Slowdive: Things New and Old

unnamed-31Reviewing Slowdive’s eponymous new album, their first in 22 years, Clash’s Robin Murray made a statement bound to pique the interest of progarchists:

“It feels at times like early King Crimson, or Pink Floyd’s post-Syd/pre-Dark Side nexus. It’s the sound of a band forgetting who they were, and embracing who they could become.”

That second statement is undeniably true. Slowdive (released May 5 on the Dead Oceans label) is unmistakably the work of the same quintet that disbanded between 1995 to 2014. But it’s not a reunion record of rehashed old ideas. It would also be correct to say the band’s music has more in common with Floyd than, say, punk rock. Among their signature showpieces is a majestic, slow-burning cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair.” But Lark’s Tongue in Aspic? Other listeners can judge.

Guitarist/songwriter Neil Halstead grew up in a home where orchestral music was preferred to pop, and that influence is strongly apparent in tracks like the stirring “Catch the Breeze” (1991). While Slowdive can’t be classified as prog, their body of work has occupied spaces progarchists can appreciate: ambient, avant-garde, dream pop, and experimental, all under the broader classification of shoe-gazing. In this vein no other band sounds like Slowdive.

The cover art for Slowdive features a frame from Harry Smith’s 1957 avant-garde animated film, Heaven and Earth Magic. Composed of cut-out figures set in motion, the narrative includes a sequence involving a female patient sedated for a dental procedure. The darkened profile depicts her state of semi-consciousness, or perhaps heightened awareness. Or both.

Shoe-gazing refers not to the contemplative state of the listener (though it could) but rather the guitarists staring down at the array of effects pedals used to achieve other-worldly sounds. None are better at this than Slowdive’s Halstead and Christian Savill. On the new record that prowess is everywhere present.

But Slowdive also contains a refined attention to detail and form. The pace of the songs is faster. Nick Chaplin’s bass and Simon Scott’s drums thunder out front instead of being obscured by clouds of guitar effects, e.g. “No Longer Making Time.” And instead of a metronomic build-up common in earlier work there are tempo and time changes, e.g. “Don’t Know Why” and “Go Get It.” But as on previous records Rachel Goswell’s voice moves through the mix and around Halstead’s vocals like a spirit, e.g. “Sugar for the Pill,” the album’s emotional epicenter.

The closer, “Fallen Ashes,” may be a preview of things to come. Showcasing Scott’s abilities with laptop software, it embellishes and pushes a hypnotic piano riff to sublimity à la Jonny Greenwood.

Overall, Slowdive is familiar but with more sculpted contours and sharper pin pricks than in times past — a welcomed development.

All of this works from a context of two-decades’ old material still very much in view, still relevant, still captivating. I had the great fortune to catch Slowdive in Carrboro, NC at the next-to-last date on the North American leg of their current tour. Blending half the new album with old material, Slowdive overwhelmed the audience with canyons of sound.

I spotted a few fellow 50-somethings in the music hall. But more than a few of the audience weren’t even born when this Thames Valley gang first started making music as teenagers. Having fallen quickly out of fashion years ago with a press enamored to Britpop and cool Britannia, then beckoned back to life by an emerging cult following, Slowdive have a word for souls fearing rejection without redemption: No, this is what we do, and done well time will vindicate it.

After opening with “Slomo” from the new album the band followed with “Catch the Breeze,” with Savill, Goswell, and Halstead leaning toward the floor, wailing guitars swelling to orchestral heights.

The breeze it blows, it blows everything

And I, I want the world to pass

And I, I want the sun to shine

You can believe in everything

You can believe it all…

During the rapturous finale I glanced to my left. A couple of people were actually weeping. Heaven and earth magic, indeed.

Slowdive at Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC, May 10, 2017. Photo by the author.


soundstreamsunday: “Born Under Punches” by Talking Heads


Again with the Eno! Always with the Eno! I’ve said it before here, but there’s no avoiding Brian Eno in any discussion of late 20th century pop and rock, and his work with the Talking Heads is just one more example of his everywhereness.

Having developed a friendship with David Byrne and seeing in the Talking Heads a vessel for pushing forward a longstanding passion for African music as realized by Fela Kuti, Brian Eno produced two records for the band that became central to their story.  But it was on the second of these albums, Remain in Light, where Eno and the Talking Heads — with a significantly fleshed-out band — captured a critical density of sound measuring up to the giant slabs of Afro-Beat/Jazz jams Kuti conducted.  The record, importantly, also marks a point in transit for Adrian Belew, who in a span of three years would go from Zappa to Bowie to Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club to King Crimson, while beginning his own fruitful solo career.  Belew’s presence on Remain in Light (1980) and King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) make the albums a natural pair, as Fripp’s great reinvention of Crimson drew heavily from his new guitarist-vocalist’s recent adventures.

Remain in Light contains only one well-known Talking Heads song, the superb “Once in a Lifetime.”  The balance of the record spins extended grooves cooked up from percussive, bass-driven jams borrowing in their feel from an African music aesthetic, creating a shared kinship too with the Eno/Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, albeit voiced more organically.

This live version of “Born Under Punches” shows a Talking Heads — with Belew, Busta Jones on second bass, Bernie Worrell on keys, Dolette McDonald on backing vocals, and extra percussionists — morphing into a band that, as George Clinton might say, could tear the roof off the sucker, a product of the ever-shifting crossroads Brian Eno always seemed to leave in his wake.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Rudie Can’t Fail” by the Clash

theclashFor the Clash there was no leaving politics off-record or offstage, and more than any of the mainstream punk or post-punk bands, except for maybe Gang of Four, they worked the seam in rock’s goldmine that pitted the disempowered and disenfranchised against authority, entitlement, and impunity.  No mistake their hit cover of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law.”  They gave punk a much-needed edge that went beyond simple nihilism, stoking it with purposeful aggression that, even as an act that in part it was, absolutely rocked.  The Clash were also a band in the way the British loved their bands, from the Beatles to the Faces — laddish, swaggering, a drama of excess unfolding — a story of their empire in microcosm.

I’m a latecomer to the Clash’s London Calling (1979), but I’ve been listening to it on and off over the last 20 years or so, and in terms of British rock I think it’s the natural next step after the Stones’ Exile on Main Street — like that record it is a glorious, sprawling double album by a band so at the top of their game that they became a cultural filter.  Rather than American blues, though, the Clash relied heavily on Jamaican music as a launchpad, investing the songs with an utterly contemporary feel that at once gave the finger to the British post-colonial Man while celebrating the multicultural consequences of empire.  Ironies abound.

For years I honestly thought that the “Rudie” in “Rudie Can’t Fail” was just the name of the song’s central character.  This is because I’m generally uneducated in Jamaican music, where the “rude boy” as anti-hero has been kicking around since the 60s.  It just goes to show what a great song this is, with it’s big undertow of a riff and the back-and-forth singing of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.  It’s an ebullient shout-fest with horns, a big-hearted victory lap for punk.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Premonition” by Simple Minds

Simple-Minds-resize-3Few bands seem to cause such division as Simple Minds.  There are fans of the early stuff, fans of the later stuff, fans of New Gold Dream…. I never had a horse in that race, since I never particularly cared to follow them.  I liked what I heard on the radio of theirs well enough, it was certainly expertly crafted and, in retrospect, helped define its time.  But recently I felt like mining a bit deeper and came upon their early records.  I understand the early fans’ passions more now, since it’s made clear on Real to Real Cacophony and Empires and Dance that the band was chasing an ambition to recast pop music coming out of the 70s.  That they caught up with it is apparently a deep disappointment for those who read sellout in the tracks of Once Upon a Time, but of course the one — a deeply enjoyable confection of well-honed hooks and musicianly smarts, no matter its commerciality — would not have been possible without the other, a proving ground that was hit and miss, but when it found its mark was incendiary.

“Premonition” has at its center a chunky classic rock riff driven by Charlie Burchill’s guitar, and isn’t too distant from what the Cars and Tubeway Army were doing at a time before the keyboards really took complete hold, combining the ethic of early Roxy Music with a post-punk focus on rhythm (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee brought genius to this band).  Jim Kerr sings with a wide-eyed weirdness straight out of Marquee Moon, while Mick MacNeil’s carnivalesque keyboarding from this time must have influenced fellow Glaswegians Belle & Sebastian (thinking specifically of “Lazy Line Painter Jane”).

This live rendition — though honestly the sync seems odd enough to me and the recording good enough that there may be some yet-to-be-defined disconnect between picture and sound — catches Simple Minds in their early prime (and goes some way to explaining why they were offered a certain song to sing for a certain movie after Bryan Ferry turned it down).  They were catching fire creatively, figuring it out and putting it out live.  That their trajectory afterwards went on to follow that of Ferry et al. is perhaps the sign of one common path in a larger creative process tied to myriad motivations.  Me? If I had to decide which Simple Minds I prefer…I’d take both.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “The Three Sunrises” by U2

U2_ThreeSunrisesThe principles of exclusion, constraint, and limitation are drivers of art as much as what ends up on the canvas, and more than anything explain how U2’s “The Three Sunrises” did not make the cut of their seminal 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire.  That album, their fourth, changed the band’s trajectory by broadening their palette (thus ultimately guaranteeing their longevity).  Subduing the band’s onward-Christian-soldier martial airs without dulling its passion, producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois — who the previous year had created, along with Roger Eno, one of the great ambient masterworks in Apollo — worked at applying creative filters to make a music that was moody, introspective, less deliberate but also more whole.  The Unforgettable Fire feels more like an album with a sonic narrative than any of its predecessors.  Still, no one, not even Eno, could contain U2’s spirit or strong self-identity, and the recording sessions yielded some work with one foot still grounded in the energetic brightness characterizing their previous catalog.

In 1985, U2 stopped the show at Live Aid with a stunning, impassioned performance of the song “Bad” from The Unforgettable Fire.  In packaging the performance for release — and here it’s important to understand the impact that Live Aid had on popular music at the time, as it was simulcast on radio and TV worldwide — the band put it on the Wide Awake in America EP along with another live track (“A Sort of Homecoming”) and two studio outtakes from The Unforgettable Fire sessions. “Love Comes Tumbling” shares the twilit moodiness of the album it didn’t end up on, but “The Three Sunrises”  is both farewell and greeting, a simple effusion of a youthful love song wrapped in a gleeful guitar riff, its title bearing a suggestion of trinity that so bound the group, especially in its early days, to a strong Christian following.  More than this, or perhaps because of their beliefs and willingness to be moved by the Spirit, U2 was a post-punk band able to express joy like few other “serious” groups of the time, and in “The Three Sunrises” their ability to strike at the heart remained innocently undiminished.

*Above image is a detail of Larry Mullen, Jr., Adam Clayton, and Bono listening to Edge perform the riff to “The Three Sunrises,” from the documentary of the making of The Unforgettable Fire.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “In the Wild Hills” by Red Temple Spirits

lhasaFor years, LA’s Red Temple Spirits were a tease, a psych rock ghost that once got a short write-up in Rolling Stone, which gave an address to write to if you wanted the album, an address for an obscure label that never wrote back. It was the pre-internet treasure map to sacred recordings process that was our siren’s call.  Guesswork, album reviews, dudes in record stores who’d gone to see Hendrix and never really come back.  From the description I read, this band was for me.  But for about five years, every record store I walked into got the question: “Red Temple Spirits?” and I would receive a shake of the head back. Along with Television Personalities, in the late 80s and early 90s they were my grail, a band whose records couldn’t seem to be found for love or money, as if they wanted it that way, ached to be left alone. Around 1993 I finally and gratefully scored a cassette of their 1989 album If tomorrow I were leaving for Lhasa I wouldn’t stay a minute more… (possibly from Austin’s Waterloo records, who had hooked me up with Television Personalities a couple years earlier too) and discovered the small window of hype Rolling Stone gave them was deserved.  A rockier, psychier version of the Cure, Red Temple Spirits was everything I had wanted the Cult to become after their album Love.  Possessing in William Faircloth a vocalist who channeled Syd Barrett and Robert Smith through songs that showed a clear sense of identity and sound, the two albums the band released were post-punk goth psychedelic sendups that captured one strain of late ’80s/early ’90s indie rock across the country.  Every scene had their version of this band, but being on the west coast gave the Red Temple Spirits greater context as part of that region’s psychedelic revival — I can easily place them with Opal and Shiva Burlesque and Rain Parade, Camper Van Beethoven and Thin White Rope and Screaming Trees. If in their day their music was nearly impossible to find, it is now widely available, and can have the legacy it’s long deserved.  “In the Wild Hills” is a favorite, a thunderous, trippy, tribal fantasy that works because it’s all in. The spirits never sleep.

Red Temple Spirits on Amazon

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soundstreamsunday: Entreat by The Cure

cure_entreat-812x1024The Cure’s Disintegration is a lush, beautiful masterpiece. When it was released in 1989, the band was cresting a wave of popularity, and rare was the college dorm room in America that didn’t have a copy of their singles comp, Staring at the Sea (1986), sitting next to the deck, while Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987) was radio ready.  Robert Smith had become an unlikely hero, a post-punk goth who had paid his dues and, with a colossal songwriting talent, was reaping the rewards of someone who virtually created his own genre.  Nobody else sounded like the Cure.  Neither psychedelic nor prog nor punk, but fearless in their approach, comfortable in their painted skin.  On Disintegration the band slows the tempos, backgrounding Smith’s economical lyrics with huge keyboard/guitar drift pieces that seem to exist in the gloaming.  A perpetually wilting flower, the first-person character in Smith’s work has had a long shelf life, and would rot if it weren’t for Smith’s genius with song and his ability to effortlessly write pop hits at will.  Entreat is from the tour supporting the album, recorded at Wembley in ’89, and consists of the all the songs on Disintegration in the same running order.  It had a very limited release originally, but pieces of it emerged here and there on CD singles taken from Disintegration (I first heard parts of it on the Pictures of You EP), and was eventually, finally bundled with Disintegration on the 2010 re-release.  Entreat was a bold move, a full performance of a newly-released record, and demonstrates just how confident Smith and his band were in the new songs.

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