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Sunday, May 29, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine's moment was a very brief one, lasting about three years, largely under the radar of the mainstream. Their reputation rests primarily on two albums, Isn't Anything and Loveless, the latter work a masterpiece they never released a follow-up to.
They occupy a remarkably key position in the rock pantheon, however. As major explorers of sonic dissonance and the use of noise in music, they were a crucial extension of experiments that had occupied the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and Jesus and Mary Chain. My Bloody Valentine became the vanguard shoegaze band, but this distinction diminishes them. They also reshaped the entire noise-pop universe and helped influence the space-rock genre of the 90's. And then they were gone, practically without a trace.
Within their own sound they borrowed the lilting, ethereal vocals of the dream-pop Cocteau Twins and buried them under vast layers of noise and distortion, creating sonic dissonance with a majestic sound, undercut with a vague, elusive melancholy. Often their music had the otherworldly beauty good dream-pop provides; with layered, textured, processed, filtered guitar providing the ambience.
Their closest cousins were Jesus and Mary Chain, who sounded primitive and abrasive in comparison. All of this they fit into what ordinarily were easy-to-digest 3-minute songs, even if the songs themselves lacked any remote pretense at standard pop structure. What set them apart from other noise maestros is that they demonstrated that noise was something that went somewhere, not the end in itself. They struck an unusually emotional response in the hearts of their fans, few of whom are reticient about singing the band's praises.
Guitarist Kevin Shields was the band leader. Born May 23, 1963 in Queens New York, he and his family moved to Dublin, Ireland, when he was six years old. In 1983, after an uneventful teenagedom that included absorbing the music of the postpunk era, Shields got together with childhood friend and drummer Colm O'Ciosoig in a band called The Complex. Another schoolfriend of Shields' had been Liam O' Maonlai, who would go on to form Hothouse Flowers; O'Ciosoig had drummed with Maonlai as well. In 1984, Shields and O'Ciosoig were joined by vocalist Dave Conway and keyboardist Tina (who used no surname), and renamed themselves My Bloody Valentine, taking their name from a low-budget horror film.
They played some well regarded gigs in Dublin before taking the unusual route of relocating to Berlin in late 1984. Thir first release, the EP This Is Your Bloody Valentine appeared in 1985 on the Tycoon label. The EP drew very little notice; the band still remained unknown in England and most everywhere else. The EP is a premature offering; derivative of the gothic post-punk of The Birthday Party and the Cramps, it doesn't offer any clues to the directions the band would ultimately take. After subsequent gigs failed to scare up more interest, the band left Berlin, and settled in London.
In London, the band added bassist Debbie Googe to the lineup and recorded another EP, Geek! on Fever records in 1986. Geek! is also in a Birthday Party/Cramps vein. Like its predecessor, there wasn't anything particularly inspired about the recording; it sounds like the premature release of a second-tier goth group in its clumsy, formative stages. A more noteworthy release of the same time was Psychocandy by Jesus and Mary Chain, an album that blended the pop of the Beach Boys with the amped-up feedback of Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. Shields and the band apparantly wre profoundly affected by this album's appearance.
This new influence is evident right away in the third EP from My Bloody Valentine, The New Record by My Bloody Valentine, released on Kaleidoscope Sound records at the end of 1986. Gone is the overt goth posturings of the first two EP's; in its place is a newfound 60's pop melodicism, undercut with buzzsaw guitars. This EP is still far removed from the My Bloody Valentine sound, but it reveals the first steps in that direction; the noise-pop here seems received, but it also lends their music intrinsic interest for the first time. Vocalist Dave Conway's histrionics border on camp in places, but the foundation being laid by the musicians here lend this an historical value.
Also evident on that transitional EP was the influence of noise-pop trio the Primitives, fronted by Tracy Tracy. My Bloody Valentine's next EP appeared in 1987 on the Primitives' own label, Lazy records. At Lazy, My Bloody Valentine found an artistically nurturing environment, and in a bluster of activity, released two EP's, Sunny Sundae Smile and Strawberry Wine, and a mini-album, Ecstasy. Each of this series of releases is something of a development beyond the previous ones, as the band's new, noisy feedback experiments began to be reigned under control, and given shape. A bubblegum-esque airy melodicism is fully evident on Sunny Sundae Smile, lightening the dark shadows that had murked the band's music since their goth days.
This lightening of overall sound coupled with a more finely honed approach to the free form noise gave the band a similar career trajectory and listenability as Sonic Youth; by the time Ecstasy was released, the band had accumulated a sizable audience, and a growing buzz in the music press. The only thing that seemed out of place was vocalist Conway, whose stylings took attention away from the sonics, and was beginning to sound misplaced. At the end of 1987, Conway left the band and was replaced by vocalist/guitarist Bilinda Butcher, whose breathy vocals were the perfect foil for the reverb-laden roiling guitar experiments from Shields.
Butcher's arrival seemed to signal a complete reappraisal of sound from top to bottom, and My Bloody Valentine's sound underwent another major transformation. The band changed labels, and set up with Creation. It was with Creation in 1988 that the My Bloody Valentine legend really begins. Shields had developed into a studio perfectionist, making the most of his resources at Lazy, and using the studio as a primary componant of his sound. At Creation, with a better budget and better equipment, his studio mastery came to the fore. Two singles accompanied their first full-length album release in 1988; You Made Me Realise and Feed Me With Your Kiss. These singles were lauded by the British music press, who had finally caught up with the band and discovered their droning, swirling dreamscapes. Butcher's detached, soothing vocals were the magic missing ingredient; My Bloody Valentine became the beneficiaries of an enormous amount of press hype.
The new band lineup gelled perfectly, and despite Shields' reliance on the studio, the band also developed a reputation as an excellent live act, despite the fact that they barely moved while onstage, and did not look towards the audience or engage in stage patter. This intoverted reticent style of perfomance was dubbed "shoegazing" by the music press, and shoegaze came to describe the new noise-pop that accompanied it. Once the name had been coined, dozens of bands were pigeonholed with it or aspired to it. Rising to prominance in the shoegaze movement just as My Bloody Valentine delivered the goods were bands like Ride, Lush, the Boo Radleys, Chapterhouse, and Slowdive. Shoegaze, thanks to the hype machine, became enormous for about two years, rivaling Madchester for attention; both would fizzle within three years, but would leave long shadows.
Isn't Anything appeared at the end of 1988 amid much clamor; the shoegaze scene was only beginning to gather steam, and My Bloody Valentine were at the forefront. The album gave face to the movement, and was something of a sensation, earning almost universal positive notice. It is here that the signature sound of My Bloody Valentine came into its own as the genre defining creation it was. "Feed Me With Your Kiss" one of the singles, is a statement of purpose; the mixed gender vocals blending with the multilayered guitar and metallic rhythm section into a sound that isn't aggressive, despite its fury. "All I Need" is given a light airiness that displays the subversive pop sense the band purposely inverted and submerged in haze. There is evidence of live band dynamics in "Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)", with Deb Googe's funky bassline, and "You Never Should" displays Shield's tremelo and unconventional tuning. Butcher shines on the album, sexy on "Several Girls Galore", where her vocals are barely a whisper over the din, and on "Sueisfine" the lyric gradually transforms from "Sue is fine" to "Suicide" demonstrating the band's darker side, present since the goth days. On the whole, it is a remarkable album, one that spurred any number of imitators and yet towers over those imitators. For many bands, this would be considered a career achievement.
The attention the band was getting was not lost on American record companies, and Warner Brothers/Sire signed them to an American deal in 1989.
The band raised a few eyebrows by eschewing major touring at this critical juncture in favor of returing to the recording studio. When a year had passed without any new releases, as other shoegaze bands were gaining notoriety, speculation began to center on Shields' studio prefectionalism. Rumors began to circulate in the U.K. press that the follow-up was delayed by obsessive remixing and re-overdubbing. A stopgap EP, Glider, was released at the end of the year. It was a tantalizing glimpse into the state of the band, which sounded better and better, particularly on the title track and "Soon", which are among the band's best works. But is was a skimpy offering that left the fans hungry.
1990 came and went and still no My Bloody Valentine album appeared. It was a situation that was doing Creation records no good; the small label was footing the bill for the sessions, and were without significant product for almost two years. Pressure was put on Shields to get the job done; in the meantime, another token EP was released, Tremolo at the start of 1991, culled from the neverending sessions. By this point, interest in the mysterious band had grown large enough to push the EP into the top-40 in England. "To Here Knows When" was the first track released from the upcoming album, lush and abstract; with a density surpassing the material on Isn't Anything. The remaining three cuts were also noteworthy glimpses into what the album would provide, although none are included and are on a more modest scale than anything on the finished album.
And what an album it was; Loveless, released at last in 1991, proved to be worth the wait, lived up to its hype, and justified Shields' obsessiveness, which seemed to be bordering on Brian Wilson's. It is a masterpiece, one of the best albums of the 1990's in any genre, and easily one of the most influential. The cover art is an almost perfect approximation of the sounds contained therein. The unquestionably excellent Isn't Anything sounds barebones and simplistic in comparison; Loveless blossoms with a sensual trippiness, suggesting a druggy, seductive ambience without slipping into murky psychedelia. "Come In Alone" sounds like an invitation to paradise, even as Butcher's vocals seem faintly elegiac and regretful, "Only Shallow" is arresting from the very first warped note, "Touched" is reminiscent of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno's earlier sound experiments, "Loomer" is lush and inviting, "Blown A Wish" is breathy and alluring. Underneath, the guitars shimmer and ripple and reflect light, the bass is heavy and boosted up in the mix, O'Ciosoig uses the drums for almost anything other than keeping a simple beat. The songs warp, morph, transmogrify, ebb and flow. It would be impossible to name all the noise pop, space rock, dream pop, and shoegaze bands that have borrowed cues from this album; it's essential listening for any serious 90's rock fan. The album peaked at #24 in England; the band's best showing, and one of the best showings for a shoegaze band. "Only Shallow" got significant airplay in America, where the band toured in support of Dinosaur, Jr. Unfortunately for Creation records, however, the band failed to sell enough copies of their album to recoup the studio costs, which reportedly exceeded half a million dollars. Creation would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy for three years before they'd be rescued by the success of Oasis.
With Creation unable to support the band and Shields' expensive production, My Bloody Valentine signed with Island records in 1992. At the end of the year, work commenced on a follow-up to Loveless.
The world is still waiting for that follow-up and it seems unlikely it will ever materialize. My Bloody Valentine has never released another album or EP.
There were some signs of activity for awhile; the group chipped in a song to a charity compilation. Shields took his studio advance and built a home studio. He is reported to have recorded two albums worth of material, but none has appeared. While Shields remained cloistered in his studio, recording music nobody would ever hear, Googe and O'Ciosoig apparantly grew tired of waiting, and left the band, leaving only Butcher and Shields. O'Ciosoig has since worked with Hope Sandoval (ex-Mazzy Star). Googe resorted to driving a taxi for a year before forming the band Snowpony in 1996. Also in 1996, My Bloody Valentine released a song for a Wire tribute album, but no more material appeared. By this point, there was no shoegaze movement anymore; all of the original shoegaze bands had broken up or changed their sound radically. It's tempting to speculate if the scene would have tunred out differently if My Bloody Valentine had managed to remain active.
In 1996 Experimental Audio Research, a project of ex-Spacemen 3 singer/guitarist Sonic Boom, released an album, Beyond the Pale, which features Shields on a pair of tracks. However, it was recorded in 1992. He has since done some production and guitar work for Primal Scream; he remains a fairly enigmatic, obsessive artist. His enduring legacy remains the pair of albums he recorded and engineered with My Bloody Valentine.
Listen to My Bloody Valentine: Only Shallow (1991)