It’s rather hard for me not to feel a twinge of nostalgia as I think back a quarter of a century. Through my great friends, Craig Breaden, Joel Haskard, and Kevin McCormick, I was discovering a world of neo-psychedelic pop. Lush, organic, voluptuous. The Sundays, Catherine Wheel, The Charlatans, House of Love, Mazzy Star, Jane’s Addiction, and the Cocteau Twins were in full (and fulsome!) form. Phish, Smashing Pumpkins, and Lush were about to hit it big, though I really had no idea just how big they would hit.
Even old mainstays such as The Cure and XTC were releasing some of their best material at the same time.
A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.” In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never do for any other decade.
After all, I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down.
Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s. Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s. I came of age in that rather incredible decade.
Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.
1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music.
The chances are quite good that you’re not reading this post because you want to know my career choices or why I made them. So, I’ll confine myself to the music that I loved that year.
I owe almost all of my good fortune to three very great guys, Ron Strayer (now, a high up with Microsoft), Kevin McCormick (now, justly, a progarchy editor), and Craig Breaden (now, happily, one of progarchy’s editors). Ron introduced me to what would very soon be called “alternative” but was then being called “college rock” or “modern rock.” Kevin sent me recommendations, including the rather insistent demand to purchase cds by World Party and The Sundays. And, finally, Craig introduced me not only to neo-psychedelia but also to psychedelia from its original age. It was Craig who introduced me to Van Morrison, Spooky Tooth, Procol Harum, and Traffic.
I’d loved prog and New Wave all of my 22 years at that point, but my vision was pretty limited to only these genres by the end of 1989. Well, this isn’t quite accurate. I also knew classical and jazz fairly well.
With the help of three friends, 1990 opened up huge musical vistas for me in the non-jazz, non-classic genres.
Richard Thompson, as a part of French Frith Kaiser Thompson, wrote two of the best songs I’ve ever: “Peppermint Rock” and “The Killing Jar.” Folk acid psychedelia by guys who had been there before there was a need for a revival.
Suzanne Vega’s third album, DAYS OF OPEN HAND, came out that year, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. Vega has always produced gorgeous pop and folk in the vein of XTC and others. If this is pop, it’s very high pop. Importantly, she never became political like so many of her counterparts. Rather, she gracefully let the music and lyrics remain art. Her breathy vocals–weird and yet captivating–only add to her appeal.
Echo and the Bunnymen’s almost totally forgotten and (when remembered) maligned album, REVERBERATION, is a slice of pop-rock perfection. Yes, it’s missing Ian McCulloch, but this only lets Will Sergeant soar. Frankly, their sound hit its height with OCEAN RAIN and fell flat on the follow-up album. This one, REVERBERATION, reveals an effective rebirth of the band. The new vocalist, while not possessing the cancerous gravel of McCulloch’s voice, captures the spirit of the lyrics perfectly. Word play and cliché become clever and, indeed, addictive. There’s not a dud song on the album, but the employment of psychedelic Indian musicians really works rather perfectly on “Enlighten Me” and on the Doorish “Flaming Red.” The former is one of the finest songs the band ever wrote.
Mazzy Star. Hardly anyone remembers this California psychedelic folk and navel-gazing band that emerged from the underground band, Opal. Too bad–as 1990’s SHE HANGS BRIGHTLY is a thing of disturbing beauty. Walls of sound, clever lyrics, and earnest production make this album a masterpiece of the neo-psych revival.
“Is it too late, baby?” World Party. What to say about this about that hasn’t been said by a million others? While Karl Wallinger continues to make interesting music (despite severe health problems), he really threw every thing his soul possessed into GOODBYE JUMBO. From the crazy Beatle-sque cover to the basement production, this is a gem. All of the songs work very well, though they rarely reach beyond simple Beatle’s pop. Taken as a whole, however, this is a prog-pop album. Not that the individual songs are prog. They’re not even close. But, imagine a really, really, really clever Paul McCartney reworking side 2 of Abbey Road. Then, you’d have GOODBYE JUMBO. Thank you, world, indeed.
The Sundays. Ok, so the lead singer is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. This doesn’t hurt my opinion of the band. But, really, it’s her voice. That voice. How to describe it? There are no words, really, that could capture it. She’s playful. She’s earnest. She’s flirtatious. She’s so utterly sincere. Oh, Harriet. At one time, you were my Beatrice. Her husband, David Gavurin, knows exactly how to write music to match his wife’s voice. What a team. And, they did the album merely for the fun of it, which makes it even more enjoyable. If you don’t own this or if you’ve never heard of The Sundays, treat yourself. You’ll never regret this purchase. Promise.
Charlatans UK. SOME FRIENDLY. I know next to nothing about this band, but I absolutely dug their sound when Ron introduced them to me. I’d never quite heard drumming like this (though, The Cure would use the exact same style on their 1991 album, WISH). The drums, the keyboards, and the bass make this one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard it. While I wouldn’t place it up there with the previous albums I’ve mentioned in terms of outright excellence and staying power, it’s still really good.
House of Love. Album title? I’m not sure, as there’s none listed. Just the band’s name with a butterfly. Some of the album fails, but when it works, it works in a stellar fashion. The album is worth owning for the first two tracks alone—”Hannah” and “Shine On”—which really blend into one continuous 10-minute track. Great build up and perfect execution on these two songs. From what little I know of the band, they were a bunch of really raucous and idiotic druggies. Still, some amazing talent there.
Cocteau Twins, HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS. The best for last? I’m not sure, but, sheesh, do I love this album. Aside from LOVELESS by My Bloody Valentine, no album reaches as close to shoe-gaze perfection as does HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS. This album simply never ages. It’s so weird and yet so continuously captivating. I assume the artsts behind Cocteau Twins wield some special instrument to speed up or delay time, but I can’t verify this. Listening to this album is NEVER a casual experience. It demands full immersion, but you re-emerge not as one drowned but as one baptized.
And there in the square he lay alone without face without crown and the angel who looked upon never came down
you never know what day could pick you baby out of the air, out of nowhere
~ Sun Kil Moon, “Duk Koo Kim” (2003)
Was it excess, or a change in consumer preference? Either or both, progressive rock music of the 1970’s ran afoul of the burgeoning punk rock scene. Carefully constructed compositions ranging from eight to 25 minutes (or longer) gave way to three-minute outbursts of street angst resonating with a culture sick and tired of inflation and corruption and openly questioning the permanent things — things (classical, jazz, church music) that progressive rock had integrated (unwittingly, subconsciously) into its ethos.
Then, after a decade of new wave, new romanticism, and sundry forms of techno (music for the masses) there arose the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. Suddenly, pop song structure, melodic hooks, and outfront lead vocals were enveloped in a blizzard of distortion and dissonance. Critics, ever wary of the latest “art” project, disparagingly labeled it “shoegazing,” noting the performers’ penchant for staring down (likely at their effects pedals) on stage. Steve Sunderland (Melody Maker) went a step further, describing what he called “The Scene that Celebrates Itself” — in part, because the gazers attended each other’s gigs and drank together. It was too much like rugby and less like football. If the former is about gentlemen playing a hooligan’s game, then the press were quick to spot what they suspected were middle class values at play. This could not end well.
At length did cross an Albatross / Thorough the fog it came…
But to back up a bit. Whatever spirit inhabited the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks seems to have been carried aloft during that show’s run, falling out of the sky in the Thames Valley. It descended upon a group of Reading teenagers who called themselves Slowdive. Where to begin? If one samples Slowdive’s output (three albums, six EP’s) there is no way to pin down the band’s idiom. There are the ostensibly pop ballads (“Alison,” “Sleep”), Eno-induced trances (“Souvlaki Space Station,” “Changes”), pre-Kid A ambient exercises (“Option One,” “Sinewaves”), dark grunge (“So Tired”), ethereal raptures (“Catch the Breeze,” “Shine”), and others (“Albatross”) that defy categorization.
Like sorcerers they summoned other-worldly sounds from their guitars. If there’s a common thread it is the drone — catching the breeze of an unorthodox riff, maybe two chords, and riding it in an ever-widening gyre.
Even a few of their loyal fans would say Slowdive spun out of control with 1995’s experimental Pygmalion. By the time of its release British ears were drawn to Oasis and Blur, a Britpop North-South rivalry loaded to the hilt with working class ethos the press could celebrate.
“Revolution,” yes. “Revolution 9,” no. Within a year Slowdive had morphed into the country/folk Mojave 3.
I’ve Got a Gal… in Ypsilanti
While Slowdive was relinquishing the gazing muse, another obscure stateside band was taking it up. Trey Many (pr. “may’-nee”), the drummer for Warn Defever’s His Name is Alive, was developing a side project at Eastern Michigan University. Together with art student Amon Krist (daughter of folk singer Jan Krist) he formed Velour 100 and signed with Seattle’s alternative label, Tooth & Nail.
Velour 100’s first full-length recording was Fall Sounds (1996) with Many on all instruments and Krist on lead vocals (and occasional acoustic guitar). Right away the listener finds the music here focused and thematically linked — a concept album based on the pair’s experiences of loss and renewal informed by their Christian faith. The same dense, hypnotic atmospherics present with Slowdive are found here; but Many keeps the listening interesting with changes and unusual time signatures. “Dub Space” is a sparkling eight and half minute tone poem that could have emerged from the waterfall at the end of “Close to the Edge.” The strongest track on the album — and, in my view, among the best three and a half minutes of the ’90s — is “Flourish”:
Velour 100 never received a bad critical review. As Krist departed to complete her studies and launch a teaching career, the duo’s first demo recording was re-recorded and released as Songs From the Rainwater EP to high praise. Many produced one more LP, Of Color Bright (1997) that featured three female lead vocalists, including ex-Sixpence None the Richer guitarist Tess Wiley. Wiley co-wrote “Dolphin Grey,” which showcases her distinctive alto against a splash of jangling guitars:
Many recorded a final four-song EP, For An Open Sky (1999), with soon-to-breakout vocalist Rosie Thomas. He now lends his formidable production skills to projects for other bands.
Ghosts of the Great Gaze
By the end of the ’90s “shoegazing” (or “dream pop”) was figured a dead letter. Its artsy sensibilities (pretenses, to some) were destined to remain out of favor with an X Factor world. But even into the 2000’s there remain artists who pay homage to the genre. An excellent example is the expansive “Duk Koo Kim” by Mark Kozelek’s side project, Sun Kil Moon. Aptly described by one listener as “magical sad tragic wonderful,” it is a meditation on mortality inspired by the Korean boxer who died from injuries suffered in a bout with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982 (in fact, much of Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway is inspired by the stories of fighters).
In shoegazing fashion, the guitars ring and leave auras of reverb in their wake, Kozelek’s falsettos submerged in the melodies. Unlike Slowdive’s binary pieces, “Duk Koo Kim” has three distinct sections, and (in prog rock proportion) sprawls over 14 minutes — each representing the number of rounds Kim lasted in the ring before succumbing.
Come to me once more my love show me love I’ve never known sing to me once more my love words from your younger years sing to me once more my love songs that I love to hear