfect.

“Jaguar” – The Sweetest Ache

During the spring of ’91 I was catching up with Sarah Records, buying two or three singles each week. If there were multiple singles by one artist I’d buy them together, so I was buying St Christopher singles one week, Another Sunny Day the next week… I picked up Sarah 36 and Sarah 39 together because they were both by The Sweetest Ache and had similar sleeves. Sarah 36 was “If I could shine” b/w “Here comes the ocean” and sounded like a typical Sarah band, the a-side was quite nice with groovy organ and an insistent guitar line while the b-side showed more dynamics – loud to quiet and back again. A good start. Sarah 39 was more subtle – “Tell me how it feels” sounded drowsy and love-lorn, a boy girl duet on the edge of falling asleep while “Heaven scented world” was an acoustic ballad, just guitar and voice, bookended by backward noise. (I spun these backwards to find it was “Close my eyes” by Ride – a band the single’s sleeve notes slagged off!). So both good singles, lots of potential.

In May that year Sarah issued a third Sweetest Ache single – “Sickening” / “Everlasting”. This was a step forward for the band and they sounded a lot more confident. “Everlasting” was a jangly beauty with a positive spirit while “Sickening” was moodier, real pain in the words and vocal – “All I find is wasted time and an endless flow of all your sickening false promises”. A month or so later I saw a flyer for a Sarah Records Night up in the valleys – St Christopher and the Sweetest Ache up in Pentre. Sadly I saw the flyer two days after the gig itself. I was a bit gutted. From the summer onwards, a forthcoming album called “Jaguar” was promised in the Sarah leaflets, and it was finally released in Spring ’92. In the meantime there were more promises – the first two Watercolour Records singles in late ’91 promised a Sweetest Ache single coupling “Selfish” and “Hideaway”.

Finally…I bought the album. After months of misery on the dole I’d landed a job at the Stats Office so my parents gave me fifty quid to celebrate and I dashed to the nearest record shop to buy all the records I’d missed during the previous months. So that was “Secondhand clothes” EP by Moonshake, “Adrenaline” EP and “Everything’s alright forever” LP by Boo Radleys, “Going blank again” LP by Ride, “In ribbons” LP by Pale Saints and “Jaguar”. That night my parents had our friends Janice and Clem over and they mentioned my purchases. “Oh let’s have a look” said Clem, I passed them over to him and he perused each sleeve as if he was taking in every detail before passing them to his wife. After examining each record, they looked at me and said in unison “Never heard of any of them, Rob!”

In amongst all the shoegazing around it, “Jaguar” felt special and slightly different. In my diary at the time I would rave about the ‘purity’ of the sound, the lack of distortion, the clarity of it all. I must admit I play “Jaguar” a lot more frequently than any of the other records I bought that day. As much as I love all those records, this album is the one I return to the most.

It opens in a most uncharacteristic way with “Briaris”. Organ chords, a gentle wash of cymbals rising like waves, acoustic guitars, a pulsing bass drum and a female vocal – a friend of the band named Louise. Pure and clear – “All good things must come to an end, throw your caution to the wind”… The chorus rises with the addition of bass guitar, the singer is double tracked in harmony now. This sounds like love – “Take that sadness away, spending days of joy together”. Then the middle eight rises – “Fade away, no more sadness…”. Like it’s that easy. Then the song fades out as she sings “I will take your sadness away”. Again, like it’s that easy. For months I’d been in the depths of despair without a job, now I had one… Was that the answer to all my problems? Would it cure the blues? “Capo” follows, Simon Court is back on lead vocals. Two minor chords on acoustic guitar, and a truth or two. “I’ll be honest with myself, it makes all the difference, it all hurts less that way if it all goes wrong some day”. Oh dear, here comes the rain again. “Surround myself with emptiness, commit myself to loneliness”. The music is melancholy, string synth chords rising for the sun, little guitar licks, tom tom rolls like impending doom, bass guitar wandering everywhere, but the root notes (can I just state the bass playing on this LP is totally unpredictable and wonderful), then at three minutes the clouds clear, a new chord change and a sax solo brightens the skies. A former Melody Maker writer once stated on Twitter that “Capo” was the purest example of what Sarah Records did. He may have been right. “She believes” is a full band performance but feels oddly weightless – the bass is acting like a lead guitar. There’s a lot of ‘feelings” here – initially the female in the song can “feel the hurt drift away” and later a litany of feelings overwhelm her – “Feel the love feel the pain feel the sea feel the sky feel the heart feel the mind… Still not sleeping”. The climax is almost too much, the drums stop rolling and go motorik, organs rise and fall, guitars solo – but there’s no distortion, no overdrive. It’s just so perfectly clean and pure. “More than this” is more doubtful, Court is trying to persuade someone – “Trust in me please, there’s one more move to make” – while guitars arpeggio and tambourines are shaken impatiently. “Tell me reasons maybe, understanding is an art for me, face to face with ugliness, there must be more than this”. Sometimes you wish someone would tell you this. End of side one.

“Don’t be coy, let feelings run – forget who knows, enlighten me” sings Court at the start of the title track. Is this a continuation of the conversation from the last song? But the chorus is more forceful – blaring organ and harsh drums and – finally – distorted guitars as Court implores “I never meant to push too hard but these things kill me”, stretching these final words out. “Standing hopeful on the edge”? Is he trying to stop someone jumping off a building, or expecting a new surge of optimism? It’s never made clear. And the music rises and falls, there’s a lovely instrumental middle eight before the harsh chorus comes in, Court repeating “These things kill me” over and over again, so impassioned, as things get raucous, waves of noise, a bit of a rave up then the song suddenly stops and returns backwards. Rewrite the past? Maybe I think too much. “Bitterness” moves through a lovely chord change with added backwards guitar chords, then Court sings “Lately feeling confusion about all the things I want and need”. Some things never change. Nothing makes sense to Court, but the music swirls sweetly. “Failing every nervous move I make”, mysteries and strangeness – sorry to say that these feelings never leave you. Never ending. “Climbing” finds Court in a more positive frame of mind and the music reflecting that – light strums of acoustic guitar over spritely drums and bass. Court isn’t listening to the cruel voices, he’s seeing clearer, yet there’s a spoken section which sounds like a diary entry reciting deep dark thoughts Yet Court is still thinking positive – “I won’t succumb to that again, I’m lying sore and empty – maybe we’ll see”… Hope in despair, hope in love, hope in someone else. As the song fades out and the music dashes for some kind of resolution Court repeats “I’m seeing clearer” like his life depends on it. “Selfish” closes the album in a similar manner to “Journey’s end” closes Brighter’s “Laurel” LP – soft arpeggios and gentle music. Court sings “Another day and I have no-one but myself to understand my twisted thoughts”. Back to bad thoughts? But there’s something else – “Somewhere inside, there’s another place to be, my unselfish hideaway”. And it’s all in the mind. And we’re back to “There’s a place” on “Please please me”, the retreat into insularity, into the mind, into thought. Is that the answer? Depends on the question.

“Jaguar” received no reviews in the music press, or if it did they passed me by. The Sweetest Ache were never interviewed by the Melody Maker or NME either. Later in 1992 they issued a single on Watercolour – not the songs promised but a delightful cover of Honeybus’ “I remember Caroline” backed with “Brown fox”, a seven and a half minute thriller – more dark thoughts as the music quietly prowls and Court is more worried than ever – “I taste one more time your bitter poisoned love” – and the latent agression building throughout explodes then dims down again. Simmering until it boils over again, too much pain, too much crying. It’s all too much. A remarkable song.

The next single issued by the band was on the American label Sunday Records in early 1993. “A new beginning” is a gentle acoustic drift, but Court is still not happy – “I am blinded by lies, can you hear me?”. The other side “Sweet soul sister” is odd, at the time it sounded different, a traditional rock song, typical rock guitar licks, nobody was doing this kind of thing except Delta – the former Sea Urchins. But now it sounds like a cross between “Give out” era Primal Scream and “Don’t look back in anger”. Hmm. At this point Court left the band and they recorded a second album “Grass roots” for Vinyl Japan, a record so anonymous and boring that I can barely remember it, and then split up. Various members have been in bands around the Swansea area – Shooter, The Milestone Band – and eternal thanks to Wally at The Beautiful Music for digging for information and music about these bands. “Jaguar” though is special. I keep saying that about everything. You must be so bored with me by now.

Next time – nineties noise, eighties pop, misery and heartbreak- lots of misery and heartbreak.