I have been thinking about this one for a while. Ever since I wrote about shoegaze, I wondered if in fact I should have written about dream pop first. Furthermore, I added more pressure on myself by sharing my ideas (originally about mainstream) with a colleague of mine who is most definitely one of the smartest and observant individuals I have ever met. “Dream pop” came up in one of our conversations, and I really started thinking about the entire idea of this post, especially when she asked me in that academic tone, “Well, how would you define dream pop?” I felt sixteen again, which was good, because it was about then that I discovered dream pop. If ever there was a perfect name of any genre in music, it is “dream pop.” Associated with the post-punk movements in England and Scotland, and bringing many incredible female vocalists to the forefront of some of the most influential and innovative bands, dream pop saw the incorporation of ethereal elements into the musical arrangements and vocal styles. And just as the post-punk rockers before them, in the pre-“alternative” label era, dream pop musicians were hard to define and continued to evolve. And like shoegaze (which is the offspring of dream pop), musicians in this genre are typically associated with more than one genre. The funny thing is that though early on these musicians were British, and the label was coined in the United Kingdom (“Melody Maker” asserts claim to this), but the term was more frequently used in the United States to define this breed of musicians.
Like its offspring, shoegaze, it would be really hard to really point out a definitive, universal sound or quality that all dream pop artists share. And it would be impossible to point out five albums that sum up the entire range of music, which is not my intention. If anything, this is a starting point to start delving into this genre, this mentality and approach to writing music. Essentially born out of the post-punk movement, that rejected the complacency and regurgitation of the style of the punk rockers, dream pop artists took the broody, heady, and introspective music of the post-punk rockers (especially the more “gothy” ones) and added the ethereal, dream-like elements to their music. It is cinematic really; picture it this way… a character on the screen is about to have a dream sequence, but the dream is not just going to be profound, it will be surreal – how would you score it? Some of these musicians went completely ethereal in an airy way, with breathy vocal and highly effected guitars and keyboards, echoing throughout the background. Others did not go dreamy, but rather nightmarish: dark, breathy vocals, acoustic elements, and devoid of any wispy elements.
Like with shoegaze, I have always thought that the best way to define this movement is by its listeners. Because of the vastness of sounds within this genre, which expanded to electronic musicians, there seems to be only one substantial common element: their audience. If you have a Cocteau Twins album, you probably own Mazzy Star, Slowdive, and Spiritualized. In that sense, like the music of the original goth rockers, there is a cohesion that goes beyond the sonic experience. There are artistic, cultural, and social ideas at play – especially for women. Rock (and most of its subgenres) has always favored male dominance. The 90s would really solidify this with the male dominated Britpop and testosterone-driven grunge. Dream pop allowed and continues to allow many musicians, including women, to shape and influence the idea and range of “rock ‘n roll” away from the traditional ideas of male dominated compositions and attitudes. Even the men involved in dream pop (just like those involved in shoegaze, synthpop, and post-punk) reject that masculine bravado and equipment-smashing antics that categorized much of 90s rock mentality. (Sure Britpop musicians were distinct from grunge, but even when cataloguing Britpop people often list Blur, Inspiral Carpets, Oasis, Pulp, and Suede, but not always Echobelly and Sleeper, female fronted acts.) And though most of dream pop would exist right below the level of mainstream, its influence has been felt in virtually every genre of music.
What I have always personally been attracted to is the sophistication of the music. Whether it is the classical elements of the Cranes, the bombastic distortions of Curve, the precise guitar playing of Lush, or the vocal arrangements of Ride, dream pop artists are always trying to bring their game up one notch above the rest of the field, while always hitting you hard with visceral power. (I previously wrote about these four bands in “Five Shoegaze Albums” (link). But as I said above, these artists tended to be part of more than one musical scene, so check them out as well.)
So here is a great starting point – five amazing albums that might get you interested in dream pop. The selection spans back over twenty-five years, and I have lived with some of them that long. Hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
Elysian Fields: “Bleed Your Cedar” (1996)
I remember the thrill and excitement I had when I first listened to Elysian Fields. Not your typical dream pop band, as they are a bit more “earthy” than their brethrens, they gained my complete respect when their second album was not released! Hailing from New York City, Radioactive/Universal wanted them to rework their second album (produced by Steve Albini, known for his work with Nirvana). The label wanted a more commercial, mainstream feel, but the band put it all on the line. They would not rework the album; they parted ways with the label, and ran the risk of never releasing music again. But this is a story of artistic integrity beating corporate commercialism: Elysian Fields would go on to release various albums (the most recent in 2009 (link)) and they alone dictate how the band’s future unfurls. Typical of New Yorkers, Jennifer Charles and Oren Bloedow (the creative heart of the band) do things their way, on their terms, with little consideration of what other artists or labels are doing. And what they continue to create is amazingly visceral music that challenges not only what you expect from veterans, but also from other dream pop musicians.
Why is it a must? I recently described “Bleed Your Cedar” as the soundtrack of my nightmares from when I was in my early 20s. “It’s been seven years now, living in this box, closed in on all sides, no light, just dark. He kept me under the bed, I’d pray for it to stop; he’d lock me safely away, and lie on top. Pop the latches, open the hatches, out comes Jack in the box” (“Jack in the Box”). This is a band that has the ability to capture your inner most anxieties and despair; they can translate that feeling of claustrophobia we feel quite often in our lives into an eerie, nightmare-inducing lullaby. Sonically the antithesis of “Jack in the Box” would be “Mermaid.” Charles breathy singing, Bloedow on an acoustic guitar, the song metaphorically narrates the reality of being tangled in life and not having what you most desire (“soon as you see me I’m gone”). The song truly captures the band at their best: there is no need for bells and whistles, just the solid craftsmanship of two musicians who can generate simple, awe-inspiring, emotionally loaded, infectious music.
1. Lady in the Lake
2. Jack in the Box
3. Off Or Out
4. Fountains On Fire
6. Anything You Like
7. Sugarplum Arches
9. Gracie Lyons
Keep up with Elysian Fields at their homepage and MySpace.
The Sundays: “Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic” (1990)
Hailing from London, England, by 1989 The Sundays were hailed as the next Smiths, even though they had yet to release an album! And though the comparison is truly an honor, in many ways it undermines what The Sundays have to offer. Unlike The Smiths, the sarcasm is held in check with The Sundays, and when getting introspective, their isn’t that gloom and doom feeling that The Smiths could generate easily (think “I Know It’s Over”). Formed after Harriet Wheeler (vocalist) and David Gavurin (guitarist) met, they would start composing music, though having little or no formal background in music. Perhaps that is a fact that was to their advantage, as they were able to avoid the clichés of their contemporaries. The band would release three albums before going on a hiatus (since 1997) with the occasional rumor that the band is regrouping, what The Sundays leaves behind is a legacy that tightly written songs, straightforward lyrics, and introspection without disparity can be powerful and beautiful. And that last word – beautiful – is the perfect adjective for their music.
Why is it a must? “Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic” is the debut album by The Sundays, and just as the title implies something basic (the basic aims and skills of education), the album itself is very basic, elemental. Furthermore, this is one of those exciting dream pop albums that are not affected by the traditional post-punk broody mentality. Instead, it is upbeat, straightforward, and often lyrically deceptive. Just take their second single, “Here’s Where the Story Ends.” Tight rhythm section and a beautifully strummed acoustic guitar, and a general upbeat feel, Wheeler sings, “It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year, which makes my eyes feel sore… Crazy I know, places I go make feel so tired, I can see how people look down. I’m on the outside, oh here’s where the story ends.” Though she never reveals how the story ends, you can only imagine the horrific “surprise, surprise, surprise” she refers to. And though not overtly political, The Sundays had no problems taking some swipes at society in general: “Give me a story and give me a bed, give me possession, oh love luck and money, they go to my head like wildfire. It’s good to have something to live for you’ll find; live for tomorrow, live for a job and a perfect behind, high time, England my country the home of the free. Such miserable weather, but England’s as happy as England can be, why cry?” (first verse of “Can’t Be Sure”). How miserable it must be to live for a job (as opposed to working to live)? How miserable an existence when it is all about money and possessions and having a fine ass (“behind’)? The constant façade of happiness is all over England (or any nation really), while people are crying. Can’t be sure why? Because life like that is miserable.
1. Skins & Bones
2. Here’s Where the Story Ends
3. Can’t Be Sure
4. I Won
5. Hideous Towns
6. You’re Not the Only One I Know
7. A Certain Someone
8. I Kicked a Boy
9. My Finest Hour
Keep up with The Sundays at their/Harriet Wheeler’s MySpace.
Here are their videos for “Can’t Be Sure” and “Here’s Where the Story Ends” from TheSundaysVEVO YouTube Channel.
Mazzy Star: “So Tonight That I May See” (1993)
The brainchild of David Roback (guitarist) and Hope Sandoval (vocalist), Mazzy Star formed in Santa Monica in 1989. They rejected the common trends found in the late 80s and 90s on the West Coast (especially grunge), and instead treaded through the realm of dream pop, shoegazing, and psychedelic rock, with elements of folk infused right in. Along side the other “Paisley Underground” bands of Los Angeles (those who rejected violence and hardcore proliferation in the Los Angeles rock scene), Mazzy Star capitalized on soothing melodies, slow to mid-tempos, and the interplay between acoustic and electric sounds. One of the standout features of this band is Hope Sandoval. Unfortunately, though audiences may be multicultural and multiracial, the music industry does continue the stereotype of releasing material by Anglo-American musicians; Hope Sandoval, however, is of Mexican descent. And she can rock with the best of them. And though she and the other members of the band are busy with solo and side projects, the band has not disbanded and plans to release a fourth album; it will be their first since 1996.
Why is this a must? At least in the USA, “Fade into You” may very well be the biggest dream pop hit, hitting #3 of Billboard’s Modern Rock and #44 of single’s chart. Dreary, bluesy, and ethereal, wispy vocals, you really do not expect the blighted view of relationships: “I want to hold the hand inside of you, I want to take a breath that’s true. I look to you and I see nothing, I look to you to see the truth.” Then there is “She’s My Baby” – laced with echoes and feedback looping in the background. The story is open for interpretation, but I have always seen it as the story of a mother having to realize that her child no longer belongs to her, but the world or another more specifically. The titular closing track is of epic proportions (at almost seven-and-a-half), and everyone knows how I love epic songs. The song never explodes, never gains momentum, but stays at dirge pace. The feedback will fill the background, the intensity will overwhelm some, but the song never explodes. Highly poetic (“Searching like the fresh goes by small like wind refuse to die, free me now so I can see the taste of wind who lock me”), the song sports out some of the best psychedelic music of the 90s.
1. Fade into You
2. Bells Ring
3. Mary of Silence
4. Five String Serenade
5. Blue Light
6. She’s My Baby
9. Into Dust
10. So Tonight I Might See
Keep up with Mazzy Star at their MySpace.
Here is the link for their video for “Fade into You” from the emiamericarecords YouTube Channel.
The Chameleons: “Strange Times” (1986)
Hailing form Middleton, UK (near Manchester), The Chameleons (The Chameleons UK in the USA) started in the thick of the post-punk movement in 1981. They are one of the dream pop bands that sport a male vocalist. With a vocal style somewhere between breathy and like Jaz Coleman’s [Killing Joke], the band dregs through dark lyrics, universal nightmares, and alternate between ethereal and post-punkish soundscapes. And though they are typically lesser known than their heavy hitting contemporaries (Cocteau Twins, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Siouxsie and the Banshees), their influence on music should not be ignored: Clan of Xymox, Interpol, Editors, and White Lies. Disbanding in 1987, but reforming for a short reunion from 2000-2003, The Chameleons is one of the few bands whose legacy is greater than their output. By 1987, they clenched their position in English and world musical history.
Why is it a must? I have two words for you: “Swamp Thing.” That alone is a reason to make the investment. The song is pure atmosphere, like the seeping moments before entering a nightmare. “When the world is too much with me, please leave, just go away before I lose my mind completely.” An eerie, ironic song of imageries of despair, anxiety, and anthropophobia, with jangle guitar playing (in the arpeggios), the song also employs that out of leftfield stream of consciousness of post-punk: “When the light of life has gone, no change for the meter, then the king of spivs will come selling blood by the liter.” Then there are the two versions of “Tears.” Version one: acoustic guitar playing over an ethereal soundscape, the song reminisces about the days of when “we were younger.” The song is really the pondering of those who are younger, ready to break into full adulthood, to take responsibility for themselves: “In the real world, how will it be? In a cold world, how will it be? In a lonely world – beg and crawl – how will it be? Will the ghosts just stop following me?” Version two: rocking, with little ethereal in the background. Arabesque, dual melody guitar playing, the song is just as haunting as version one. (By the way, buy the UK or German version of the albums on CD, as you will get all the tracks that way.) Side note: I still have my vinyl of this album! It does not have a B-side, per se; it has an A and a A+ side!
1. Mad Jack
3. Tears, original arrangement
4. Soul in Isolation
5. Swamp Thing
6. Time the End of Time
8. In Answer
10. I’ll Remember
11. Tears, full arrangement
13. Inside Out
14. Ever After, not on the American CD
15. John, I’m Only Dancing, Bowie cover
16. Tomorrow Never Knows, Beatles cover
Keep up with The Chameleons at their homepage and MySpace.
Cocteau Twins: “Treasure” (1984)
As I have said countless times, Cocteau Twins (hailing from Grangemouth, Scotland) were pioneers of post-punk and would help to define the dream pop sound movement. Influenced by The Birthday Party, Kate Bush, Joy Division, Sex Pistols, and Soiuxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins can easily be said to be the original leaders of dream pop. Defining what it would mean to sing in a breathy way, Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and vocal style (puit a beul – a style that favors the rhythm of what is being song over the actual words) would go on to influence a generation of British female vocalists. So much of the melody surrounds her voice – especially when she is just making “sounds” and not mouthing words. And if you want a legacy, look at every band they inspired; here is a very short list: Bel Canto, Bjork, The Cranes, Curve, Kitchens of Distinction, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Ocean Blue, Sigur Rós, Smashing Pumpkins, and The Sundays. And though they officially disbanded in 1997, their music continues to influence younger artists and hopes continue to abound that they will reform to add another chapter to their legacy.
Why is it a must? “Treasure” would solidify the core of their line-up for the rest of Cocteau Twin’s career. The album was influenced by the writing of French poet Gérard de Nerval, a surrealist writer whose “Les Filles du feu” (“Girls on Fire”) was written as an attempt to prove his sanity while in an asylum! Like the writing of Nerval, “Treasure” is highly refined. The luscious layers of musical arrangements, the vocals of Fraser, and the rhythm sections all conspire for one effect: to create a dream-like sequence in the soundscape. And even though there is much staccato in the playing, it never feels foreign or out of sort. One of my favorite tracks of all time is on this album: “Lorelei.” Surrealist in sound, dreamy in feel, Fraser’s vocals at once sooths you and yet forces you to think – as you try to decipher what she is singing. And once you do, you find yourself scratching your head: “Get off the car, kick his chain, kick his pride, get him soaked… hit… run. Lift up your toes, in my mouth, and we can make love, and we can go…. We’re covered by the sacred fire. When you come to me, you come to me broke.” Also on the album is the more gothic sounding “Amelia”: “Who’ve been wounded, who should wound her? Heart on the grasp, who but who put on the heart.” And if you are thinking, “What the hell does all of this means?” then Cocteau Twins succeeded. “Treasure,” like the rest of their catalogue, is meant to make you think, not just accept music passively. The point has always been to challenge notions of mainstream music, as well as that of the punk, post-punk, goth, and fellow dream pop rockers. And as you find yourself thinking – disturbed! – but transported away by the music, realize that Cocteau Twins have succeeded in their objective, and this is the reason they are not just a band, but a musical institution, and “Treasure” proves that.
5. Pandora (For Cindy)
Keep up with Cocteau Twins news at their homepage, their 4AD page, and MySpcae.