Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Slowdive

It's an awful, rainy day in NYC as I begin typing this. The rain has turned to sleet and the slick sidewalks will kill us all. That's why it's best to just stay inside, put on your one-piece pajamas with the the butt-flap, and curl up on the couch to listen to a bunch of dream pop, amiright? The point is, it's about time for another dispatch from the swirly netherland of post-punk/new wave/shoegazey dream pop that is the late-80s/early-90s (mainly) British music scene, which provides the soundtrack to my recent award-eligible memoir Sweet Tooth.

I'm here today to talk about Slowdive, a five-piece from the Thames Valley in England whose live shows in all likelihood inspired the derisive term "shoegaze," coined by a music critic commenting on the tendency for many bands of the time to constantly be looking down at their effects pedals rather than engaging with the audience. Slowdive's music had all the hallmarks of the shoegaze genre: feedback-drenched, squalling guitars, lovely but passionless vocals, an ethereal psychedelia, and an apparent reverence for My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins in equal measure. One of only a handful of shoegaze bands whose reputation has actually grown over the years (Ride and, well, Ride being the other one), Slowdive released three EPs in 1990 and 1991 that earned them a rabid UK following and ecstatic praise from the constantly hyperventilating UK music press.

Slowdive's music was said to be so gorgeous it would bring people to tears at their gigs. When I read that in a copy of NME in '91, I was sold--what skinny 18-year-old boy with terrible hair would pass up the opportunity for a good long cry? So I immediately headed down to The Record Exchange to order everything they had, just all of it, I'd mortgage my hair mousse if I had to. It turned out they only had the three EPs out so far--"Slowdive," "Morningrise," and "Holding Our Breath"--so I snapped those up with my sweaty teenage hands and ran all the way home. I still remember putting on the "Holding Our Breath" EP and losing myself in the staggeringly beautiful "Golden Hair" and "Shine" as I watched the record on the turntable go around and around and around into infinity.

Even better was the "Morningrise" EP, which was just, I mean, I couldn't, it was all too much, just bursting with beauty/truth, truth/beauty, poetry, sex, and pancakes. It made me feel all the things and all the things' things. That kids around my age were making music this drop dead gorgeous was embarrassing. I was thoroughly lacking in accomplishment--I had succeeded in getting a few poems published in our high school literary journal, but they were all terrible and deserving of epic mockery. But enough about me. Let's hear some more from Slowdive.

After such a stunning beginning, the band's first album, 1992's Just for a Day, was kind of a disappointment. They had stepped back from its wall-of-sound approach in favor of a generally hazy, low-key, sometimes barely-there atmosphere of plucked, reverby guitars, sleepy harmonies, and a listening experience that felt surprisingly insubstantial--especially coming on the heels of a batch of singles that announced their genius from the first few seconds. There were still some transcendent moments--"The Sadman" and "Primal," the album's final two tracks--but overall, it was a little bit of a bummer.

The UK critics were not kind to the album, and to make matter worse, the band's American label delayed its release for almost a year, meaning that when the band toured the states opening for Blur they had no album to promote. (How do I remember all this? I DON'T KNOW.)

Rachel is sad because there's no Slowdive album at the merch table.
Slowdive returned in 1993 with the "Outside Your Room" EP, which contained the spectacular single "Alison." It marked a return to the band's earlier glacial glory, with the icy atmosphere turned up to 11 on the chorus and singers Neal and Rachel telling a sad tale of this Alison lady who's sister is apparently missing or lost or in a coma or in the bathroom or maybe it's Alison who's missing I don't know she's not available for comment during the song itself but anyway, sadness sure is beautiful, which is the point of this paragraph.

Here, just shut up and listen:

"Outside Your Room" was followed by the band's second album, Souvlaki, which is the album that secured their place in the Shoegazing Hall of Fame. Souvlaki is bursting at the seams with cascades of white guitar squall and forlorn romanticism. The album even featured the great Brian Eno on a few tracks. Sadly, the UK press had already grown exceedingly tired of the shoegaze bands and moved on to grunge, so Souvlaki received no love, and, the album was delayed once again by the band's American label and ultimately released in the States about a year after the initial British pressing, with a few extra tracks tacked on, one of which is the band's gorgeous cover of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra's "Some Velvet Morning," and another of which, "Country Rain," makes my cat Stella cry.

Slowdive issued one more album--1995's Pygmalion--but, though the album is revered as a minimalist classic by many contemporary electronic artists, it was really a one-man effort, with Neal basically noodling around in the studio and recording the whole thing himself. I don't even think the band toured the album. Though it's not one of my favorites, Pygmalion has its moments, one of which is "Blue Skied An' Clear."

This time Rachel is sad because she's barely on Slowdive's last album.
And with that the story of Slowdive had ended. Neal and Rachel went on to play music as Mojave 3 for five or so albums of countrified folk, and Neal also had a pretty solid solo career. Then, last year, Slowdive was suddenly on Twitter announcing shows, ultimately regrouping for a reunion tour and basically executing it flawlessly, all over the dang place. I saw them in NYC in October and hoo boy, if it wasn't transcendental. Apparently they're working on new material and THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN RIGHT NOW, YOU GUYS, HURRY UP.

Anyway, here they are playing "Golden Hair" at the Pitchfork Music Festival back in August. And no, I'm not crying from the sheer beauty of the song or the knee-buckling cascade of crystalline guitars, or at even at witnessing the music of my youth make such a majestic return. I've just got something in my eye. (It's tears.)