Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Slowdive - Souvlaki (1993)

| Shoegaze | Dream Pop | Alternative Rock |

Imagine the greatest hit you ever took. Now imagine that hit was transposed into a musical puff of the cheeb. Pretty much right there, you have Slowdive's "Alison" off their 1993 shoegaze work of art, Souvlaki. Blending dreamy pop melodies with fuzzy tremolo guitar static, Slowdive is one of the greatest contenders for acknowledgement as "the shoegaze band that's not My Bloody Valentine". In all fairness, the acute level of success Slowdive were able to fashion for themselves could not have been possible without Loveless. That monumental masterpiece still stands today as the only shoegaze album that mattered, and for good reason, as it's one of the undisputed classics of life. Slowdive even borrows some of the elements that made My Bloody Valentine so terrific, such as a chick-and-dude vocal approach and maintaining a poppy style for each of their tracks. But let it be known; Slowdive are not copies of My Bloody Valentine. As their lovely critically acclaimed Souvlaki displays, Slowdive's approach towards Shoegaze is focused more on melody and song construction, whereas Loveless was prone to drift into blissful drones that while being very repetetive, were hypnotizingly beautiful. Both band's approaches to the genre are smart and beautiful in their own way, but whereas My Bloody Valentine was more experimental in approach, Slowdive truly made a pop album in verse-chorus-verse mentality. It makes Souvlaki a more digestable album than Loveless at first, and maybe if you're just crazy enough, a better one.

Upon first listen, it's clear to see that Slowdive aren't trying to win anyone over with anything other than their songwriting. A lack of instrumental flare or any displays of musical virtuousity is noticeable throughout Souvlaki, leaving lots of pressure on the vocals to be damn impressive. Fortunately, they deliver. Vocalist/guitarist Neil Halstead's breezy sigh and female vocalist/guitarist Rachel Goswell's lazily angelic voice are two great tastes that taste great together, as Slowdive's best work comes when Halstead and Goswell sing together like two too-high-to-*** lovers. The aforementioned "Alison" showcases that exact vocal feel, both melodically and lyrically, as Halstead and Goswell breathe in eachother's ears "Alison, I said we're sinking/ there's nothing here but that's okay/ Outside your room, your only sister's spinning/ but she lies. Tells me she's just fine/ I guess she's out there somewhere." While this is going on, the guitars bleed high notes with an almost synthy feel, only adding to the dream-like effect Halstead and Goswell's reverb-heavy vocals create. From this point, Halstead and Goswell get some of their own songs to work on, but undeniably, their greatest strength as an individual is the other person.

It's that strength that lends itself to songs like the ridiculously awesome "When the Sun Hits", in which Halstead and Goswell concot a mesmerizing melody, only to turn it heartwrenching when a choir appears for a few brief seconds; but those seconds linger in your spine until the choir returns for a reprise. It's impossible to discern what the massive choir is saying, but what they're saying seems inconsequential, the same way what those massive dramatic-moment movie-choirs are saying is inconsequential. The point is, you know it's emotional, but you don't know why. The aural spine tingling of "When the Sun Hits" doesn't show up again on Souvlaki, but that doesn't stop most of the album from being pretty darn good. Souvlaki's stronger songs work on both ends of the spectrum, the first being the enormous, spacey feel of "When the Sun Hits" and "Alison", the other's being far more subtle, as the most obvious trek into minimalism also is arguably the best song on the album. "Dagger", the album closer (the four songs listed after "Dagger" aren't on the original album, and thus feel like an epilogue to "Dagger"'s final chapter), uses goth-ish lyrics and haunting harmonies to score a shoegaze acoustic gem to rival "Sometimes". Halstead croons, very seriously, very eerily, "The sunshine girl is sleeping/ She falls and dreams alone/ And me I am her dagger/ To numb to feel her pain". It sounds like a harsh, stereotypical emokid lyric, but it's somehow poignantly honest, and the harmonies Halstead puts over himself when he sings the chorus only add to the beauty. The haunting of "Dagger" isn't exactly replicated, but traces of it are found on the spacey "Melon Yellow" and the Goswell showcase "Sing", in which she sings the title lyric with such a piercing falsetto after about 90 seconds of a monotone drone, it's hair-raising. The credit here goes to the songwriting of Halstead and Goswell, who prove multiple times that they can write one effin' good song, when they've got the inspiration. When they don't, you can see where the weak points in Souvlaki lay.

As noted before, the lack of instrumental flare puts the pressure on the songs themselves, and not all the tracks on Souvlaki are killers. For the most part, the weak moments occur at the ballads of the album. The Halstead solo number "Altogether" sounds like it's meant to be a slower, dreamier "With a Little Help From My Friends", but instead doubles in cheesiness and an uninspired melody leaves the song sounding bland, despite the best efforts of chorus handclaps. "Altogether" stands as the only truly bad song, but weaker moments are definitely there, especially when they sit right next to the good songs. "Souvlaki Space Station", the track before "When the Sun Hits", stands solidly by itself, but all memory of the tune is obliterated when it's followed by pure awesomeness. Similarly, the standard sounding "40 Days" is an okay song, but it's a letdown after the strong start of "Alison" and the melancholy sliding of "Machine Gun". It's these letdowns that prevent Souvlaki from being a classic album to stand up against Loveless, but doesn't prevent it from being a very good album. As a whole, Souvlaki is marvelously composed work of shoegaze, dreamily spacey, blissfully droning, and makes a very strong case for being the second most essential Shoegaze album. The recommendation here is kick back with your friends, put this on, and enjoy a Dutchie. You know Slowdive did.

Album Overview on SputnikMusic

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