Thursday, June 16, 2022

Dean and Britta – Back Numbers


Dean and Britta – Back Numbers


Jesse E. Mullen


You’ve co-led an acclaimed group for a few years now. You’ve begun a romantic relationship. And you’ve used that relationship as inspiration for your sultry, smoky songs. Where do you go from here?

If you’re Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, you start another group. As a musical partnership, the duo were most famous for their work in NYC-based indiepop band Luna. When Phillips joined the group, it was immediately clear that she and Wareham had a chemistry that was spellbinding.

Songs such as “Mermaid Eyes” and “Rememories” featured Phillips’ gorgeous voice prominently. But Wareham still sang all lead vocals. So, in order to create a more collaborative project, the duo started the offshoot Dean and Britta.

Their 2003 debut album L'Avventura showed a penchant for dreamy songwriting and exquisite covers, but it was a little too lightweight overall. Enter Sonic Boom. The Spacemen 3 co-leader was brought in to remix a few tracks off of L'Avventura for a special EP.

That release, 2003’s Sonic Souvenirs showed what the duo could do with a tougher, spacier backing. Boom added reverb effects to the vocals, the guitars, and his own signature style of digital-delayed analog synthesizers and keyboards.

So, when they brought Sonic Boom into the fold for an entire album, expectations must have been high. 2007’s Back Numbers was to feature Boom’s penchant for playing and arranging. But could it live up to the hype?

Opener “Singer Sing” is pure bliss, with Phillips’ voice and a rhythm machine introducing the track in modest fashion. Once Wareham’s warm voice joins in the chorus however, we’re in dream pop heaven. Phillips’ underrated bass playing also features prominently, adding a warm melodic tone that’s not always found on the instrument.

"Words You Used To Say" harks back to Luna's last days of Romantica and Rendezvous. Phillips’ warm bassline, Boom’s jittery analog synthesizers, and Wareham’s signature guitar playing introduce the track in laidback fashion.

Phillips and Wareham trade call-and-response lines over the hip, urbane soundscape. In the chorus, Wareham urges his lover to “bring it home” to him. What “it” is, one can only guess. It can be assumed, however that it is of a sexual nature.

Elsewhere, the duo’s cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “You Turned My Head Around” is equally enchanting. With Phillips on lead vocals, the track makes full use of her range and power. She is tender and cooing in the verses, but when the chorus hits, she isn’t afraid to belt it out.

Phillips was the singing voice of the cartoon character Jem from Jem and The Holograms, which had forced her to use her voice in all sorts of theatrical ways. However, the bulk of her recorded material is much more restrained. It is fun for the listener to hear Phillips expand her range, and channel some of that old energy for one of her records, albeit briefly.

For his part, Wareham turns in a haunted performance on a cover of Donovan’s “Teen Angel.” Still evoking the late-night sultry feel of Romantica, Wareham is mostly alone on the track, save for some acoustic guitar and vibraphone accompaniment.

On “White Horses,” Phillips delivers another spellbinding performance. The arrangement, combined with Phillips’ singing and the production style make the track reminiscent of one of Phil Spector’s 1960s productions.

Ironically, “The Sun Is Still Sunny” is more evocative of the music by Spiritualized than the work of Sonic Boom. (Spiritualized is led by Boom’s ex bandmate Spacemen 3 Jason Pierce.) In fact, Spiritualized would later use a very similar melody set to a waltz on the 2018 track “A Perfect Miracle.”

A swelling string arrangement, and gorgeous harmony between Phillips and Wareham bring the chorus to a higher level. On an album full of highlights, the track still manages to standout as a cut above the rest. Very impressive, considering the quality of the material.

The album closes with the gorgeous “Our Love Will Still Be There.” Originally by the 1960s garage rock group The Troggs, Wareham and Phillips take the track dreamy minimalist territory. With electric piano, washes of gentle synthesizers, and unison vocals, it is an absolute joy to the ears. When Wareham and Phillips sing the title phrase in harmony, we believe them.

While side projects are usually fun as curios, they rarely do anything essential. There are, however, a few exceptions to that rule. With Back Numbers, Dean and Britta successfully capture the hazy warmth of a relationship given new life.

Zoƫ Records/2007





Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Slowdive – Souvlaki


Slowdive – Souvlaki


Jesse E. Mullen


You’ve known each other since childhood. You’ve been a couple for several years. You also happen to lead one of the most stylistically innovative bands of your generation. And then you end your romantic relationship. How do you go on?

It’s the classic rock and roll story for couples in music groups. From Fleetwood Mac to Linda and Richard Thompson, to Ike and Tina Turner, all of these couples dealt with breakups within their groups. On the independent circuit, Slowdive were no different.

The Thames Valley shoegaze quintet formed in 1989, and quickly developed a sound all their own. Drawing on influences as diverse as The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Syd Barrett, and the Twin Peaks soundtrack, Slowdive were quickly snatched up by Creation Records.

Their debut EP, the 1990 release Slowdive, became an instant cult hit. One magazine review said that the music was so dreamy, ethereal, and light that it “made the Cocteau Twins sound like Mudhoney.” (This was apparently meant as a compliment, by the way.)

The band – lead guitarist/songwriter Neil Halstead, lead singer/rhythm guitarist Rachel Goswell, second lead guitarist Christian Savill, and Nick Chaplin – would soon add a new member. Simon Scott joined as semi-permanent drummer and the band released more music to even more acclaim.

However, as quickly as the British press can build up a band, they can also tear them down. Sadly, Slowdive would learn this the hard way. The band’s debut album, 1991’s Just For A Day was universally panned by critics, despite not sounding much different than the music they universally praised just a few months earlier.

Meanwhile, other problems began brewing within the group. Halstead and Goswell had been dating for several years at this point. The two met as young children but deepened their bond over music in high school. Halstead was a big Dinosaur Jr fan, while Goswell gravitated towards gothic rock. In fact, it was Goswell’s idea to name the group Slowdive – after a Siouxsie and the Banshees song.

But by 1992, Goswell and Halstead split up. Halstead dealt the only way he knew how – he wrote a ton of songs in isolation. By the time he was finished, he had stockpiled 40 songs, which Slowdive then attempted to record. However, Creation boss Alan McGee was not at all pleased with the material recorded – infamously declaring “they’re all shite!”

Slowdive were forced to re-do most of the album, but they also took a little bit of guidance from an outside source. Brian Eno – a universal favorite within the group – was brought in as something between a mentor and a collaborator for the group.

In one instance, Eno took a clock off of the studio wall and stuck it on the mixing desk, instructing Halstead to play guitar and create textures until Eno told him to stop. Halstead said the experience had a profound effect on both his creativity and his confidence. Momentarily freed from the label pressures to deliver a hit record, Halstead could instead focus on creating something groundbreaking.

The resulting album Souvlaki was released in May of 1993. However, it wouldn’t be released in the US until May 1994. But the question remains how did all of this music sound? And could Slowdive channel the heartbreak at the core of the group into a masterwork?

“Alison” starts the album off in grandiose fashion. Shimmering waves of guitars – both acoustic and electric – and Scott’s frenetic drumming introduce the track before Halstead’s voice enters. The lyrics speak of the titular girl, who is no longer in the life of the narrator. Is she deceased? Or is she a metaphor for Halstead’s breakup with Goswell?

The track is a rousing success, not only because of the mystery surrounding it, but also because of the music. The entire group play in harmony, but the guitar textures of Halstead and Savill deserve special praise. Furthermore, Goswell’s voice adds a haunted melancholy quality to the chorus, particularly when she and Halstead sing “I guess she’s always somewhere” in harmony.

“40 Days” uses a biblical metaphor for Halstead’s loneliness in the wake of the breakup. The lyrics allude to him fasting, but not on food, water or anything sinful. Rather, it is love that he is depriving himself of. The cascading wall-of-guitar-sound on this track is so dense, that it resembles an orchestra.

“When The Sun Hits” is possibly the most anthemic track on the album. The track starts out quietly, before bursting into the chorus – using the ultra-popular “loud/soft/loud” dynamic of 90s alternative rock. The lyrics, however, just may have been a little too clever for mainstream radio.

Halstead uses sunburn as a metaphor for a relationship which dies out – thus crashing and burning. The song, however, seems to take place before the end. Halstead mentions “waiting” for “when the sun hits,” and watching his lover “burn so fast it scares me.” He sees things going wrong but is powerless to stop them.

Goswell’s own turns at the microphone are no less enchanting. “Machine Gun” is as angelic as she’s ever sounded. The song also uses the same simulated orchestra effect of “40 Days” in an equally impressive manner.

The album’s centerpiece, “Souvlaki Space Station” is also the most tinkered with. It was mixed in a “dub style” more commonly employed by electronic musicians. The track features more digital delay on the guitars than I’ve ever heard on any other song.

Goswell wrote the lyrics, and it is still a mystery to Halstead as to what exactly she is singing. Due to the waves of reverb, chorus and delay on her voice – and the fact that Goswell has never mentioned what is sung – we can only speculate. However, it is generally accepted among fans – and Halstead – that Goswell used the track to tell her side of the story.

Chaplin’s bass is also a standout. Usually, the least prominent member of the group, his contributions here are stellar Seefeel-influenced dub. As the track fades into ether, a loud, descending screech features prominently in the mix. Radiohead would use a very similar effect on their 1997 hit “Karma Police,” and it’s generally accepted that they got the idea from Slowdive.

The albums two acoustic numbers – “Here She Comes” and “Dagger” – also point to what lay ahead for both Slowdive and Mojave 3. On “Here She Comes,” Halstead uses just his voice and guitar to evoke the solitude of an early October day. The emotion in his voice betrays the simplicity of the lyrics. When Halstead shifts from “it’s so lonely in this place” to “it’s so cold now/I swear it will be warm,” the effect is truly chilling.

Album closer “Dagger” has a slightly more complicated history. One of Halstead’s most personal songs, Slowdive attempted a version in the initial Souvlaki sessions, complete with a beautiful string synthesizer part, and Scott’s most powerful drumming to date.

However, this was also one of the tracks that McGee had rejected as “shite,” and the song was re-recorded with a double-tracked Halstead alone on acoustic guitar and light piano accompaniment. While this version works better in the context of the album, the electric full band arrangement is stronger overall.

The American release adds four bonus tracks to the tail end of the album. The cover of “Some Velvet Morning” transitions from a dub-influenced, bass-heavy tune in the verses, to a swirling psychedelic waltz in the choruses. Halstead plays Lee Hazelwood in the verses to Goswell’s Nancy Sinatra in the chorus. A wonderful track which eclipses even in the original in creativity.

“Good Day Sunshine” and “Missing You” are EDM-influenced tracks which hint at the even more experimental sounds of Pygmalion. And “Country Rain” might as well be the first Mojave 3 song. Featuring pedal steel guitar, liberal use of reverb, and Goswell’s enchanting voice, it feels like a prequal to “Love Songs On The Radio.” Now that’s a way to close an album!

In the end, Slowdive were able to overcome all obstacles to deliver the classic album Halstead envisioned. In the years since its initial release, Souvlaki has rightly gained its status as a stylistically innovative, unparalleled masterpiece. Not so shite after all.

UK: Creation/1993

US: SBK/1994




Monday, June 13, 2022

Slowdive – Catch The Breeze


Slowdive – Catch The Breeze


Jesse E. Mullen

Compilation albums are a tricky business. When done right, they can distill a band’s entire catalog down to a disc or two. Too often however, they fail to include all the right tracks and fans are better off buying the albums from which they came.

I rarely review compilations for two reasons. Reason one is that they aren’t albums in the purest sense. The material on them doesn’t come from uniform sessions and the songs weren’t originally intended to be heard in that context.

The second reason is that they often don’t include enough new material to be enticing. Obviously, there are exceptions – The Who’s Odds and Sods, Suede’s Sci-Fi Lullabies, The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow – but these are few and far between.

So, I purchased Slowdive’s Catch The Breeze anthology with a degree of skepticism. Fortunately, it leans much closer to the classic anthologies of yore than a simple “best of” compilation.

All the big hits are here – “Slowdive,” “Catch The Breeze,” “Alison,” “When The Sun Hits” – but there are also many surprises. The entire Slowdive and Holding Our Breath EPs are included here – both long out of print and highly expensive – and it also included another special surprise.

Slowdive’s 1995 then-swansong Pygmalion was released in extremely limited quantities in the UK by Creation, before being deleted from the label’s catalog. Consequently, the album became quite expensive on eBay.

Catch The Breeze fixes this up to a point. Five of the album’s nine tracks are included here. As this was before Pygmalion had been re-released, it helped the album gain a cult following amongst shoegazing fans.

Furthermore, another featured track – “So Tired” – was incredibly rare in America, having only featured on the 1993 import EP Outside Your Room. However, unlike other tracks from this era, it was not featured on the 1994 US release of the band’s masterpiece Souvlaki.

But how does all this music sound? Well, it’s dreamy shoegazing with walls of guitars by Neil Halstead and Christian Savill, angelic vocals from Rachel Goswell, and a great rhythm section in bassist Nick Chaplin and drummer Simon Scott (later Ian McCutcheon on the Pygmalion tracks; Scott left before Slowdive’s 1994 North American tour.)

Perhaps the song which best exemplifies the Slowdive sound is “Shine.” Dreamy waves of melancholy, washed-out electric guitars and Goswell’s most soothing vocals to date introduce the track in gorgeous fashion. Unlike most conventional rock songs however, very little changes over the course of the five-minute duration. Instead, “Shine” functions as a sort of shoegazing meditation.

The song’s music video is equally enchanting. Shot in 1991, it shows the band – looking very young, indeed – fooling around at the beach over the course of a day, with time-lapse transitions into nighttime. With the band all in their early 50s, the video now reads as a poignant meditation on youth, deepening the audio/visual experience.

Overall, props must be given to Sanctuary Records and Slowdive in picking the best – and rarest – tracks for preservation in anthology form. While compilations rarely take advantage of the source material, Catch The Breeze serves as a time capsule to the early ‘90s Thames Valley sound.