Underappreciated Album of the Month: UAM #6 (Sharkboy – The Valentine Tapes, 1995)

With this DOA feature that has been re-vamped, we focus our attention on an album that may not have the recognition or notoriety it deserves. It might be a cult hit, it might be a small favorite or it might even be an album that is just so great, we feel it needs all of the attention possible. Albums chosen will always be at least more than five years old and will be chosen at our own discretion – and hey, if you feel there is an underappreciated gem you wish could get some exposure, feel free to let us know.

In 1995 the now-defunct U.K. band Sharkboy released The Valentine Tapes, a magnificent, cinematic, and prescient sophomore album, on Nude Records.  The album melded the incipient alt-country style to the band’s original dissonant, guitar-drone sound.  Avy (songwriter, vocals, guitar) had formed the band with Adrian Oxaal (guitar), Alan Stirner (guitar), Gavin Cheyne (bass), Dil Davies (drums), and Nick Wilson (keyboards) in 1992, and Sharkboy released debut Matinee in 1994.

Less than a year and a half later The Valentine Tapes surfaced at the height of Britpop with bands like Blur, Oasis, and Nude labelmates Suede topping the U.K. charts while Avy and company took a backseat with their updated take on retro-cool, story-telling songs.  Sharkboy promptly disbanded after two album releases and handful of gigs, the band members disappearing without a trace online and in print with the exception of Adrian Oxaal who later joined the band James for a spell.

Sharkboy - The Valentine Tapes

The Valentine Tapes is a great leap forward from the unadorned, repetitive guitar strum and sharp instrumentation found on Matinee.  Like Slowdive’s ascension from Just For A Day to Souvlaki, Sharkboy members tightened up song structures, sharpened the melodies, added lush and compelling sonics, and created songs that lean towards recognizable ‘verse, chorus, verse’ composition.  They accomplished this without sacrificing all of their original guitar droning or experimental dissonance.  “Teenage Heart” features a drowsy glaze of guitars and “Maxine” is punctuated with clanging industrial noise.

The Valentine Tapes stands out not only for its musical progression from Sharkboy’s debut, but also because it was a forerunner of the now-flourishing alt-country genre that has incorporated various musical styles into the Country & Western format.  The Valentine Tapes shines with a classic vibe – at once vintage and timeless.  The lyrics, emotions conveyed, and mood are certainly universal, as Avy and her cohorts travel the lonely, but well-worn road of matters of the heart.  There is something alluring and mysterious about this journey and the band captures this feeling on record.  The Valentine Tapes is one of the signposts that points towards a direction to follow…

Cinematic elements pervade this album, from the songs to the album cover art (possibly an obscure film reference?) which depicts two peroxide-blonde, bewigged women (twins, as it turns out, based on the song “Same Mother of Pearl”) leaning back in the driver and passenger seats of a trailer, looking like drugged-out mannequins.  Under a darkened sky there is the glistening smear of recent rainfall on the trailer’s wide windshield and the whole shot has a sheen of old Hollywood glamour to it, as if twin Marilyn Monroes were in repose, waiting for the director to shout “Action!”

This aura of faded glamour ties in with Avy’s penchant for writing lyrics that reference movie-like situations that induce the listener to picture scenes of a teenager lying on a bed, hopefully swooning over some hopeless crush (“Teenage Heart”) or a femme fatale named “Maxine” who stalks about a factory with electrical sparks flying all around her or the rebel and outsider James Dean on “Dean”, which is actually not about the actor.  The intangible romance, intrigue, and drama is made visually and emotionally palpable through the lyrics and sounds, and by the listener’s experience and imagination.

Tension and release can be found on a grand scale in Nature in the form of cataclysmic earthquakes and on a human scale in dealing with matters of the heart. On opener “Tiny Seismic Night” Avy expresses the emotion of desire by stringing out her words on the verses, rich, aching, and bright with expectation, her softly hushed vocals laden down with longing amid burnished, hard guitar sting, a steadily smacked beat, and globular xylophone notes.  The story-telling song is a confessional between two “wild card” lovers, where Avy takes on both roles, as one of them admits “I don’t know if I would die for you / but I know I would steal and lie for you.”

The alt-country genre is draped in a noir style on “Big Black Jaguar” as Avy and her bandmates sound like they’re playing in a bar, with Western guitar lines ringing out alongside a muted beat, shaken tambourine, and Avy sing-talking straightforwardly about taxis, “neon rivers”, and getting a “drink in every bar” as she escapes from her (well, her character’s) relationship woes.  The band goes deeper into Country & Western territory with the up-tempo “Take My Hand” that reverberates with slide guitar lines, fiddle-like accompaniment, and Avy singing sweetly and languidly on the chorus of “…you say your heart’s right here / makin’ me stay when you’re near.”  Noisier guitar distortion crops up at the end of the song, overpowering the country vibe, until a bluesy guitar jam loop suddenly appears to finish off the tune.

The enticing and brisk “Same Mother of Pearl” features a constant, fast-strummed guitar, little harmonica pulls, and a surf-like reverb guitar run that flicks and struts on the chorus.  There’s a flirtatious edge to Avy’s velvety vocal delivery as she radiates with assured ease about the “twins” from the album cover and how “they talk in time”, “got a beat up trailer”, and come from “nowhere places that they left behind.”  Avy’s chorus refrain of “You gotta hear what they say.” is never expanded upon and the twins are left as mysteries by the end of the song as a reeling Dick Dale-like guitar riff races downwards like the crest of a crashing wave.

The cinematic, story-telling format runs through the whole album and “From Your Eye” is no exception, with Avy’s rich, mid-range tone sounding like Shadowlands-era k.d. lang as she breathes “You started something deep in my heart.”, evoking images of unknowns traveling to New York City to make it big as actors.  Western-sounding guitar lines are touched with dissonance as an industrial grind builds up on the chorus, revealing the more experimental, ‘droning guitar’ roots of the band.  “Blazer” takes it a step further, reverting to the overall sound of Sharkboy’s debut album, as time-stretching, repetitive cycles of burnished guitar drone roll on amid a mid-tempo drumbeat, cymbal tap, harp-like guitar runs, and occasional vibrating strings.  Avy’s sing-talking vocals glide by in layers as the sound goes from the left ear of headphones to the right ear, creating a disorienting vibe.

The stop ‘n’ go lurch of “Sugarmanshine” comes out of left field, but again is built up with dissonant, growling guitars that threaten to overtake the traditional song structure.  There’s a naked theatricality to the song and the chorus kicks like “Peep Show” by Siouxsie and The Banshees with its staccato beat and harder vocals as Avy exclaims “I swear you should be mine / my sugar, shine…”  The song could be about drugs or love or dreams (“Woke up in the daytime / caught up in Surround Sound…”).

Next song “Dean” comes on like a daydream, but lurking under the surface is a frisson of anxiety as Avy implores “Dean, you’ve got to tell me what you’ve seen / in that silver screen head of yours.” amid a darker, pronounced drumbeat, low propulsion of guitars, descending orchestral strings, and Western guitar curls.  Images of James Dean immortalized on celluloid come to mind, but the song is actually about a 16-year old kid who “draws to save his life”.

Sharkboy’s debut album is recalled again on “3D Angelshell” with Avy’s softly despondent delivery, added vocal sighs, strummed guitar dissonance, and xylophone hits swimming amid a loud and sharp build up of string vibration and fiery cassette tape distortion by the end of the song.  This sonic catharsis clears the way for the cloudy, introspective, piano-based “Teenage Heart” that speaks to the lovelorn of all ages, conjuring up the feeling of being narcissistically intoxicated by a crush on someone; of being lost in a heady dreamworld of euphoria and emotional downers, longing for romance and a passion that is elusive.  Avy mourns “…your head’s in the clouds / but you still live on the ground / with the sound of your teenage heart / beating hard in the night / filling up with light.”  Little flashes of echoed factory noise flit in ‘n’ out, along with strings.

“Maxine” pushes the factory sounds even further with a hammer and anvil beat and furnace burn at the start as a sultry Avy sings in a smoldering tone about the titular Maxine and how “…she had to go outside / to laugh out loud” and how “she dissolved into sparks”.  As the song progresses, the industrial dissonance reaches its peak with curdled blasts of chainsaw guitar and metallic clanging.