The Boo Radleys – Giant Steps & Wake Up Boo! (deluxe 3CD editions)

Hindsight can be both a help and a hindrance to old records retrieved from semi-obscurity for another bid to find affectionate space in CD racks.  Certainly, retrospective reviewing of the two ‘middle’ and best known albums in the six-strong album catalogue of The Boo Radleys throws up flattering and not-so-flattering new lights.

The Boo Radleys - Giant Steps

Released to much press acclaim in 1993, Giant Steps is regularly regarded as the classic and only truly essential set in the Liverpool foursome’s career.  Seen as a perfect bridge between the band’s Byrds-meets-Dinosaur Jr. beginnings and the more polished trappings of the subsequent – and also now reissued – Wake Up!, the 17-track double-LP remains their strongest collection, even if time has dimmed its lesser passages.  Primarily, the strong reputation of Giant Steps rests on its four still fantastic singles, which lifted the group out of the shoe-gazing scene that had threatened to pigeon-hole them around 1992’s Everything’s Alright Forever LP.  The four cuts in question capture perhaps all we really need to remember of the now-defunct quartet.  “I Hang Suspended” is a soaring Anglicised take on US college-rock; the divinely melodic “Wish I Was Skinny” expertly combines the shimmering jangle-pop of The Go-Betweens and The Feelies; the sublime “Barney (… And Me)” grafts early-Mercury Rev sonics on to the back of Buffalo Tom; and the transcendental “Lazarus” is a smart cross-fertilisation of dub-slanted bass, psychedelic-folk-rock layers and brass band horns that is a timeless beacon of early-‘90s caterpillar-to-butterfly invention on par with Primal Scream’s “Loaded” or Ride’s “Leave Them All Behind.”
In comparison, although the remainder of Giant Steps shares the same spirit of adventure, the craftsmanship slips across the other 13 less lucky pieces.  That’s not to say that the record is four killers hiding a hoard of fillers.  There are certainly other minor gems to be found with a little patience.  The reggae-tinged fuzz-rock of “Upon 9th And Fairchild” stills commands a strong presence; the plaintive “One Is For” flirts pleasantly with McCartney-esque acoustic romantic whimsy; and the group sing-along of “The White Noise Revisited” is a fine closing piece.  But too many of the other tracks resort to swamping less-weighty compositions with clumsy FX-pedal stamping grunge-breakouts (as on “Leaves And Sand” and “I’ve Lost The Reason”) and deeply distracting vocal treatments (“Butterfly McQueen” and “Spun Around” being the worst offenders) that unkindly highlight both the vocal limitations of Sice Rowbottom and the scattershot quality control of guitarist Martin Carr’s songwriting. 

Giant Steps on its own doesn’t completely distil everything from The Boo Radleys’ purple patch, so the addition of two bonus discs of rarities on this new edition does help to explain the deep affection once held for the group.  Tracks from preceding EPs (notably the joyous “Lazy Day” and the searing “Does This Hurt?”) reveal that the foursome could hold it with the best of their onetime trainer-staring peers; contemporary B-sides hold a few minor nugget moments (like the “Eight Miles High” vs. “Get Carter” curio that is “Further”); and the multiple versions of “Lazarus” (including the superior original extended 12” mix) magnify its magical qualities.  Naturally, there are plenty of duds amongst these extras but dewy-eyed fans will whole-heartedly rejoice at the generous comprehensiveness of it all and no empathic music lover can really resent that.

The Boo Radleys - Wake Up!

Whereas Giant Steps will forever hold loyalty from Boo fans, 1995’s Wake Up! continues to cut them in half with a rusty axe.  Whilst many had willed the quartet forward into more melodic directions, few were ready or willing to accept the abrupt gear-shift into chart-chasing polish that happened to crash-land The Boo Radleys in the midst of the largely lamentable Britpop-era.  Perversely, whereas Giant Steps’ stature was inflated by its singles, Wake Up! is/was dragged-down by its extracted 45s; the grating “It’s Lulu,” the nauseous “Find The Answer Within” and, of course, the painfully-perky “Wake Up Boo!”  Get past those however and Wake Up! redeems itself more to modern ears and maybe even some Giant Steps loyalists.  A clutch of more relaxed moments – like “Reaching Out From Here” and “Wilder” make amiable enough nods to both Rubber Soul-period Beatles and Bacharach balladry.  There are a few more – albeit slicker – Giant Steps-style mash-ups that toss some curveballs into the mix, like the orchestral abstractions of “4am Conversation” and the multi-part epic “Joel.”  Some stiffs rear their ugly heads though – such as the beyond-twee “Charles Bukowski Is Dead” and the clunky ragged-rocker “Twinside.”

As with the new edition of Giant Steps, the bonus CDs unearth some worthwhile lost material and suggest what Wake Up! could have been with less commercial ambition and more creative imagination.  Hence, the dreamy murky “Janus” provides a greater sense of mystery; the eight or so minutes of “Blues For George Michael” is bonkers fun (in a good way); ballads such as “Wall Paper” and “This Is Not About Me” provide some more natural-sounding warmth; the non-album single “From The Bench At Belvidere” is a balmy slice of forgivable pre-fame nostalgia; and two revealing remixes by The High Llamas suggest how Wake Up! could have transcended the production sheen that traps it in mid-‘90s British radio-friendliness.  Even “Wake Up Boo!” finds some redemption in the eight electronically melted-down minutes of the self-disrespecting “Music For Astronauts” version.

Ultimately, these two hearty and thoughtful reissues revisit the rise and fall of The Boo Radleys in full warts ‘n’ all glory and disgrace, for both past followers and the belatedly curious.  Like most compiled family histories, they capture embarrassing pockets of time many us of would rather forget but also isolated moments of inspiration that remind us what keeps life interesting.

Cherry Red Records