Monday, June 2, 2014

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Lush

Hi, you guys. Time for another dive down my book Sweet Tooth's musical rabbit hole. I've already written about some of the big names of '80s post-punk but haven't yet touched on the genre from the late-'80s/early '90s that came to be known as "shoegaze." Really should do that. How about right now?

Shoegaze was a term coined derisively by a UK music critic to describe a scene of bands playing heavily effected, wall-of-sound guitar rock that had them constantly looking down at their effects pedals and rarely at the audience. Shoegaze bands took their cues from the reverb-laden and often gauzily romantic music being made by bands like My Bloody Valentine, the Cocteau Twins, and the Jesus and Mary Chain. It was defined by indulgent use of guitar effects pedals, very slight and sometimes barely-there vocals, and a dreamy, psychedelic airspace perfect for lying on your bed dreaming of the perfect boy. Or, you know, something.

One of the earliest of the shoegaze bands was London's Lush, a four-piece formed in 1989: two girls, two boys. The girls--flame-haired singer/guitarist Miki Berenyi and guitarist Emma Anderson--ran the show, writing all the songs and handling all vocals. I first encountered the band on MTV's 120 Minutes, when the program aired their first video, "De-Luxe," from the Mad Love EP. I immediately fell in love. It was as if Molly Ringwald and Wynona Ryder had ditched Hollywood and moved to Camden Town in London, telling themselves "Fuck it, we're gonna do this now."

After playing only a handful of gigs, the band caught the eye of 4AD, the seminal British post-punk record label that brought the world Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, the Pixies, and, yes, Modern English. Their first recording for 4AD was the mini-album Scar, a sublime debut that somehow found that undulating sweet spot between Cocteau Twins and Sonic Youth. It was loud, spiky, and spindly, but it was also freaking gorgeous.

Their next release was the aforementioned Mad Love EP, on which the band collaborated with their hero, Robin Guthrie, guitarist from Cocteau Twins. The result was more spooky madness: there's "De-Luxe," whose gleefully abstract lyrics detail a psychedelic trip of some sort ("When we're wrapped in polythene/What's that supposed to mean?... When I'm up you're coming down"), and on one track, "Leaves Me Cold," Miki recounts a sex dream she once had on a tour bus. In the dream she's shagging one of the band's roadies or something, and, after being shaken awake by a bump in the road, she turns and sees the guy she'd just been dreaming about sitting next to her. "I'm coming but I wake up and it leaves me cold," she sings in a high-pitched, sing-song twitter, her passionless delivery a chilly counterpart to the aggressive shards of guitars exploding all around her and stuff. Capping off their early period, the band followed up Mad Love with a single that, in my humble opinion, is the desert-island shoegazer anthem, and the band's high watermark: "Sweetness and Light."

The band came off wonderfully self-effacing in interviews. Miki routinely referred to her own singing abilities as "crap," and would correct interviewers if ever they implied she had a good voice. ("Leave it out," she said in one article.) And they pretty much immediately became darlings of the UK music press, with one NME cover actually proposing the idea that Lush were the next ABBA. (Yes, the UK music press is often dumb.) The band had a nifty response to that over-the-top comparison when Scar, Mad Love, and Sweetness and Light were all collected onto an album for the American market called Gala, which contained a couple new tracks, one of them, "Hey Hey Helen," an ABBA cover. Which, you know, is the shit.

Lush made a second video for "De-Luxe" for the US market in 1990. It had a much bigger budget, and the result was a swirly, candy-coated, psychedelic fantasia, much like all of my contemporaneous teenage sex dreams.

Gala fits together amazingly well as an album, and it's one that I still return to frequently. It really showed the band at its best, starting off with the anthemic "Sweetness and Light" and that single's B-sides "Sunbathing" and "Breeze," both of which meshed dreamy guitar textures with sweet melodic hooks. Elsewhere there was the fun kiss-off "Bitter" and the kicking "Second Sight," with its whiplash time signature change and excitable drumming from Chris Acland. It also featured one of the band's best tracks, "Etherial," the title of which is an amalgam of the two people who are the subject of the song--Ethan and Merial--and a clever nod to the adjective most often used to describe the band. With Gala being released in the US in 1990, the band ventured out on a co-headlining tour with fellow shoegazers Ride, with the two bands swapping slots each night. (Ride was a bigger name in the UK at the time, so the whole co-headlining idea was annoying to singer/guitarist Andy Bell, who remarked that it was like the Beatles opening for Petula Clark--funny and also VERY RUDE!) I saw them on that tour in Chapel Hill when I was a senior in high school and it was freaking awesome. Miki had charisma to burn and when there were some technical difficulties she invited people up to tell jokes while they dealt with them.

The band toured a lot during the next year, so it wasn't until 1991 that they released any new material. The Black Spring EP came out in October, and its lead single, "Nothing Natural," was a stunner. Its video, sadly, was kind of lame. Miki and Emma were done up like the Bangles, inexplicably pressing their heads together throughout the song (probably because the video director was gross). They looked like sad, sapphic, porcelain muppets. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about the gay stuff (and muppets), but the video just seemed to cast the ladies in a "save me I'm a girl" role that me didn't like much.

In advance of the release of their proper debut album, the band put out the For Love EP. The single was another solid slice of dream pop, and the B-sides, one of which was a gorgeous cover of Wire's "Outdoor Miner," backed the track up nicely.

That much-anticipated album, Spooky, came out in 1992, and it marked the moment when the band was sucked completely into the 4AD-Cocteau Twins industrial complex. Producer Robin Guthrie smothered the band in a swirl of slushy guitars and processed vocals and drums; he rounded off all the rough edges, effectively stifling the spunk that had made the band stand out on their early releases as much more than just pretenders to the Cocteau's throne. On Spooky, Lush sounded like Cocteau Twins clones without the benefit of Elizabeth Fraser's amazing pipes. Though the album starts off strong with the one-two punch of "Stray" and "Nothing Natural," things get boring very quickly when the cloyingly singsongy "Tiny Smiles" and flatly melodramatic "Covert" rear their heads. It should be said that there are some great moments on the album: tracks like "Ocean," "Superblast," and "Monochrome" are particular standouts. And if the bar hadn't been set so high with the Gala material, I'd probably hold Spooky in higher esteem. I always thought that Alternative Press's Dave Segal nailed it, though, in his review when he wrote, "While Spooky will likely be better than, oh, 90% of 1992's recorded output, one senses that it could've been so much more daring."

Lush toured the crap out of the album and were hand-picked by Perry Farrell for the second Lollapalooza tour in the summer of '92. They were the first band on, so they had the privilege of warming up a crowd that was really just there to see Pearl Jam, who was on next. By all accounts, the band had a blast on the tour, and tracks from Spooky did come alive, er, live.

As far as recorded output, Lush was silent for the next two years, finally reemerging in 1994 on a 4AD compilation called All Virgos Are Mad, which contained the Lush track "The Childcatcher," a summertime slice of pop-punk bliss that boded well for the band's forthcoming material. Their next album was preceded by two EPs, Hypocrite and Desire Lines, released on the same day and showing two very different sides of the band. "Hypocrite" was all jagged anger and spleen, while the dirge-like, 9-minute "Desire Lines" took its time unspooling into a gorgeous, cascading midsection, though the back end of the track kind of goes on forever and ever. It was an odd choice for a single, and sadly, neither track charted very highly. (Quick shout-out to "Hypocrite" B-side "Cat's Chorus," which, like "The Childcatcher," showed the band at their zippy finest.)

File:Split (Lush album) cover art.jpgThe album Split came out a few weeks later to decidedly mixed reviews. Though in the intervening years it has gained a reputation as the band's strongest (it is not; that would be Gala), the musical climate had shifted dramatically in the two years since Spooky, with all the world just wanting grunge, grunge, and more grunge. And though Split was a much more varied record than anything they'd put out before, alternating among attitudinal aggression, lush orchestral numbers, and sun-kissed pop, the album failed to gain traction beyond the band's loyal fan base.  :-(

Lush reemerged again in 1996 with a new batch of songs that were decidedly more radio-ready than anything they'd done before. This wasn't too surprising, since in the intervening years Britpop had exploded in all the sad British faces, and in London Lush were surrounded by other bands--some of them really awful, like Dodgy and Cast--that were having top ten singles and albums. I imagine that by this point, Lush wanted them some of that for themselves. So they went all in on the pop.

The first taste of the new Lush was single "Single Girl," which had begun as a B-side but then was moved up to top billing by the record label. What to say about "Single Girl"? Hmm. Well, it was super catchy and playful, with the kind of simple melody that burrows into your head and stays. It was also... well, kind of dumb. But hey, pop is allowed to be dumb, and the band was rewarded for the being kind of dumb with a #21 UK chart placement, their highest ever. Lush were officially press darlings again. The next single, "Ladykillers," was even more of a departure, with Miki singing in her lower register and channeling her inner Elastica.

The song was a smart, punchy "f*ck you" to a series of men that Miki had been approached by, and rumor had it that one of these gentlemen was Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Homoerotic Chili Peppers. Again, the single reached #21 in the UK charts, and the video received tons of airplay on MTV, which was still a few years away from re-imagining itself as the teen pregnancy channel.

The album Lovelife came out in March 1996, and though it was generally well reviewed, it's really not my thing, baby, and it's got a few cringeworthy songs ("Ciao," a duet with Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, and the godawful "Tralala" being two of them) that send me scrambling for the skip button. Many of the B-sides to the singles, which were collected on the compilation album "Topolino," were stellar, though ("Ex," "Dear Me," and "Piledriver" were particular standouts), and they proved that the band still had it in them to serve up the pop hooks and infectious harmonies. The band also covered the Magnetic Fields' "I Have the Moon" and Elvis Costello's "All This Useless Beauty," both of which were Lush at their absolute loveliest. And though Lovelife didn't really do much for me, it did seem that the band was in an exciting transition, and I still held out hope that they still had it in them to top the shambolic majesty of Gala. It wasn't to be.

Lush released one final single, "500 (Shake Baby Shake)," which hit #22, before tragedy struck: guitarist Emma Anderson, exhausted from the band's incessant touring and feeling overwhelmed by the demands being placed on the band by their American label, announced she wanted to leave the band, and two days later, drummer Chris Acland, always such a delight in interviews and by all accounts a happy guy, hanged himself in his parents' house in the Lake District. He was only 30 years old. The remaining members were obviously devastated--Chris wasn't just a bandmate, he was a close friend and Miki's former boyfriend. (Miki herself has said she'll never understand why he did it.) With the death of one of their core members, Lush disintegrated, officially disbanding in 1997.

Sadly, Lush has been largely forgotten in the years since their breakup, and they are now little more than a footnote in the histories of the shoegazing and Britpop scenes of the '90s. This is a total bummer, and one hopes that with the resurgence in interest in shoegaze in the past few years, the band will finally get some respect. Gala alone deserves the world's attention. It was their purest musical expression, the sound of a young band downing some shots, hopping in the pool, and splashing around gleefully. It's one of my top 10 favorite albums. (That's right, I said it.) The band never topped it.

Miki once said in an interview that she would be dead before anyone said anything nice about Lush. I hope this modest post, at least, goes even the slightest distance toward proving her wrong.

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