17 December 2011

Golden Gardens and The Living Arches

I could not let the year close out without writing about the last two releases by Golden Gardens. The first is a split four-track EP with songs by both Golden Gardens and The Living Arches. When I heard that they collaborated on an EP, I immediately remembered the phrase “the scene that celebrates itself.” Though the phrase was originally intended to be insulting, the reality is that it described one of the most fascinating aspects of shoegaze. The original shoegazers all had connections to one another, celebrating each other’s music. And that is what Golden Gardens and The Living Arches are doing now … collaborating on a project, celebrating their music. The second is an EP of covers. Any collection of covers is a tricky thing that usually fizzles down to clichés and silly attempts at covering a “hit” song. But Golden Gardens stayed true to form, assimilating these songs right into their repertoire with ease.

“The Living Arches/Golden Gardens Split” (24 September 2011)

I know little about The Living Arches (though I plan to educate myself thoroughly during the holidays), who offer up the first two tracks of the EP. Touted as “electrified-acoustica,” I could not have been happier with my introduction to this duo of Michael Hooker and Jensen Kistler, who hail from Tampa, Florida USA. Minimalist in approach (essentially guitar and vocals with some musical accents), these tracks are not bare in the visceral sense at all. From the allure of the guitar playing to the lusciousness of the vocal arrangements, these two tracks are enrapturing. “Our time is limited,” are the first words of “500 Years,” the first track of the collection. Folk meets dirge, with an incredible pop sensibility, this is one of those heart-tugging tracks you will hit repeat on various times. The bluesy “The Serpent and the Bird” has one of the most interesting vocal harmonies. It just has this ability to make you listen to every word, as their singing accents exactly what they want you focus in on.

(The Living Arches’ “500 Years” from Golden Gardens’ Bandcamp.)

The last half consists of the two Golden Gardens’ tracks, “In the Rosebuds” and “An Apparition.” If ever Golden Gardens mixed the same amount of dream pop and shoegaze into one track, it is “In the Rosebuds” – wispy and distorted, layered and ethereal, what I really like about this track is how classic dream pop/shoegaze it sounds. The final track on the EP is “An Apparition.” Just like Cocteau Twins and The Cranes, these vocals are more than just conduits for lyrical expression; they are intricately woven into the musical arrangements, like another layer of music. Though ethereal, Golden Garden manages to “darken” the mood with this track, bringing them closer to their post-punk influences.

Track Listing
1. 500 Years – The Living Arches
2. The Serpent and the Bird – The Living Arches
3. In the Rosebuds – Golden Gardens
4. An Apparition – Golden Gardens

“The Covers” (9 December 2011)

As I said above, covering a song is a tricky thing. When I think about collections of cover songs, I immediately think of two collections that have become the measuring rod for all cover collections in my book. The first is Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Through the Looking Glass” (1987). With some completely unexpected songs (for example, “Strange Fruit” and “Trust in Me”), what makes this an incredible collection is how the band was able to at once expand their sonic repertoire and eerily “own” the songs. The second is Annie Lennox’s “Medusa” (1995). Lennox proved that one of the reasons to cover music is to save a song from obscurity (for example, “No More I Love You’s”). (I have always imagined that the meaning behind the album has to do with the fact that mythological Medusa transmutes people into other (stone) versions of themselves, just has she has transmuted those songs.)

The first cover of this collection is of The Creepshow’s “The Garden” – gone are the tinges of rockabilly, as well as the upbeat tempo and all that goes with it. Golden Gardens transmute this song into a minimalist dream pop faire that is elegantly haunting. The second cover is of Morrissey’s “The Loop” (one of the last songs by Morrissey I thought anyone would cover!). The opening of the cover is reminiscent of the opening of The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now,” but then the intact lead guitar arrangement is juxtaposed to an ambient key background and vocals that could not be more disparate from Morrissey’s. It is this juxtaposition that really brings out a new dimension to the song that could not have been imagined from the original. And if “The Loop” was a curve ball, then the third cover of Red House of Painters’ “Summer Dress” is surreal! Never in a million years would I have thought of Golden Gardens covering this track, which they really interpreted á la post-punk – down to the early Simon Gallup-esque bass sound.

Golden Gardens then ambitiously goes for Tears For Fear’s “Pale Shelter” on the fourth track. I have always thought that Tears For Fears should have explored their new wave and post-punk influences, which they forsook after their debut album. Golden Gardens concentrates on the mournful, ambient aspects of this song that Tears For Fears did not. The fifth track is a cover of Hole’s “Violet.” Like the first track, their interpretation forgoes the upbeat tempo (and angst). Golden Garden’s interpretation is much more pensive and reflective, loaning itself to deeper introspection than the original. The final cover is of Julee Cruise’s “Into the Night,” a song that I have not thought about in more years than I care to admit. This is homage to dream pop! In many ways true to the original version, but more ethereal, the vocal arrangements are sung in tandem with the musical arrangements, as opposed to above them as in the original.

Do Golden Gardens pick at least one unexpected song? Check. Do they own these covers? Check. Do they save at least one song from obscurity? Check. “The Covers” is an excellent cover album, which meets with all of my personal expectations for cover collections. I for one am really happy that the band did not tread down the road of clichés; not that I have anything against anyone covering Cocteau Twins, but that would have been too easy! They engaged music that was not in their realm of references, continued to keep dream pop and shoegaze alive, while simultaneously paying homage to the past and pushing the classic form a bit further – and these two releases are just further reasons to delve into the world of Golden Gardens.

(Golden Gardens’ cover of Red House Painters’ “Summer Dress” from the Golden Gardens Bandcamp page.)

Track Listing:
1. The Garden
2. The Loop
3. Summer Dress
4. Pale Shelter
5. Violet
6. Into the Night

Keep up with The Living Arches at their Tumblr and Facebook. Head over to their Bandcamp page where you can keep track of future releases.

Keep up with Golden Garden at their homepage, Facebook, and Twitter. Head over to their Bandcamp page where you can check out both of these EPs and the rest of their discography.

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