Chasing Sundays: April 2020
Posted: by The Editor
Chasing Sundays is Eli Enis’ bi-monthly deep-dive into vast the world of shoegaze. From its celestial pop outer-edges to its overwhelmingly heavy inner-core, these are some of the most valuable inclusions to the global shoegaze canon.
Quarantine has been messing with my listening habits. I’ve been reaching for ambient music, house, hardcore, metal, and comfort food pop-punk from my youth. Those are genres I also frequent when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic, but there’s been a glaring lack of indie-rock in my rotation. Something about hearing four or five people play music that sounds like four or five people playing music, singing about everyday personal circumstances that are no longer everyday personal circumstances, has been rubbing me the wrong way. Melodic rock music in general, which is usually my go-to, has been sounding a bit too normal for me during these unprecedented times. And for some reason my brain had been treating shoegaze—a genre I retreated to for comfort in pre-covid existence—with the same sort of unease.
Then, earlier this week, I finally picked up the book that had been staring me down since I spontaneously bought it many months prior: the 33 1/3 edition on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. It’s a trim, 115-page read that’s more like 60 pages because it’s shaped like a little square pamphlet. I queued up the album on my speakers, dimmed the lights, and powered through the whole book in less than two hours. For the next few days, I listened almost exclusively to Loveless. It’s impossible to fully understand the genre of shoegaze without understanding Loveless. It’s also impossible to write at length about shoegaze without mentioning Loveless, so if you thought this column was an escape from one of the most played-out music writer-isms of the last 30 years then, well, I’m sorry I let you down.
I had listened to Loveless many, many times throughout my twenties. It’s inescapable if you click around on indie music message boards, or read rock music criticism, or spend more than an hour of your life in a record store listening to music nerds try to flex on one another. I can’t confirm this, but I can also imagine that if you’re a woman who’s ever had the misfortune of indicating you like indie music to a cis man who looks vaguely into Deerhunter, then you, too, have probably gotten hooked up to an IV drip of unsolicited Loveless factoids. So what I will do is spare you all the canonical wonkery and platitudinal awe and just cut right to the chase: Loveless is a genuinely one-of-a-kind album that does somehow, both to my bewilderment and my disdain, live up to every iota of praise it has ever received.
The author of that book, Mike McGonigal, definitely feels the same way. And I thought he mostly did an effective job at capturing the unbelievable mystique of the record, albeit in a bit of a fanboy-ish manner that came across as a little lazy at times. Nevertheless, the man was actually there in the late ’80s and early ’90s when shoegaze was being conceived, and he was lucky enough to see My Bloody Valentine perform at an unhealthily loud volume during that time. His description of that gig was entertaining, but the best parts of the book are all the great quotes he got from the band themselves–who corrected the record on a lot of the folklore about the album’s creation that had sprung up since its release.
To give just a quick summary, Loveless took a lot longer to come to fruition than MBV’s label would’ve liked; it cost more money than the label thought it was worth; and it the band burned through upwards of 20 engineers and producers before they were finally satisfied enough to release it. The way songwriter Kevin Shields told it, there were many points where it didn’t look like the album was going to ever see the light of day, and there were so many variables that could’ve resulted in a very different finished product than the one we hear today. Shields was a controlling perfectionist with a hyper-specific vision, and neither his label or any of the low-budget engineers his label forced onto him understood what that vision was.
The album is kind of a miracle in that sense. And it was tripping me out to think about how this collection of songs that codified an entire genre of music and redefined the capabilities of the guitar almost didn’t make it into the world. Naturally, it led me to question how many other Loveless‘s are out there, trapped forever in an artist’s mind, doomed to evaporate into the ether before anyone else can hear their brilliance. That’s a sad thought, but then I started thinking about the flipside: “Holy shit, how many other Loveless‘s are out there??” I’m sure at least some of them will make it through to the other side, like the few baby sea turtles who manage to find their way it into the ocean, avoid predators, and scavenge enough food to grow to their adult sizes.
When I thought about it that way, the odds seemed better. And after thinking about it for a while, I realized I hadn’t been thinking about quarantine for a while. I was thinking about sea turtles and listening intently to the layers upon layers of guitar feedback that are packed into Loveless, molded like clay into something tactile and mesmerizing. It completely rewired my relationship with shoegaze in the covid-19 era. I realized it was actually the perfect soundtrack for these times when our already-digitized lives are becoming even more connected with the virtual world. Its conflation of artificial textures and hot-blooded force, equal parts magical and meticulously calculated, is exactly what I need from music right now.
Here are eight mostly new shoegaze albums that have brought me comfort in recent months. Maybe they’ll have the same effect on you.
Wednesday is the project-turned-band of Asheville, North Carolina songwriter Karly Hartzman and her collaborator Daniel Gorham. You may know them from their other band, the power-pop savants Diva Sweetly, and Gorham also drums in the emo duo Pictures of Vernon and in the astral pop-punkers Prince Daddy & The Hyena. None of those bands are even vaguely shoegaze, and neither were Wednesday on their 2018 debut, yep definitely; a grab-bag of lofi piano pop, country, and jangle pop. But on their sophomore record I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone, which dropped back in February via Orindal Records, Wednesday committed to making blown-out shoegaze laced with woozy lap steel squalls and Hartzman’s drawly pop hooks. Languid tracks like “Coyote” and “November” drip like a clogged faucet that eventually overflows into sheets of distortion, whereas propulsive standouts like “Billboard” and “Maura” sound like they were recorded with the intention of rattling the garage door from way down in the basement. It’s a short yet rewarding album that puts a warm, Southern pop twist on grayscale shoegaze.
The excellent new Peel Dream Magazine album is one of the most anticipated and well-received shoegaze releases of the year thus far. The New York project of songwriter Joe Stevens traverses many moods and styles without ever veering off course or coming across as a cheap eclectic. Some tracks strike the perfect balance between high-speed post-punk and opaque shoegaze, recalling what DIIV did on last year’s Deceiver. Others are sweet, gooey pop cuts that definitely channel Yo La Tengo, Sparklehorse, or, as other reviewers have pointed out, Stereolab. There are even quiet moments on here like “The Bertolt Brecht Society” that call back to DSU-era (Sandy) Alex G, and a song like “Permanent Moral Crisis” wouldn’t sound out of place in a rotation of Magnetic Fields songs. In short, Peel Dream Magazine are an incredibly comprehensive and forward-thinking shoegaze act. They’re able to bring the genre’s smeared vocal delivery and kaleidoscopic layerings to nearly every planet in the indie-rock multiverse and establish blissful unity on all fronts. Agitprop Alterna is a goddamn treat.
Fake Indians are a Belgium band with a stupid name that make joyously messy shoegaze with a no wave ethos. Think Swervedriver crossed with the noisiness of The Jesus Lizard. Their debut full-length The Pest arrived earlier this year and plays like an acid freak college DJ rifling through a crate of Touch and Go Records bands during a 3 a.m. shift in 1994. The bulk of the record zeroes in on a stomping conglomerate of pounding drums, hypnotic basslines, and obnoxiously loud guitar tones set to ear-drum-shattering levels. But there are occasional detours into Dinosaur Jr. proto-grunge and menacing drone. The band are at their best when they’re sinking into loud, nasty instrumental jams with splintering guitar solos and chunky grooves.
Confusingly, Spirit of the Beehive frontman Zack Schwartz released a solo record under the name Draag Me back in January. That album is cool, but it sounds nothing like the new EP from the L.A. band simply called Draag. Clara Luz is a downright beautiful tour through a few varieties of shoegaze. After a somewhat standard fare intro track, “Ghost Leak” introduces trip-hoppy electronic drums and bubbling key parts; “Trauma” adds rippling synth effects and a throbbing techno bassline; and “Around My Fear” pairs experimental ambient textures with puffy clouds of reverbed guitar. The production throughout the whole project is spectacular, allowing a sidewinding bassline to puncture through the thick guitars on “Alternative Privilege” and the polyrhythmic drums of “Baby Fog” to pop expressively. That latter track, the project’s six-minute closer, ventures further into post-rock territory by its final third–offering a glimpse at where this band could go if they wanted to abandon shoegaze altogether. Keep an eye on Draag.
Lord Whorfin are an Ohio band named after John Lithgow’s character in the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. That’s only worth mentioning because Lord Whorfin’s self-titled debut is itself an action-packed journey between the dimensions of shoegaze, emo, black metal, and Up Records-indebted indie-rock. Songs like “Golden Shores” and “448” feature space-rocky riffs, bouncy grooves and yelly vocals with the grit of screamo but the melodicism of Modest Mouse. The grunty doom vocals that pop up in the metallic “Basement” and in the 17-minute closer “LED” are…not good. But fortunately they’re the only moments on this entire project that don’t deliver on their extremely fun and outlandish ambitions. That last track jumps from black metal, to skronky post-hardcore, to noise, to Whenever, If Ever-era emo, to absolute unit shoegaze, and back to black metal all in one fell swoop. Name one other band who’s done that shit.
Topographies are a San Francisco band with a very measured, classical take on the shoegaze idiom. Their new EP Difference & Repetition is four songs with taut post-punk basslines, Spiritualized-esque vocals, and light, airy guitar streaks. I’m typically drawn to the beefier side of the shoegaze spectrum, so this project is a bit softer than what I usually reach for. However, it’s final track “An Eye, Open” has such an amazing build from a wintry, tender pop song to a weighted blanket of guitar and synth layers. If you like your shoegaze pretty and shimmering—closer to pale-faced dream-pop than the gusto of grunge or alt-rock—then Difference & Repetition is definitely worth your time.
Here’s one from the vaults. Coaches are a Brooklyn band that came onto my radar earlier this year when they dropped a video for their 2018 track “New New York”. That song has more of a slacker rock feel to it, but the record it came from, A Bright Crumb of Steel, is stuffed with gorgeously careening shoegaze comets like “Slow Crush” and “You’ve Got A Way of Bringing Me Down”. Ride and Chapterhouse are fair reference points for their more straightforward tracks, but Coaches aren’t afraid to get weird and slow–and they close their record with their own version of MBV’s “Soon”; a bump of ecstasy for dancefloor romantics in the reverb dreamscape.
For some reason it took me a while to really get what Holy Fawn were going for. But their new EP The Black Moon, which dropped out of the blue back in January, is a truly magnificent two-and-a-half song affair. The Arizona band play a gargantuan meld of post-rock, shoegaze, and ambient metal that conjures the rush of gazing into the distance from the peak of a snow-capped mountain. Its first track “Candy” quickly hurls itself into Cloakroom or True Widow splendor; all-consuming riffs with the body of metal and the beauty of Explosions In The Sky. “Tethered” serves as an ambient interlude that sets the mood for the beginning of “Blood Pact”, which takes an achingly long—yet highly captivating—time to reach its momentous conclusion. Holy Fawn take full advantage of the substantial advancements in recording technology from throughout the last decade. I don’t think anyone could have made a project that sounds this crisp and mighty back in 2010, and it’s exciting to imagine how much more majestic a band like this could sound in ten years time.
Eli Enis | @eli_enis
The Alternative is ad-free and 100% supported by our readers. If you’d like to help us produce more content and promote more great new music, please consider donating to our Patreon page, which also allows you to receive sweet perks like free albums and The Alternative merch.