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Wed February 6, 2013
Listening To My Bloody Valentine Three Ways
Originally published on Tue February 26, 2013 3:29 pm
Before the party people went out on Saturday night, they were faced with an unexpected conundrum: "Do I endlessly refresh a hopelessly crashed website to buy My Bloody Valentine's first new album in 22 years or do I wait?" Perhaps Kevin Shields knows his '90s alt-rocker shut-in audience too well. But NPR's Ann Powers, Lars Gotrich and Otis Hart opted for the latter, soaking in the band's new wall of sound on Sunday, and here give us their first impressions.
I'm writing this on Sunday afternoon, nearly 24 hours after My Bloody Valentine announced the instant release of m b v, its first new album in 22 years. There's still nothing like a coherent story to be told about this album yet. In the world of instant downloads and YouTube streams (the band itself provided one today), and of reviews penned to the ticking of the clock, that's a little surprising. Critics' assessments are surfacing — including one very thorough and useful one by MBV diehard fan Ned Raggett — but even these avid responses mostly advised that we all wait a little while to settle into judgement; after all, it's been two-plus decades since the band's last album, Loveless, which means m b v is the first new release many young indie rock fans have been alive to appreciate. And MBV itself, led by the notoriously quiet Kevin Shields, has abstained from statements of purpose or media hype. So we've all agreed to keep listening. Aside from the general consensus that this album is very good, and not unlike the group's classic Loveless, I'm not seeing the usual yammering attempts to pin down its master narrative.
Instead, there's only your story or mine, of encountering m b v for the first time. As I watched the news of its arrival spread on Twitter, followed by the inevitable website crash and finally scattered reports of successful downloads, I noticed that most fans quickly decided to retreat into their own slices of space. Some, including me, opted to wait for the morning to approach the thing. Others ordered the limited-edition 180-gram vinyl version and will be waiting for a few weeks before really weighing in. Even Ragget, the heroic instant responder, prefaced his track-by-track account with what reads like mindfulness meditation instruction: "Listening to the album patiently and with no sense of expectations beyond trying to judge it on its own terms turned out to be rather freeing and pleasant," he wrote. Just follow the breath, kids, and enjoy those guitar textures and little dissonances as they come.
In that spirit, here's how I first heard m b v, and my initial thoughts on the album.
I took it for a walk. This has long been my preferred method of listening, though lately my fear of further hearing loss has caused me to opt more often for audiobooks than the latest rock offering. Somehow, though, I knew that this album would hit me more powerfully if I were on the move. That's not because MBV's rhythms inspire — it's one of the least danceable bands on my permanent playlist — but because the complex soundscapes Shields constructs beg to be used to alter other sensual experiences. MBV's music makes the room spin, or even makes light and air seem to hit your skin differently. So a stroll by the river on a clear but wintry day offered me an optimally conducive environment.
The very first chords of "she found now" took me ever so slightly by surprise, not because this was a new sound, but because it reminded me of one thing I always appreciated about this most cult-beloved of groups: its poppish streak. The bent, thick notes of Shields' guitar chords were also very pretty. They welcomed me, as did his seductive, whispering voice. On the next song, the upbeat "only tomorrow," Bilinda Butcher's vocal reconnected MBV with the girl group legacy that's always added to their appeal, wedding a dissolute sweetness to the tense abrasiveness of guitar and bass against drums.
The thicket of bare trees that border my local riverwalk made me think about the tangle of elements in these songs, how their famous density impresses because there's also so much air. At the same time, the organ-based "if this and yes," made me think of the water meandering nearby, full of flotsam but still appearing calm.
By this time I was seeing my surroundings through the music, and everything felt both hazier and brighter. A guy with a pompadour roller-bladed by; was he going in slow motion? The carmine coats of the little girls waiting for brunch at Another Broken Egg Café grew more vivid. I grinned at the giant dog on a passerby's leash; "Aslan!" I declared. That's what MBV can do if you let it: connect your imagination with its own vocabulary of magic. That was happening again with this new music. It helped that, as always, the words were hard to understand, the mix expansive but never that heavy, the songs' dynamics gently but insistently repetitive.
So yes, I immersed. And I loved the experience. This and a few other quick listens today haven't convinced me that m b v offers anything new, but I'm with Raggett if wondering if that's important. Since MBV's sound is no longer new, what the band now offers is a more subtle adjustment: a challenge to listen for the less obvious twists and turns on any given album, not just this one.
Lars, Otis, you two have different musical loyalties than I do. I wonder what thoughts arose during your first listens? Is the analogue recording rich and powerful enough for a lover of electronica? Is the sound powerful enough for one who treasures heaviness?
I await your thoughts.
Like everyone else, I went through a Groundhog Day-like refreshing spree Saturday night only to get a 403 Error screen. "It'll be there in the morning," I told myself. Besides, "Just because you get there first doesn't necessarily mean you love it most," tweeted All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine. In an Internet age of firsties, that was reaffirming, especially since my nerd sensibilities sometimes get the best of me.
I woke up late Sunday morning and those same sensibilities came right back. But for fear of blasting my ears first thing, I resisted, made some tea and watched an episode of the original Netflix series, House of Cards, yet another media data-dump from the weekend that relies on immediate consumption and mass conversation. I keep looking for another parallel, but, alas, Kevin Spacey's Iago-like character doesn't lend himself well to '90s rock nostalgia.
It started to snow just moments before I finally put on m b v for the first time, which, c'mon rock gods, isn't that a little bit on the nose? My apartment's cobbled-together sound system isn't fancy by any means, but as "she found now" came through a pair of vintage speakers, I was instantly taken back to the first time I heard "Sometimes" in college, about 10 years ago. Maybe because Kevin Shields is the first voice we hear, maybe because there's something in the languid wooze of the guitar, but ultimately, it's the "poppish streak" you mentioned, Ann. Count me among those who had their first MBV a-ha! moment via Lost in Translation, swooning in blurred neon lights and a dreamy melody buried underneath Shields' noise.
It was also 10 years ago that I started to delve into more extreme music, specifically noise and metal. Coming at them from an unhealthy obsession with '60s and '70s free-jazz, I was attracted to the sonic catharsis of both, but in my juvenile musical development, embracing extreme sounds was also a knee-jerk reaction to my perception of indie-rock as homogenous. While I was making sense of those sonic worlds colliding between my ears, Loveless became my guru: Pop music is noise. Noise is pop music. Bend them to thy will. There is no spoon, etc.
Ann, you asked me if the sound on m b v was "powerful enough for one who treasures heaviness." I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that "who sees you," in particular, puts any and all MBV-indebted post-metallers to shame. Colm O'Ciosoig's thundering drum opening sets up a heavy and hazy squall of angelic doom. And while the hand-spun vinyl warp is familiar, it almost sounds sinister at this heft and volume. It's certainly one of the slower tracks in the MBV catalog and relies more on subatomic bass than I've heard before. It almost sounds like an early Earth record — coincidentally, the mammoth Earth 2 celebrated 20 years today. Bang your heads in bliss.
More on the metal tip, the 2000s saw a lot of these shoegaze-y metal bands, inspired by the distorted and droning wall of sound made by MBV, Catherine Wheel, Ride and Lush in the late '80s and early '90s. The "shoegaze" tag reportedly came from the bands' motionless live performances — silly as any other genre-naming story. Speaking of which, Jesu and Nadja were among the most popular in the christened "metalgaze" genre, with The Angelic Process and The Goslings among the most underappeciated. And, for what it's worth, Alcest understands the "poppish streak" better than any of them, even refusing to call its music "metal" anymore. But the catalyst was 2005's Pink by the always-morphing Japanese heavy rock band Boris. For better or for worse, metal bands turned to pedal worship in its wake, sometimes forgetting that Shields still wrote genuine songs underneath those swarms of noise.
(Boris recently contributed a stunning slow-motion version of "Sometimes" to an all-Japanese tribute to MBV called Yellow Loveless. It doesn't take away the "song," but it does stretch out the idea of it with cymbal washes and lulling feedback, reveling in melancholy and placing the melody in ambient overtones.)
This is already too long, so I'll cheat and skip to the end. "nothing is" feels like filler, a chugging riff stuck on skip and entering Gaspar Noe's void, so to speak. But it sets us up for "wonder 2," the swirling, thudding piece of noise that closes out m b v and, I think, is the real raised-eyebrow moment of the entire record. Wasn't this what Kevin Shields had teased on Loveless? Has the implicit become explicit? Since we both come from noise, I'd be curious to hear what you, Otis, thought about "wonder 2," and library catalog-esque "is this and yes," which almost sounds like a lost Broadcast interlude.
To here knows when,
Ann and Lars,
My "where were you" story about m b v isn't interesting enough to take up any of your time, but I will say that I waited until Sunday morning to stare at my shoes. It's been 22 years since Loveless, what was another eight hours? (By the way, the old headline writer in me was hoping that Shields was going to hold out until February 14 — we were so close to pundemonium).
When I finally made my fashionably late appearance at the listening party and strapped on my earphones, my first concern was to make sure the volume level on my iPod was near the minimum. "Only Shallow" has to rank pretty high on the "death to speaker cones" list, and I didn't want my eardrums to meet a similar fate. I touched the "play" icon (isn't it funny how we still talk about "pressing play") and prepared for the all-out assault ... that didn't come. "She Found Now" barely stood out among the passing cars. I pumped up the volume, much more so than I usually do, and yet I never felt completely submerged in sound. I don't want to pass judgment based on an MP3 — like you said, Ann, I think any definitive assessment should wait for that deluxe vinyl — but there are several albums on my iPod that sound much cleaner, more high-def than m b v does. The sound field isn't only shallow, but I didn't feel any real depth until I arrived at "in another way." Until that point, you could have told me this was recorded in Garageband and I wouldn't have argued.
But let's talk about "in another way." Maybe it's the dance music fan in me, but those drums rescue m b v. For all of the genuflection Loveless (deservingly) receives, not enough of it goes toward Colm O'Ciosoig. Bassist Debbie Googe made the joke recently that "whenever I hear people talking about [My Bloody Valetine], I just say to myself, 'No, actually they mean Kevin!'" She's probably right, but O'Ciosoig was a huge part of Loveless's lasting power. And I can only assume that he's also responsible for the monster beat that propels this song for five and a half minutes. Where the preceding songs felt unsure, "in another way" knows exactly what it's doing, and feels like what My Bloody Valentine might have sounded like in the years immediately after Loveless when rave music was bumrushing the British charts.
Lars, you politely call "nothing is" filler, but I would respectfully disagree. Ann, you highlight MBV's poppier side. If you want to equate memorable hooks to pop music, then I guess they were a pop band, but I equate hooks more with rock. And maybe it's my general ambivalence toward pop music, but the members of My Bloody Valentine are at their finest when they're focusing on texture and energy. There's a reason that their 2009 U.S. tour is remembered for its nightly 20 minutes of feedback called "You Made Me Realise." The trio that ends m b v — "in another way," "nothing is" and "wonder 2" — all contain qualities that could be elongated into "endless" music, something I couldn't say about the album's first six songs.
That brings me back to what I initially loved about MBV back in the late '90s. I always imagined Shields' band as the perfect combination of La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music — the original mofo's of feedback — and Brian Eno's pre-ambient Warm Jets. I'm not getting that sense of balance on m b v — but I'm not completely counting it out, either. I do think that a band as considerate as My Bloody Valentine should be heard at optimum fidelity, so please take everything I've said so far with a grain of 320kpbs salt. But it's 2013, and we have a virtual endless supply of music to experience. Obviously, Kevin Shields is guaranteed an audition by anyone with an appreciation for rock music's history, but unlike the last time My Bloody Valentine released music for public consumption, we are no longer limited by what we can afford. If I had bought m b v back in 1992, I probably would have listened to it nonstop for a month. Now, with Spotify, YouTube, Bandcamp, etc., I hate to say it, but I don't see this album receiving much notice past ... well, Valentine's Day.