25 January 2009

Five Shoegazing Albums

In recent months, I have become more and more specific with the genre listing on my iTunes. A few days ago, a friend of mine was scrolling through my iTunes and came across “Shoegazing.” He was a bit confused, and asked me, “Staring at your shoes is a genre?”

I smiled and said, “Of course, even white ones after Labor Day.”

Showgazing is a subgenre of rock, usually associate with alternative British bands. The early musicians of this genre were apparently a bit shy or had no idea how to play their instruments without staring at them. So, there they stood, pretty much motionless, looking downward, giving the appearance that they were gazing at their shoes; hence the term “shoegazing” was born. For the most part, the bands that are considered the forefathers of this genre are Chapterhouse, Lush, Ride, and Slowdive (no, the name of this blog did not come from them, actually we were inspired by the same source); however, the Cocteau Twins, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valetine predates them all and in many ways set the blueprint for shoegazing. In America, shoegazing never manifested itself in any serious way, though the band Bowery Elecrtic were from New York City. Shoegazers never had a chance in America competing with grunge, which dominated the airwaves with such acts as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. (Though many current indie bands are noting shoegazing as an influence.)

So what does it sound like? Well, there is more diversity in the range of shoegazing than most subgenres of rock. From the Cranes to Catherine Wheels, it is hard to pin down exactly what showgazers sounds like; from my experience, I have come to think of shoegazing bands more in terms of their common fans, who were not into guitar-smashing, lead singers diving into the audience, and unconventional visage antics of prior rock acts. However, the typical sonic definition is ethereal, flanger drowned guitars, even tempos, and when keyboards were present, they were for effect more than melody. Unlike their grunge counterparts, shoegazers placed serious emphasis on vocal styles. From Lush’s higher range singing to the harmonies of Ride, there was more than just carrying a tune or screaming. Also, by comparison to grunge, more women were present in the shoegazing bands.

There seems to be a resurgence of shoegazing, or as they call it, nu-shoegazing. But before immersing yourself in the stuff, here are five shoegazing albums that I recommend. Collectively, they explore the range of what shoegazing had to offer – from the ethereal and abstract to the rocking and in your face.

Catherine Wheel: “Chrome” (1993)

Definitely more rocking and in your face than the average shoegazing band, Catherine Wheel was led by Rob Dickinson (vocalist and guitarist) who continues to perform and write new music. Layered guitars, not as compressed as others in the genre, this band had a more traditional rock appeal than most shoegazers. Though lyrically a bit confusing at time, even while verging on screaming, the vocal arrangements are lush and intricate.

Why is it a must? This head on, concrete, wall of sound approach to their sophomore effort helped lay down the foundation for future Brit rock acts, in a way that is digestible from the first listen. With such raw talent and plain approach to music, I have always wondered why Catherine Wheel never broke into the mainstream. Perhaps with the new shoegazing movement, they will be elevated from obscurity to pioneers.

Track Listing
1. Kill Rhythm
2. I Confess
3. Crank
4. Broken Head
5. Pain
6. Strange Fruit
7. Chrome
8. The Nude
9. URSA Major Space Station
10. Fripp
11. Half Life
12. Show Me Mary

Cranes: “Wings of Joy” (1991)

Perhaps soncially the most inaccessible shoegazing band, the Cranes early on combined elements of art rock, goth, and dream pop, with a tinge of classical. Though in later years the classical elements would give way to more of the rock and electronic elements in their music, Alison Shaw (lead vocalist) continues to have one of the most distinct voices in music. Singing in a higher range than most vocalists, her vocals often seem to emulate the role of the first seat violinist in an orchestra. Due to the high range and vocal style, you may find yourself reading liner notes or goggling for the lyrics.

Why is it a must? The Cranes are doing something right, for they have outlived most of their contemporaries. Though they were never rewarded with popular or critical reception, they have done more for the expanding of “genre” than most bands do. Their experimental arrangements, the mismatched genre bending, their unique vocal style, and their existence in the fringes where anything is possible combine to create music that may not be traditional, but is solid.

Track listing
1. Water Song
2. Thursday
3. Living and Breathing
4. Leaves of Summer
5. Starblood
6. Sixth of May
7. Wish
8. Tomorrow’s Tears
9. Beautiful Sadness
10. Hopes and Fears
11. Adoration

Curve: “Doppelganger” (1992)

Don’t be disturbed by the cover art (an assortment of mangled dolls), this album delivers. Toni Halliday (vocals) and Dean Garcia (bass, guitar, programming) led Curve from obscurity to the British top 40, with compressed guitars, danceable almost techno rhythms, and raw lyrics sung in an angelic voice. The musical arrangements seem to follow the stream of consciousness of the lyrics, as they loop around and around again, in a constant circle like the thoughts in the lyrics. Though they have been compared to Garbage, these comparisons belie a specific truth: Butch Vig formed Garbage after Curve established themselves in England. And when you listen to Curve songs that predate Garbage, such as “Horror Head,” you realize that Garbage is a water downed, pop version of the real thing.

Why is it a must? This album is sheer catharsis. I have yet to meet a Curve fan who has not intimated as much. The album has a way of getting you to let go, to tap your feet, to bob your head, to make you scream. The genius of Curve is the power they were able to pack into each and every song in their repertoire and “Doppelganger,” their debut album, demonstrates this ability right from the beginning.

Track Listing
1. Already Yours
2. Horror Head
3. Wish You Dead
4. Doppelganger
5. Lillies Dying
6. Ice That Melts the Tips
7. Split into Fractions
8. Think & Act
9. Fait Accompli
10. Sandpit
11. Clipped

Lush: “Spooky” (1992)

Lush hit the scene in the late 80s (their first official release is the “Scar EP,” October 1989). Their earlier music was categorized by ethereal guitars and harmonized vocals between Miki Berenyi (lead vocalist and rhythm guitar) and Emma Anderson (lead guitar and backing vocalist). Though they may have lacked some of the “rock” power of their shoegazer brethren, the power of their music came from creating a soundscape that was luxuriant and captivating. Unfortunately, Chris Acland (drummer) committed suicide in 1996, leading to the rest of the band disbanding.

Why is it a must? If you are a fan of subtlety, then Lush is for you. Their volatility was masked behind calm sounding guitar arrangements and chorus-esque vocals. However, they were able to shift moods and express anger with more maturity than the rest of the shoegazers. Furthermore, if you are a fan of sarcasm, then Lush is also for you – “Talk and insult me ‘til you’re blue in the face, you were right, I as wrong, now does that make you happy?”

Track listing:
1. Stray
2. Nothing Natural
3. Tiny Smiles
4. Covert
5. Ocean
6. For Love
7. Superblast!
8. Untogether
9. Fantasy
10. Take
11. Laura
12. Monochrome

Ride: “No Where”

“No Where” is considered by many the greatest and apex of all shoegazing albums. The funny thing is that from experience, most of the people I know who listen to Ride became fans after they broke up. At the height of their career, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were dominating the American airwaves, and audiences cast aside Ride’s sophisticated vocals, intricate guitar arrangements, and demur lyrics (From “Decay”: “Now this feeling’s so alive, but, as you or anything we die. We die.”) Arguably, they led the shoegazing genre till 1995, when they broke up. With a nu-shoegazing movement in the making and current indie, post punk revival artists stating shoegazing as an influence, the rumors of the members of Ride working together again have started to proliferate.

Why is it a must? If music could be beautiful, “No Where” would be the measuring rod. From the more rocking tracks (“Kaleidoscope” and “Taste”) to the symphonic tracks (“Paralyzed” and “Vapour Trail”), the music is well arranged, intricate where the lyrics demand it, harmonized with incredible vocals (rare in male vocals in rock these days), and energetic, even in the slowest tempo tracks. “No Where” demonstrated the potential for shoegazing as a genre.

Track listing
1. Seagull
2. Kaleidoscope
3. In a Different Place
4. Polar Bear
5. Dreams Burn Down
6. Decay
7. Paralysed
8. Vapour Trail
9. Taste
10. Here and Now
11. Nowhere