Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Bloody Valentine - Isn't Anything (1988)

| Shoegaze | Noise Rock | Dream Pop | Alternative Rock | Post-Punk |

Like the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and the Jesus & Mary Chain before them, My Bloody Valentine redefined what noise meant within the context of pop songwriting. Led by guitarist Kevin Shields, the group released several EPs in the mid-'80s before recording the era-defining Isn't Anything in 1988, a record that merged lilting, ethereal melodies of the Cocteau Twins with crushingly loud, shimmering distortion. Though My Bloody Valentine rejected rock & roll conventions, they didn't subscribe to the precious tendencies of anti-rock art-pop bands. Instead, they rode crashing waves of white noise to unpredictable conclusions, particularly since their noise wasn't paralyzing like the typical avant-garde noise rock band: it was translucent, glimmering, and beautiful. Shields was a perfectionist, especially when it came to recording, as much of My Bloody Valentine's sound was conceived within the studio itself. Nevertheless, the band was known as a formidable live act, even though they rarely moved, or even looked at the audience, while they were on-stage. Their notorious lack of movement was branded "shoegazing" by the British music press, and soon there were legions of other shoegazers -- Ride, Lush, the Boo Radleys, Chapterhouse, Slowdive -- that, along with the rolling dance-influenced Madchester scene, dominated British indie rock of the late '80s and early '90s. As shoegazing reached its peak in 1991, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, which broke new sonic ground and was hailed as a masterpiece. Though the band was poised for a popular breakthrough, it disappeared into the studio and didn't emerge over the next five years, leaving behind a legacy that proved profoundly influential in the direction of '90s alternative rock.

Though it's often seen as just a precursor to their magnum opus Loveless, in its own way My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything is nearly as groundbreaking as their 1991 masterpiece. Not only was it the most lucid, expansive articulation yet of the group's sound, it virtually created the shoegazing scene and spawned legions of followers. The album's tightly structured songs still bore traces of My Bloody Valentine's previous incarnation as jangly indie popsters, but Kevin Shields and company crafted wide-ranging experiments within those confines. "Feed Me with Your Kiss"'s mix of bruising guitars, drums, and sensual boy-girl vocals define My Bloody Valentine's signature sound, while "All I Need"'s weightless guitars and vocal melodies melt into a heady haze. Shields' unique tunings, tremolo, and miking techniques stand out on "You Never Should" and "Nothing Much to Lose," but Deb Googe's surprisingly funky bassline on "Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)" reaffirms that all of the Valentines contributed to their innovative sound. Indeed, many of Isn't Anything's disturbingly beautiful highlights come from Bilinda Butcher. On the wrenching "No More Sorry," she sings abstractly pained lyrics like "Your septic heart and deadly hand/Loved me black and blue," barely audible over a swarm of fragile yet menacing guitars, while on "Several Girls Galore" she's sexy, yet dazed and distant; it sounds like she's whispering in your ear outside of a blaring nightclub. The Valentines' dark side is especially prominent on the album, particularly on "Sueisfine," where the chorus slyly morphs from "Sue is fine" to "Suicide." Isn't Anything captures My Bloody Valentine's revolutionary style in its infancy and points the way to Loveless, but it's far more than just a dress rehearsal for the band's moment of greatness.

Album Overview on Allmusic

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