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February 22, 2002

Album Review: Shoegazing: This well ain't poisoned yet

Sometimes, maybe after having heard Death Cab for Cutie be hailed as the hip underground band all the kids are digging these days, I honestly think I'd sell my soul, or at least a good majority of my earthly possessions, to have been in college 10 to 15 years ago, back in the halcyon days of Creation Records and the shoegaze movement.

Ah, yes, shoegaze — that principally Anglophilic window of time where bands were scraggly and unphotogenic and spent most of their time staring at their Vox pedals (or shoes, as the case may be). Days when college radio airwaves were barraged with eddies of feedback and drone that swirled into pot-smokers' aural wet-dreams, a mysterious lost era where bad indie bands meant those that sounded, God forbid, a bit too much like My Bloody Valentine.

I suppose I shouldn't complain too much about our times, though, because along with all the other musical regurgitations I've gotten to experience in various watered-down forms, it seems that shoegaze, too, is now getting its second wind. Spearheaded by bands like Iceland's much-touted Sigur Ros, eight-minute dreamscapes with plaintive male vocals are once again racking up sales. However, the nagging disposability of this new strain of sonic exploration (witness, for example, how excited I was to buy Agaetis Byrjun and how little I actually play it now) prompts the question of whether this style of music was always sort of cloyingly bombastic or whether perhaps shoegaze, like a dish of reheated lasagna, was simply much better the first time around.

Regardless of such preemptive doubts, the latest participants in the space-rock, or, perhaps more accurately, space-pop, revival is Monster Movie, a duo that certainly possesses the necessary star-sailing credentials. One of the two principal players, Christian Saville, played guitar for the quintessential shoegazers Slowdive, and first recorded with partner Sean Hewson circa 1989 under the moniker Eternal, which released one single on the legendary indie-pop label Sarah Records. If that's not enough, their debut offering, Last Night Something Happened, now available on Claire Records, is engineered by Martin Nichols, who also engineered part of Slowdive's classic Souvlaki.

Such a promising lineage makes for high hopes, but sadly, after listening to Last Night, it seems that my original fears are confirmed and this semi-saccharine interpretation of past glories is more tedious than transcendent. Admittedly, though, as a sucker for minor chords and big hooks who once tried to order a T-shirt proclaiming "Britpop is not dead (hey, it matched my Liam Gallagher-style Adidas sneakers), it is completely impossible for me to hate this album. Nonetheless, it's equally impossible to see it as anything groundbreaking or even particularly good.

Yet don't get me wrong, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the disc. The songs are supremely catchy and well executed; if anything, they suffer from being too pretty and too majestic in a semi-uncomfortable "these violins are actually made by a keyboard and we use a drum machine, too" kind of way. Basically, the album can be summed up as the result of a three-step process: 1. Take some hands-aloft Travis ballads ("Ooby," which was included on last year's debut EP, even ends in a chorus of "na-na-na"s.) 2. Couple their pristine melodies with the tried-and-true shoegaze mix of swirling feedback, drones, and chiming guitars. 3. Garnish the resulting product with a vaguely '80s pop feel (most likely brought about by the synthy, drum-machine-y bits), and serve.

Truth be told, the most soaring, immaculate melodies on Last Night usually lead to the best tracks, and luckily in these, namely "Shortwave," "4th and Pine," "Ooby," and the instrumental "First Trip to the City," the arrangements are some of the more low-key. Ultimately, the best personification of what is wrong with Monster Movie can be found on "Home," where an opening of melodramatically ominous piano plunking and fake plastic drums is augmented by some cartoonish rocket-ship noises and singsong rhyme-chime vocals, eventually ending in a sort of angelic choir. In short, the song throws together all the worst shoegaze clichés and fails to make anything engaging out of them.

While this sort of thing generally seems like a bit of an overload for me, the album in its entirety is far from offensive. In perspective, if you like a group like Coldplay, you might want to check this release out. But if you really hanker after the rawness as well as sublimity of early Ride or the Telescopes, you'd probably be better off spending your time scouring the used record bins for those out of print 12"s.