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Saturday, March 26, 2005
Artist Overview: The Verve
The Verve was one of the shining beacons of British Rock in the 90's, at a time when many American rock fans had stopped tuning in to England. Innovative, experimental, spacy, shimmering, rocking, and even funky at times, they were a band perpetually on the verge of a breakthrough. They never quite fulfilled their promise commercially, and a number of bad breaks and internal strife ultimately scuttled their momentum and broke them up.
Their legacy is three albums, plus a fourth collection of non-album singles and b-sides; only one album, Urban Hymns, charted in America. This may seem an insignificant output, but the breadth of their work over that short span is breathtaking; they progressed from a shoegaze band to a space-rock band to ultimately a tasteful, layered rock fomalism, with electronica touches. All of their output yields up rewards on first listen; anyone who missed them the first time ought to give them a try.
Verve (no "the" at first) formed in 1989 in northern England. The original lineup consisted of charismatic frontman Richard Ashcroft, guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones, and drummer Peter Salisbury. Their musical tastes were wide and varied; Beatles and Stones, German rock, even Funkadelic. They were also known for a voracious appetite for hallucinogens, through which these influences were filtered.
The band's first releases in 1992 were indie singles that were underground hits in England; "All In The Mind" "She's A Superstar" "Gravity Grave" established their identity and initial sound; their focal points became the interplay between Ashcroft's plaintive singing and McCabe's rippling and swirling guitar. They quickly established a devoted cult audience, although they received very little airplay. Their first EP, The Verve, which collected some of their singles, was released in November, 1992. The 10-minute closer, "Feel" pointed in the direction of things to come. While these songs don't reach the ethereal heights their later work would, it is a solid and promising collection.
Verve's first album proper, A Storm In Heaven, appeared in 1993. It is an epic, sweeping, tremendously inventive debut. Quite unlike anything happening in America at the time (1993 was year of the grunge band), the album featured extended psychedelic passages interspersed with blusters of melody and propulsion. "Sun, the Sea" is built around a molten metallic riff bathed in feedback and reverb that ebbs and flows as Ashcroft wails, and breaks for a saxophone, of all things. "Slide Away" takes the listener through a series of atmospheres, with Ashcroft's bad buzz vocals, Jones' liquid bass, and McCabe's aggressive guitar providing forward momentum. "Make It Till Monday" is a psychedelic echo, with tape manipulation and atmospheric guitar washes. "Blue" and "Butterfly" demonstrate a growing pop sense, and "Star Sail" is a great, moody album opener, with fuzzed up guitar moans and drifting, hazy vocals. It's one of the best debut albums of the 90's, and one of the most enduring.
This should have poised Verve for massive success, but things didn't play out that way. The album gained plenty of praise, but it didn't translate into big sales. In 1994, the band was a second-stager at Lollapalooza. Their tour didn't do well; Ashcroft was hospitalized with extreme dehydration, and Salisbury smashed up a hotel room in Kansas, landing him in jail.
The band was also sued by Verve Records for using the name Verve; the band was forced to add "The" to their moniker.
No Come Down, a compilation of their pre-A Storm In Heaven singles and b-sides was assembled and released to coincide with the Lollapalooza tour, but failed to sell many copies. For the collector, it has its uses, while some titles overlap with their first EP, the versions here are live or substantially remixed. The album features acoustic versions of "Butterfly" and "Make It Till Monday" from the debut, and a compelling 13-minute live "Gravity Grave" from Glastonbury '93, already displaying considerable progression from the year prior.
The 1995 sessions for A Northern Soul, were by all accounts difficult ones. The band (self-admittedly) was ingesting massive amounts of ecstasy during the recording, their 1994 experiences had been a disappointment, and Ashcroft and McCabe were beginning to butt heads. When the album failed to generate sales or media interest, Ashcroft split; and the band temporarily disbanded.
Their frustration is understandable, A Northern Soul (1995) is a fine follow-up to the debut, showing real growth and evolution. It's a darker album than its predecessor, intense and emotional; Ashcroft often intoning his pessimistic lyrics through the swirling, smoky haze of McCabe's guitar. The band's songs are tighter and more focused, but no less ambitious in their desperate psychedelica. "New Decade" is a fine album opener, layered, textured, aggressive and alienated. "On Your Own" eschews the noise for a quiter, cleaner, melodic acoustic base. "So It Goes" is laden with chiming, fuzzified guitar and Ashcroft's elegiac vocals. This is music with an enormous world-weary sadness to it, yet a majestic beauty as well; at its best moments it is literally spine-chilling.
Things didn't look good at this point, but Ashcroft had a change of heart after breaking up the band, and set about reassembling it. McCabe, whose relationship with Ashcroft had turned rancorous, initially refused to come back, and was replaced by guitarist/keyboardist Simon Tong. He eventually did return, in early 1997, and the band continued as a quintet.
Their resulting album, Urban Hymns, released by Virgin in 1997, was their big breakthrough at last. It's tempting to call it their masterpiece, yet all three of their albums could stake claim to that title. Most of the songs were originally planned for an Ashcroft solo album, but the album is the work of a full band at the height of its power. They don't sound any happier; but their soundscapes take on a lushness and clarity they hadn't had on the prior recordings. "Bittersweet Symphony" an achingly gorgeous, melancholic tune wrapped around a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time", is the smash hit they always seemed to have lurking inside of them; it crossed over many radio formats, and made it to #12 in America. The pleasures don't stop there; "Lucky Man" is an elegant, stately song with some of Ashcroft's very best lyrics and singing, and McCabe's shimmering guitar crackling and soaring. The touching "The Drugs Don't Work" was their first #1 in England as well, and the enormous "Come On" manages to be hypnotic and propulsive simultanously, no small feat that was the essence of this unique band.
It would be great to report that the band took this breakthrough and ran with it, re-shaping the sonic environment of the 00's with groundbreaking work. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Finally recognized internationally following the across-the-board success of "Bittersweet Symphony" the band suffered the indignity of being sued by ABKCO records, copyright holders of the Rolling Stones' early catalogue. The Verve were forced to forfeit 100% of their songwriting royalties from the song to the Rolling Stones, despite the fact that very few people could identify the orchestral riff at the heart of the song.
Then, during a 1998 tour in support of the album, McCabe and Ashcroft found themselves at odds again, and McCabe walked out. For months their fans subsisted on rumors and hope, but in 1999 it was made official: The Verve was no more.
Ashcroft has since released two solo albums for Virgin; Alone With Everybody (2000) and Human Conditions (2002). Both are pretty good listening; Ashcroft remains a shamanic hero. Still, one can't help wondering what might have been, if only things had gone a little differently.