Isn’t Anything (Creation Records, Sire Records ’88) Rating: A-
Far more than merely the blueprint for the brilliant “dreampop” that would fully flower on Loveless, Isn’t Anything is actually a much more diverse album overall. At this point the band’s exciting sound owed more than a little to Sonic Youth on some of the faster songs, in part because Kevin Shields sings in a plain but effective Thurston Moore-ish kind of way. However, it’s the LOUD, edgy guitars and Colm O’Ciosoig’s walloping beat that are what’s really important to hard-charging rockers like "Feed Me With Your Kiss" and “You Never Should,” though the melodic chorus of “Sueisfine” also shows a more accessible side to the band. Of course, it was on dreamy tracks (sung in an ethereal manner by Bilinda Butcher) such as “Lose My Breath” and “I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)” that the band really started to find their own voice, while on “(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream” and “Nothing Much To Lose” the band sound both explosive and dreamy. There’s a sad, melancholic undercurrent to many of these songs even when the vocals are mixed so far back as to be unintelligible, and the band’s chaotic sound generally coalesces into interesting configurations, though you should be forewarned that the band's hazy, distorted guitars are known to induce dizziness. In retrospect, Isn’t Anything paved the way for much of the interesting alternative music that followed in the early ‘90s. Largely forgotten in the wake of its superior successor, the album still sounds fresh and exciting today, though it's clear that the band had yet to fully immerse themselves within the style that best suited them.
Ecstasy and Wine (Lazy Records '89) Rating: B+
The Strawberry Wine EP (3 songs) and the Ecstasy mini-album (7 songs) were originally released in 1987 and compiled together as Ecstasy and Wine in 1989, with a different version of the song "Strawberry Wine" but otherwise keeping their contents intact. This makes for an enjoyable stopgap release between Isn't Anything and Loveless, though it's not as good as either as Butcher had just joined the band and their signature style was still in its infancy. There are glimmers of their future uniqueness, but most of these comparatively straightforward and concise songs showcase a loud bubblegum pop band with jangly and/or distorted guitars and plainspoken (Shields) and/or airy vocals (Butcher, who steals the show whenever she sings even if it isn't as often as Shields). Certainly adjectives like "twee," "sparse" (sometimes, anyway), and "naive" would never be used to describe their most sophisticated later work, and the tinny, trebly production is a minor hindrance, but by and large this is an unerringly pleasant if somewhat samey-sounding collection of songs, the best of which ("Strawberry Wine," "Never Say Goodbye," "She Loves You No Less," "You've Got Nothing," "(Please) Lose Yourself In Me") generally appear towards the beginning and end of the album. I wouldn't call these ten songs essential to the My Bloody Valentine experience, but they are enjoyable and are well worth seeking out, as they prove that the band's impressive accomplishments weren't limited to their classic full-length albums for Creation Records. And while we're at it, it's long overdue that the band's four Creation-era EPs (You Made Me Realize, Feed Me With Your Kiss, Glider, Tremolo), which contain some prime stuff, were compiled as well, as too many potential listeners start and finish with Loveless, which wouldn't be the case to quite such an extent if the band's other material was easier to get a hold of. Update: This has since been rectified, please read on...
Loveless (Creation Records, Sire Records '91) Rating: A+
Recorded painstakingly for three long years at great cost (it almost bankrupted Creation Records), Loveless is the ultimate dreampop album. Contrary to their gruesome moniker, My Bloody Valentine seamlessly constructs shimmering, dreamy soundscapes that are both abrasive and beautiful. Using multi-layered, distorted "glide guitars," lush synthesizers, huge drums, and ethereal, whispered vocals that add further textures to the album’s otherworldly ambiance, Loveless offers a loud and hypnotic world of sound collages (which, as previously mentioned only more so here, can at times be seriously disorienting; you've been warned!). Bilinda Butcher is clearly the lead vocalist this time out, but her indecipherable words are buried deep within the walls of luminous guitars (supplied primarily by group mastermind Kevin Shields, who also sings) and synthesizers. Sounds appear from all over the place, yet lush soundscapes and intoxicating melodies always manage to emerge. This is one of the finest sounding albums around (no less than 17 engineers are credited in the album's liner notes) whose very minor imperfections are merely several songs overstaying their welcome and the overall repetitiveness of the proceedings. A monumental early ‘90s album that virtually defined the “dreampop” (or "shoegazer") subgenre of guitar experimentalists (followers include Lush, Ride, Swervedriver, Catherine Wheel, Chapterhouse, and Slowdive), Loveless also influenced other major alternative artists such as Sugar (whose "Your Favorite Thing" directly rips off "Blown A Wish"), Yo La Tengo, Nine Inch Nails, and the Smashing Pumpkins. No less an authority than sonic auteur Brian Eno said that the danceable (likely "Madchester" influenced) “Soon” “sets a new standard for pop,” and tracks such as the lurching, explosive “Only Shallow,” the breathtakingly beautiful, deeply affecting “When You Sleep” (my personal favorite), the beautifully building “Sometimes,” and the drop-dead gorgeous yet decidedly rocking "What You Want" are at least as good (and I could easily name several other songs as highlights here as well). Superlatively sequenced, the songs on this album belong together, as "Touched," with its strange elephant cries, works well as a short mood enhancer, and several songs segue perfectly into each other, such as when the muted guitar solo at the end of "To Here Knows When" leads into the surging "When You Sleep." I'd also like to make brief mention of the brilliant album cover art, which looks exactly like the album sounds! Unfortunately, it's been over 20 years since this exotic, utterly addictive masterpiece was released, and a long promised follow up has yet to emerge. Update: This is no longer true, but read on…
EP’s 1988-1991 (Sony ’12) Rating: A
Although the highly anticipated sequel to Loveless had yet to appear at this point, at least My Bloody Valentine surprised everybody by regrouping and touring in the late 2000s. They were welcomed back with open arms by their loyal fan base, for though their time together was brief, like other similarly short-lived alternative rock bands such as The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, and the Pixies their influence in retrospect was enormous, and their small body of work was highly acclaimed. Among the key items in that body of work are the four EPs that the band recorded for Creation Records from 1988-1991, and at long last my earlier wish has been granted, because the four aforementioned hard-to-find EPs have finally been released together, along with seven additional songs (comprised of stray singles, rarities, and previously unreleased tracks). They’ve been remastered too (Isn’t Anything and Loveless have also been remastered and re-released), making these the definitive versions of these mini-albums, and though I would’ve liked to have had more expansive liner notes that better told this reclusive band’s story, this is a nitpick because this compilation constitutes an essential release that shows that the band were much more than merely Loveless. The EPs are presented in chronological order, with You Make Me Realize, Feed Me With Your Kiss, and Glider occupying disc one, and Tremolo and then the assorted non-EP tracks taking up disc two. You Make Me Realize is arguably the best of these, as all five of its songs are pretty much great, less dense and sophisticated than Loveless for sure but still doing the dreamy but seriously rocking thing extremely well. Even when the songwriting is less than top-notch their sound is just so undeniable, but I’m less fond of the four-song Feed Me With Your Kiss EP, which is still good but more straightforward noise-rock (plus this is the first instance of redundancy as the title track, which is the standout song of this set along with "Emptiness Inside," had appeared on Isn’t Anything). The four-song Glider EP sees the band finding their signature “dreamy distorto-pop” sound (I just coined that description and don’t expect it will stick but dammit it fits!). The glorious “Soon” I already talked about in my Loveless review, and the title track is an annoying miss, but “Don’t Ask Why” is a good example of how mellow MBV can be extremely affecting, as this song has an agreeably melancholic vibe about it even though I can’t make out all the words (and it’s not entirely “mellow” either), while the melodic "Off Your Face" is another delectably sweet, hazy, and hypnotic highlight. The four-song Tremolo EP, which sees Butcher taking over on the majority of the lead vocals (much like Yo La Tengo I prefer it when the gal sings, though the guys are effective too), is probably my second favorite EP here and is highlighted by the mesmerizing Loveless track “To Here Knows When,” the sumptuously ethereal Butcher showcase “Swallow” (on which the band's Irish roots are apparent), and the seriously RAWKING (aside from the last minute and a half) “Honey Power,” which powerfully lurches about a la “Only Shallow” and is buoyed by O’Ciosoig’s powerful drumming and Butcher’s airy lead vocals (by the way, Debbie Googe on bass rounds out the band's lineup). As for the non-EP tracks, they’re more hit-and-miss, with a couple of insubstantial instrumentals, a 10-minute version of “Glider” (3 minutes was too many!), a couple of very good but comparatively straightforward noise-rockers ("Good For You" is quite tuneful and poppy at times, while the hard-hitting "How Do You Do It" is another propulsive, powerful Sonic Youth inspired winner), and a pair of more prototypical dreampop gems in “Sugar” and “Angel.” Hey, if My Bloody Valentine never releases any new music, at least we have these 24 songs, now readily available, to listen to, right? These two discs may not be perfect, and in fact I’ll probably end up creating a truncated 15 song playlist (give or take a couple of tracks) rather than playing them all the way through, but this welcome reissue provides further evidence that My Bloody Valentine was one of the most important alternative rock bands of the past 25 years.
mbv (mbv ’13) Rating: A-
Well here it is, and honestly I didn’t think it would ever arrive, the long awaited follow up album to their monumental Loveless album. Regardless of why it took so long, I’m glad it’s finally here, especially since mbv is about as impressive a follow up as could’ve been hoped for, especially given the long layoff. I mean, how many great albums in the history of rock music were followed up over 20 years later, and the album was not only good but borderline great? (I can’t think of any such instance off the top of my head.) It’s not Loveless, because that masterpiece was a once in a lifetime sort of album on which they both invented and perfected their own oft-imitated but never bettered sound. But mbv is extremely impressive and enjoyable in its own right, peaking early with its first three songs, starting with “She Found Now,” on which the band’s gloriously hazy sound provides pure aural pleasure as the song builds slowly but inexorably and quite beautifully. “Only Tomorrow” is louder and more in your face and has a good guitar grind going for it, as well as melodic guitar solos whose sound is so unique I’m not even sure if it’s a guitar! “Who Sees You” has more good grooves and their signature glide guitars, before the album mellows out a bit on the pleasant (guitar-less!) twee pop of “Is This And Yes” and the airy dreampop of “If I am” (Butcher again is the primary vocalist though again the vocals essentially act as another instrument). “Near You” is poppy and less dense, and “In Another Way” features melodic, hypnotic (if repetitive) guitars, before the album’s lone filler track commences with the headache-inducing “Nothing Is.” The repetitive, highly percussive “Wonder 2” ends the album by sounding a bit like a wind tunnel, as again the band’s truly alternative sound is slightly off kilter and therefore won’t be for everybody. After all, for all the band’s “legendary” reputation, if you mention Loveless to Joe Schmo on the street who isn’t a music geek you’ll likely get a blank stare. Which of course makes MBV that much more special to us music geeks out there, and though this album starts much stronger than it ends, perhaps is a bit overly reliant on repetition (though this repetition also helps make the band’s music so hypnotic), and given the album’s long gestation period you could argue that more than 9 songs and 46 minutes of music should’ve been offered up, mbv is still an extremely satisfying experience. Heck, even the brilliantly colorful (dark blue as opposed to maroon) album cover is wonderfully appropriate. Welcome back!