Sunday, 7 May 2017

Blue Skied an' Clear: Slowdive

Let’s have a look at Morr Music's Blue Skied an’ Clear, a compilation album stroke label sampler from 2002. Disc one has covers of songs by top British shoegaze band Slowdive; disc two has original songs inspired by the band. So it was that in 2017 I was moved to write about an album of covers released in 2002 of a band that flourished and faded in the early 1990s, as if descending a staircase into the past. I gazed at translucent figures who could not see me; I studied their ways and surfaced gasping into the present. As I write these words I imagine invisible eyes from the future studying me.

Slowdive was a shoegaze band. What was shoegaze? In the gap between C86 and Britpop there emerged a generation of fey, pale teenagers whose guitars broadcast formless, distorted washes of sound to an audience that craved an aural comfort blanket. The genre had a good run but the leading lights split up or ran out of ideas or ground to a halt. Britpop bulldozed the traces away. Britpop was brash, populist, and highly commercial; shoegaze was none of those things. It had an air of passive self-absorption that was at odds with Britpop's extrovert nature.

Slowdive passed me by at the time. I was into electronic music, and in those days it was difficult to get familiar with a wide range of different bands. You either had to borrow lots of records or have a lot of money. There was no Youtube, and Slowdive was never played on the radio. I could only read about them in the music press, except that I continually got them mixed up with Swervedriver, another shoegaze band - Slowdive and Swervedriver are the same colour, both red - so I can't be sure if my memories of the band are correct. For me Slowdive and the shoegazing genre was a blip that came and went between Madchester, ambient house, and then Britpop and drum'n'bass. It was part of the now long-forgotten pre-Britpop era.

The only shoegaze band that approached a commercial breakthrough was Ride, who managed a couple of top ten albums and a top ten single, although nowadays they tend to be thought of as a pre-Britpop indie band that had a shoegazing phase rather than a fully-fledged shoegazing band a la Lush or Inspiral Carpets. My Bloody Valentine’s second album, Loveless, is generally regarded as the high point of the genre - the loudest, most formless, most diffident of all shoegaze records, the genre’s Kind of Blue. On a commercial level Slowdive never had a heyday, and fan favourite Souvlaki (1993) was a victim of unfortunate timing. By 1993 the music press had grown tired of shoegaze and was more interested in the likes of James, The Wonder Stuff, Suede and so forth, and of course a year later the one-two punch of Definitely Maybe and Parklife opened the floodgates that swept Slowdive and shoegaze away forever, or at least it seemed at the time. The band disappeared after a third album released to little fanfare in 1995.

For some reason – I know not why – Slowdive became internet-fashionable again in the 2000s. The group recently reformed and has released a new album. Surprisingly, it’s terrific; a moody, floaty ambient indie pop record that manages to be formless and tuneful at the same time. In a just world "Sugar for the Pill" would be a massive radio hit. Judging by Youtube views the band has gained a whole new following, including this blue-haired woman who was moved to tears by their cover of Syd Barrett’s "Golden Hair":

But what of Blue Skied an' Clear? The covers on Disc One are solid but sound thin, as if the bands were all pushed for time. The problem is that Slowdive's music was inseparable from the production, with the result that shorn of the band's wall of effects pedals the songs don't have the same impact. The exception is múm's cover of "Machine Gun". It has a killer melody but Slowdive's production was plodding and unimaginative; múm's take is subtler, and the sound would have fit perfectly on Finally We Are No One.

There's another problem, highlighted by Limp's take on "Souvlaki Space Station". The compilation was released in the wake of Warp Records' glitch-pop heyday and consequently several of the tracks have pointless sub-Squarepusher glitchy treatments that don't fit the material, "Space Station" among them. Disc two's "Fade Out Your Eyes" is a particular bad offender.

Ulrich Schnauss' "Crazy for You" is the second best cover, adding twangy guitars and a shuffling beat to the original, which sounded as if it had been recorded in a tunnel. A few years later Schnauss' version of the song was used in a Lucozade advert, sped-up:

I imagine Schnauss earned more from the advert than he did from Blue Skied an' Clear. During their career Slowdive tried to change their sound - they hired Brian Eno, although he didn't stick around for a whole album - but never really managed it. Their most recent album feels like the product of twenty years of gradual evolution rather than a sharp break, which is fine now but would have been disappointing if it was just Slowdive's hypothetical fifteenth studio album. It's fascinating to imagine what might have happened if Slowdive and Eno had hit it off; say what you like about U2, Achtung Baby was a major leap for the band and it did give them a second wind. Solvent's cover of "When the Sun Hits" reimagines Slowdive as Add N to X while Lali Puma's version of "40 Days" has something of Garbage about it but neither of them convincingly reinvent the band. Skanfrom's version of "Here She Comes" sounds like a Brian Eno solo track from one of his non-ambient vocal albums.

Disc two is a lot more variable. Disc One is listenable throughout but Disc Two has some complete stinkers, although it gets off to a great start with Manual's "Summer Haze" and Isan's "My Last Journey". "House Full of Time" and "Fade Our Your Eyes" aren't very good at all and Solvent's "Discontinued Parts" is godawful. Limp's "Silent Running" is nice - it sounds like an instrumental cover of "40 Days" - but again has tonnes of indifferently-executed, now-badly-dated glitches. I bought the album after hearing Icebreaker International and Manual's "Into Forever", and for me it's the standout track. Schnauss' "Wherever You Are" is the other standout. The rest are basically inoffensive filler. That's (counts) four excellent tracks, three bad tracks, seven okay tracks. I find it hard to criticise the bands involved. They probably had two weeks to throw something together for the compilation and no extra money, so I imagine disc two is stuffed with demos that they didn't want to put out as b-sides.

Morr Music still exists. Blue Skied an' Clear was released physically on compact disc and triple vinyl. The vinyl has a poster and some twee stickers that made me smile. It's still on sale today albeit only digitally. It's one really good album of mostly Slowdive covers with a handful of original tunes as a bonus, plus some rubbish that you can skip, the end.