Robin Guthrie & Mark Gardener – Universal Road

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Robin Guthrie and Mark Gardener – Universal Road

There will be very few indie music fans that haven’t ever heard the names of Robin Guthrie and Mark Gardener, and practically none that are unaware of either the Cocteau Twins or Ride; two bands whose influences continue to shape the entire shoegaze/dreampop/scene that continues to celebrate itself that has so many aficionados throughout the present day indie music world. In June of this year I reviewed a compilation of new shoegaze bands which includes bands from across the globe and on which the influence of both the Cocteau Twins and Ride can be heard throughout, with only My Bloody Valentine vying with the Cocteaus for the ‘most influential 80s band aside from Joy Division’ title. Since 1998, when the Cocteau Twins officially disbanded, Guthrie has continued to make his presence known musically with a myriad of projects, with his own trio, with Harold Budd, with John Foxx, as a producer and remixer for M83, Ulrich Schnauss and a large number of others.

Mark Gardener may seem a less active musician but Ride have recently reformed and are touring internationally, guaranteed of enthusiastic receptions wherever they perform. Ride released four complete studio albums before they broke up in 1995, and their reputation has remained intact over the last two decades, with the industry pressures that led to them disbanding finally dealt with and allowing a present day audience to hear “Vapor Trail”, “Dreams Burn Down”, “Twisterella” and their other songs performed onstage again. I’m wondering if their live set contains anything from their 1994 Carnival Of Light set, an album that has a definite position within my own music collection, although it saw the Oxford four piece moving away from their initial shoegaze masterpieces and developing a sound that fell somewhere between country rock and the then emergent Britpop style, with limited success at the time.

A bit of a preamble seems necessary here as Universal Road is, undeniably, a meeting of two very influential and committed musical talents. It is also their second project as a duo after 2012’s “The Places We Go” single, which I hadn’t known of until I began researching this review. Mark Gardener has something to say about how both releases were made in a recent interview that you can read here and it’s an unavoidably lengthy explanation of how the collaboration with Guthrie actually came about. Musicians with several decades of success and influence behind them have reasons for making albums such as this, for making the music they want to, but that they also need to. So, aside from the talents and reputations displayed on this collaborative endeavour, is Universal Road actually any good?

Mark Gardner

Mark Gardener

The first and title track opens with some trademark Guthrie guitar ambiences and the tone is undeniably mellow as Gardener’s lyric speaks of his, Guthrie’s and by extension Ride’s ongoing musical journeys. “I carry you wherever I go / We live in space between these notes” runs the lyric, and Gardener’s voice is recognisably that of the vocalist of “Vapour Trail” and “Dreams Burn Down”, although it did occur to me that with so many other musicians emulating his style, the ethereal guitar part could have been performed by another guitarist aside from Guthrie himself. It’s a less than energetic beginning to the album, and second track “Dice” might have made for a more immediate introduction to the album, harking back as it does to Ride’s pre-Carnival Of Light heyday. And third track “Amnesia” does echo Ride’s underrated third album, which while it might’ve sounded like indulgent laddism two decades ago now sounds like a blueprint for the then emerging Britpop scene. Ride’s bassist Andy Bell went on to play with Oasis and the Gallagher brothers might have taken one or two inspirations from an album that’s now an almost forgotten snapshot of Ride’s mid-’90s career.

Universal Road is very much Mark Gardener’s album, with both his voice and smartly turned lyricism fully intact, and while there’s a perceptible aura of nostalgia throughout the album, Gardener’s underpowered vocals contain an occasionally caustic verbiage, such as “Old Friend” and its “Something’s evil / If everybody’s dreaming the same dream” themes. Listeners may speculate as to exactly what Gardener’s words are designed to convey; with a career in music stretching back almost three decades, the most productive part of it as a part of the Creation roster and doubtlessly a host of anecdotes stemming from those experiences, there are occasional barbed rejoinder to someone or something in his musical past throughout, while Guthrie remains very much in the background, toning down his renowned ability with a reverberating guitar riff.

The fifth track is the one that a large portion of those wanting to hear Universal Road have been waiting for though, a subtle rewrite of the Cocteau Twin’s 1994 chart hit “Bluebeard” and with Guthrie’s feet firmly attached to those effects pedals. “Yesterday’s News” is more than a hint of his coming to terms with his past and he also sounds as if he’s enjoying himself tremendously, drawing the maximum of tone and melody from his instrument and recalling the influential glories of his best known band in their late-’80s Blue Bell Knoll heyday. Gardener’s performance is equally as assertive, singing “I wouldn’t have it any other way / So tired of the darkness in our lives today.” It’s a compelling performance from both Guthrie and Gardener.

Robin Guthrie

Robin Guthrie

Over the second part of Universal Road, both Gardener and Guthrie must have been aware that, now in their respective mid-life existences and taking everything at a leisurely pace, things could perhaps begin to drift away too subtly. It is an album that rewards a careful listen, and neither of the pair seem greatly concerned with the issues of approaching age and career crises. “Sometime” seems almost (and very likely is) a purposed rejoinder to anyone finding Universal Road lacking in urgency.  “It’s how you come alive / So let’s go / No getting old before our time,’ sings Gardener over the mid-tempo and meticulously arranged “Sometime”, a song that should banish any doubts about Guthrie’s abilities as a composer. And just in case anyone is thinking that the songs are all too based around a formula of folk-tinged balladry, “Triumphant” ups the pace and with Guthrie paying a tribute of his own to another influential guitarist, Johnny Marr with the influence of the Smiths underscoring Gardener’s less reflective and personalised lyric on this track; “Fools like us / Are running out of love.”

There are doubtlessly a number of other musical references part hidden within the ten tracks on Universal Road, although I’d leave it to other listeners to decide what those maybe are themselves. Lastly, “Blind” is somewhere a reassessment of a song that’s perhaps Ride’s best known song, “Vapour Trail”, although that is maybe just me hearing that songs influence in the chord sequence and in the soaring burst of controlled feedback that the track ends with. It’s long enough since I listened to either Ride or the Cocteau Twins in any great detail, given the extent of both of its participants back catalogues Universal Road is somehow an inevitably cautiously produced record. Aware that their most innovative work is what many listeners will continue to make comparison with and that while their reputations don’t require salvaging, that they need to make music now that can maintain their respective momentums, and find an audience among those whose knowledge of Ride relies on their reissued and compilation albums, and those that either are only aware of Robin Guthrie as a producer and remixer or aren’t really familiar with anything he recorded after 1988.

Whatever their motives, Robin Guthrie and Mark Gardener have made an album that’s a display of musical craftsmanship from the former and an inspired and often caustically worded one from the latter, and if it’s pace seems a tentative or deeply reflective one, then let’s not expect very much in the way of pyrotechnics and experimentation from two of the indie music world’s most influential figures today. They’ve earned the right to take things a bit easy.

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