Slowdive – Just for a Day / Souvlaki / Pygmalion

Slowdive
Just for a Day / Souvlaki / Pygmalion

Sometimes I get to review stuff that reminds me just why I wanted to do this job in the first place. At the very end of last year, Sanctuary Records quietly reissued all three albums by legendary shoegazers Slowdive, including the rare Pygmalion, which was fetching upwards of $150 on eBay. I personally have a severe fetish for anything even remotely resembling My Bloody Valentine, and as such I’ve always held Slowdive in the highest esteem as my second-favorite group from the Creation Records back catalog. The band was made up of Neil Halstead (guitar/vocals), Rachel Goswell (guitar/vocals), Christian Savill (guitar), Nick Chaplin (bass), and Simon Scott (drums), although Scott was later replaced by Ian McCutcheon. Nearly as visionary as MBV itself, Slowdive has clearly earned a place in the history of rock. Although you probably won’t find any of these recordings at the top of any critics’ lists or decade-encompassing list of best albums, let me assure you they should be included.

Often derided as My Bloody Valentine clones, I would beg to differ by offering the following proof that the two groups aren’t nearly as similar as some would have you believe. Although Slowdive does the swooning boy/girl layered vocals, the manner in which they are presented isn’t as obscured as those found on Loveless. Kevin Shields was known for his use of volume and tape saturation as a means to achieve the guitar sound found on that classic record. Neil Halstead and co. did actually use a considerable amount of effects pedals (hence the term shoegazer) to achieve their airy sound, ending up with far more in common with groups like The Cocteau Twins and The Cure’s Disintegration than My Bloody Valentine ever did. Finally, in a move which got them dropped from Creation Records in favor of signing real clones Oasis, Slowdive produced one of the forgotten gems of 90s post-rock on Pygmalion.

Between these three reissues, the listener gets essentially 99.9% of everything ever recorded by this spectacular group. The exception would be the unrealized version of Souvlaki that was unaccepted by Creation Records, although many of those tracks are floating around the Internet as demos, the I Am the Elephant You are the Mouse soundtrack that the band recorded, and the “Beach Song”/”Take Me Down” flexi 7″. The most notable inclusion between the three reissues besides the fact that Pygmalion is back in print is the second disc of Just for a Day that includes all of the early singles. These tracks are easily the best material ever recorded by the band along with the album Souvlaki, which they foretell. Oddly enough, after recording these tracks, Slowdive ended up recording an initial full-length, Just for a Day, that fans took to but was inevitably dismissed by critics for being a little too heavy on the atmospherics.

While in retrospect, Just for a Day shares many commonalities with later groups like Sigur Ros, it is easily the least essential of the three Slowdive full-lengths. However, with the addition of those early singles on the second disc of the reissue, Sanctuary has given everyone a very good reason to purchase this record. “She Calls” and “Morningrise” are classic examples of just how powerful shoegaze can be and still sound like it’s slipping off into the mist. There is a damn good reason why almost all of these early singles were picked by Melody Maker and the NME in 1991 as “Singles of the Week.” As for the full-length they led up to, well that is a different story. Although Just for a Day will always be a great record in my mind simply because it was my initial introduction to the band, the album falls short of expectations for a number of reasons. The songwriting is strong enough, what with excellent compositions such as “Spanish Air,” “Celia’s Dream,” “Catch the Breeze,” and “The Ballad of Sister Sue,” kicking things off in the right direction. It falters by offering a little too much keyboard in the mix and not enough of the swooning guitars that make up the majority of the early singles and Souvlaki. On top of that, the album is a little lopsided with all of the aforementioned tracks frontloaded, tapering off somewhat during the second half, which is still better than 90% of most other shoegaze bands’ outputs.

Souvlaki is Slowdive’s magnum opus. Next to the classic My Bloody Valentine record Loveless, this is easily the best album produced by any of the original shoegaze bands. Neil Halstead proves himself to be one of the genre’s best songwriters, backing it up with every track. The beautiful gliding guitar sound on “Alison” that practically initiates lift-off for the rest of the album is not only an indication of what the group was capable of at the height of its powers, but further proof that the MBV comparisons just weren’t going to cut it anymore. While Loveless offered us some esoteric beauty so great that it overshadowed the entire genre and came to define it altogether, Souvlaki nearly matches it with its swirling guitars and slightly more intelligible lyrics. The song “When the Sun Hits” plays like some kind of intangible centerpiece on the album, but its lyrical content seemingly deals with nothing so revolutionary as witnessing a sunrise. “40 Days” cuts through the fog with a nearly rock ‘n roll riff a la The Jesus and Mary Chain, only to retreat into some hazy Cocteau Twins spangle. Let’s not forget about the Brian Eno-produced effects-pedal madness of “Souvlaki Space Station.” Souvlaki ultimately ends with the sparse acoustic track “Dagger,” providing the antithesis to the entire rest of the album. Not a moment wasted or a single note unnecessary.

So the story goes that after My Bloody Valentine had nearly bankrupted Creation Records and then couldn’t produce a follow-up to Loveless, label founder Alan McGee started signing Brit-pop groups like Oasis that were actually making money. The majority of American audiences never really caught onto the shoegaze movement during its brief existence anyhow, which was eventually snuffed out by grunge (although Kurt Cobain was noted to be a huge fan of My Bloody Valentine). Slowdive sort of got lost in the transition. Rumor has it that Oasis apparently demanded that in order to be signed to Creation, McGee had to drop Slowdive from the label roster, even though in reality Oasis had released its first single a year prior to Slowdive’s dismissal. During this period, Neil Halstead had become extremely interested in techno and ambient music. With the fact that Creation and Slowdive’s US label, SBK, had offered little to no promotion for Souvlaki and the fact that many of its band members had departed in no small part due to Halstead’s increased drug use and infatuation with the techno scene, it seemed like the group was on the verge of calling it quits. Knowing that they were about to be dropped from Creation, Halstead began work on the final Slowdive record, Pygmalion.

For all intents and purposes, Pygmalion is really a Halstead solo record. Although the original liner notes credited the other members, only Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon play a notable part with some vocal contributions and the rare appearance of some percussion on an otherwise beatless album. Whether it was intentional or not for the record to be drastically different from previous efforts is a matter of pure speculation. It has been said that with their time on Creation winding down, Neil Halstead purposefully tried to make the weirdest record he could, sort of as a “fuck you” to Alan McGee for pulling the plug on the band. Pygmalion is an exercise in minimalism and repetitition, a confluence of Halstead’s influences and one of the pinnacles of 90s post-rock. It isn’t song-oriented, and parts of it are ambient with a dissonant underbelly not present in previous recordings.

It’s difficult to imagine the band’s audience at the time fully grasping the concept of what Halstead was trying to achieve here, but over a decade later it seems like a precursor to records like The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl and groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The record also shares an affinity with others such as Bark Psychosis’ Hex and Talk Talk during the Laughing Stock/Spirit of Eden phase. The album’s first track, “Rutti” (so named for Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column to which the record also owes a great debt), is a nine-minute epic that essentially repeats the same vocal refrain over and over again as subtle delayed guitar tracks are woven together. “Crazy for You” incorporates crystalline guitar arpeggios carefully placed for a shimmering effect, clouding out Halstead’s hazy vocal track. The brief “Cello” is a minute and a half of low droning produced by the instrument that the title implies and wouldn’t sound out of place on Sigur Ros’ ( ). When the record was released in limited quantities in 1995 (and never here in the states I might add), it got a knee-jerk reaction from audiences and critics alike. In retrospect, it seems like a natural comedown from the high of Souvlaki and a masterpiece in its own right.

After the release of Pygmalion, Halstead, Goswell, and drummer Ian McCutcheon began recording for 4AD as the country-tinged group Mojave 3. While most of that band’s material sounds considerably different than their previous incarnation, the first Mojave 3 album, Ask Me Tomorrow, sounds like an acoustic Slowdive record and is definitely worth checking out if you already have all of the Slowdive records. Halstead and Goswell have both gone on to craft solo records for 4AD while continuing in Mojave 3. Slowdive guitarist Christian Savill went on to be in another shoegaze band called Monster Movie that has released two records, one on Graveface Records and another on Claire Records.

Unfortunately, Slowdive will probably always be judged in the shadow of My Bloody Valentine. While it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that there might never be another shoegaze record (or any other record in my personal opinion) as awe-inspiring as Loveless, it would be injustice to let albums this great go completely unnoticed. Hopefully in light of these reissues, listeners will be enticed into checking out what was arguably one of the greatest bands of the 1990s.