Diagramming Modern English

With a new four-CD retrospective, Rhino Records captures the agony and ecstasy of the golden age of Brit rock

Fans of deafening reverb and swirling guitars rejoiced when enigmatic My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields announced this month that his band (which has been dormant since 1995) was reactivating to release a new album and play a handful of gigs. This announcement came only a few weeks after another noisy, distortion-drenched band, Swervedriver, announced its own reunion tour plans for 2008, and spaced-out psych-rockers the Verve played their first concert since breaking up in 1999.

Each of these bands plays a variation on a type of rock music known as shoegaze—a genre Rhino Records highlights on its latest boxed set, The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium. Spanning roughly from 1985 to 2000, the four-CD collection documents the countless number of musical fads and styles that sprang up in the U.K. during that time. If this seems like an impossible task—or one destined to be woefully incomplete or rife with contradictions—well, that's completely correct.

However, the Brit Box is still a gold mine of brilliant songs. Gems from the country's patron saints (The Cure, The Smiths, and Jesus and Mary Chain) anchor the first disc. The rest of the collection builds on that foundation, incorporating everyone from indie-dance acts characterized as "baggy" after a clothing style (Charlatans, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses), to, well, bands that have never really fit in anywhere (Placebo, Super Furry Animals, Saint Etienne). Songs from lesser-knowns are hit-or-miss; for every stroke of genius (the 1960s-inspired psych-rock of Eugenius, the Nico-like majesty of the Shop Assistants, Dodgy's sunny Beatles-isms), the Brit Box has plenty of things that are best left forgotten (Mega City Four's derivative jangle, Moose's interminable slo-core drone).

Nevertheless, these sub-par tunes imbue the Brit Box with an air of authenticity and give listeners a better idea of how quickly fads became watered down in the U.K. This shambling atmosphere is exacerbated by the set's sequencing; arranged roughly chronologically, it's much easier to see how these genres blurred together—and how difficult it really was to classify many of these bands.

What mainly stands out on Brit Box is how enjoyable most of the music still is (even after taking the unavoidable feelings of nostalgia into account). While production tricks and other flourishes sometimes date songs, overall they remain remarkably well-constructed, which contributes to their enduring popularity, according to Miki Berenyi, vocalist of ethereal pop-goths Lush.

"I'm going to sound like a real old fart here, but people actually used to write songs back then," she says via e-mail. "I find a lot of music now relies on cover versions, shameless rip-offs, samples or a retro feel that so replicates the original, it's often hard to even recognize an original song when it is one!

"To be fair, there is a higher level of proficiency in singers and musicians these days (generally speaking, I mean) but unless you're talking about a truly impressive ability like Amy Winehouse, then so what? Especially when it comes at the sacrifice of innovation, and a genuine sense of experimentation and fun."

But to Mighty Lemon Drops guitarist/singer David Newton, the attention to tradition that anchored this innovation has helped the music endure.

"The majority of the music is based around the electric guitar, drums and bass," he says. "Traditional [instruments]—basically what the Beatles and Rolling Stones used—as opposed to production and studio trickery, and beats and loops and synthesizers. It's pretty much timeless. If you're listening to a Smiths track from 1985, bands are making records today that still sound like that."

Unsurprisingly, the third disc of the set (i.e., the one covering the Smiths/Kinks/Bowie-influenced Britpop movement) is by far the best, most consistent volume. Stars such as Blur, Supergrass, Pulp, Suede and Elastica are still staples of any Anglophile-friendly night in the States, while even minor players (Gene, Catatonia, Echobelly) have aged well.

But it's curious that Brit Box's otherwise smart, exhaustive liner notes only circumspectly reference one crucial part of English culture: its ingrained class system, where money, education and regionalism carry great meaning. John Harris notes in his book Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock that "part of [Britpop's] aim, after all, was to restore the links between British rock and its social context; to soundtrack its time."

He further observes that some in the scene viewed Britpop as a reaction against the prevailing American sludge-rock. (In the book, Blur vocalist Damon Albarn is quoted as saying, "If punk was getting rid of hippies, then I'm getting rid of grunge.") In that sense, this goal unified bands—where scruffy, working-class Oasis and art-school-educated Pulp found common ground. (Even though Oasis was hell-bent on breaking big in the United States and arguably remains the biggest Britpop band here.)

But the United States interpreted this reclamation of cultural heritage very differently, both then and now. Beyond the singles that caught on with a wider audience here (on Brit Box represented by James' "Laid," Pulp's "Common People" and Oasis' "Live Forever"), Britpop was almost fetishized and viewed as novelty, with such iconography as the Union Jack seen as a fashion choice instead of a political statement. And while one can appreciate and enjoy Britpop on its own merits, it almost seems like revisionist history to address the music apart from its political and cultural implications.

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