Slowdive is Too Pretty

No band has benefited more from jumping on the trendy reunion train than Slowdive. The shoegaze group, which had been inactive since the mid-90s — when they were basically run out of town by their record label and the music press — has returned to a larger audience than ever while being recast as a festival headliner. And as one of the “original” shoegaze bands (along with the also-reunited My Bloody Valentine and Ride), they’re being credited with innovating a genre that continues to influence a massive amount of current music.

This portrayal of Slowdive is odd, because I never felt like they were a particularly innovative or important band. Their most famous album, Souvlaki, came out well after MBV defined the genre with Loveless, and the band hadn’t even formed when Isn’t Anything was released. Their main innovation to the genre was removing a lot of the rough edges and tension that make MBV such a unique band and instead making music that was smooth and pretty, but much less compelling. I partially blame them for this current strand of indie music like The xx that is very concerned with being “spacious” and “chill,” to the point that the people making it sound disinterested in their own music.

Slowdive’s self-titled reunion album cements their legacy as a slightly above-average shoegaze band. It sounds very pretty and meticulously arranged, but that is part of the problem. My favorite part of shoegaze is how it can sound chaotic and beautiful at the same time when really loud guitars collide with the breathy vocals and melodies. While the genre’s name implied a passiveness on behalf of the performers, bands like MBV have a confrontational element to their music — they’re testing the audience with massive sheets of noise to see if they can find the melodies buried underneath.

Part of why I’m not so enamored with this Slowdive album is that it lives down to the derisive nickname of the genre. It’s very passive music that ends up settling in the background rather than engaging the listener. I’m not going to sit here and act like it’s terrible — the members of this band are very experienced and know how to make music in this style, and I like “Star Roving” and a couple of other songs. I’m just struggling to really care about it or feel like I need to listen to a new Slowdive album in 2017. It’s too quiet and one-note, without the tensions and contrasts that I like to hear in this style of music.

I’ll admit that I might be biased against this album, because I’m so averse to this trend of manufactured nostalgia where everyone gets hyped for some middle-tier 90s band that already had a full career arc. I don’t get this excitement for Slowdive when they have three albums and some EPs that you can listen to at any time, then formed Mojave 3 and released more albums that barely anyone cares about. I wish some of this excitement was reserved for newer bands, or even bands that were around in the 90s and have continued making music instead of breaking up then reuniting.

As for this “shoegaze revival” created by the original bands reuniting, I think it’s a misnomer. Anyone who actually listens to and likes this genre knows that it’s been alive and well for years as tons of bands have added their own spin on the formula and continued pushing it forward. While MBV’s reunion album showed that they’re still the masters of this genre, Slowdive blends in with all the other revivalists and feels unremarkable.

Sneaks – “It’s a Myth”

This far into the history of pop music, there are few true originals. Instead, it’s really about finding the right influences and trying to make what has already been done feel new again. On her second album, It’s a Myth, Sneaks (AKA Eva Moolchan) accomplishes that as well as anyone I’ve heard this year. Her sound is indebted to minimalist post-punk groups like ESG and Young Marble Giants, but she has infused it with a modern hip-hop sensibility that makes it feel fresh.

Like her 80s inspirations, Moolchan keeps things simple on this album. She’s backed by just a drum machine, bass and occasional synthesizer and her delivery is a deadpan that is somewhere in the middle of singing and spoken word. At times, It’s a Myth feels inspired by slam poetry, but thankfully it dodges that art form’s common pitfall of being really corny due to her skill as a lyricist. While a lot of this spoken word poetry/punk music wants to hit you over the head with its themes, Moolchan is more interested in the sound and rhythm of the words and the interplay with the music. It’s an abstract approach that reminds me a bit of Sue Tompkins from Life Without Buildings.

It’s a Myth accomplishes something increasingly rare: it actually sounds cool. So many bands desperately try to sound cool (the uncoolest thing there is), but Moolchan just is. She has a casual confidence that makes the entire album feel smooth, and her charisma makes it consistently entertaining. It’s aided by her skill in editing her songs, which rarely cross the two-minute mark, with the whole album breezing by in just 18 minutes. It’s a Myth has the brevity and attitude of great punk music while also feeling effortless, unpretentious and fun.

Annie Hardy – “Rules”

One of my favorite semi-forgotten albums in my “collection” (Spotify library) is Giant Drag’s Hearts and Unicorns. Released in 2005, it’s a delightfully immature collection of grungy indie rock fronted by Annie Hardy, who gained a minor amount of notoriety for her “naughty” lyrics, politically incorrect song titles and propensity for talking smack at live shows. She was also a very good songwriter, and on Hearts and Unicorns showed a gift for songs that were melodic and dissonant, which were made even better by her offbeat charisma and humor.

Hardy seemed like she might be the next big thing in indie rock, but she largely disappeared after Hearts and Unicorns. She founded her own record label, made a lot of weird youtube videos, and didn’t release a proper follow-up until 2013’s Waking Up is Hard to Do. By then, Hardy was largely forgotten about, and the album was received with little fanfare. Now she’s back with her first solo release, Rules, and my hope is that this album doesn’t just get ignored or unheard, because it is a remarkable piece of work made under unfathomable circumstances.

In 2015, Hardy had a baby and was apparently ready to settle down and leave music behind. But 17 days later, he died of SIDS. Then, less than a year after that, her partner and father of the child died of a drug overdose.

Hardy’s predicament is so beyond comprehension that it’s amazing to me that Rules even exists. And what I like about this album is that it isn’t some really finely crafted, sophisticated attempt at poetically explaining her scenario. It’s raw, ragged, and real. Hardy has pursued a more mature sound than Hearts and Unicorns, but she is grappling with subject matter that she justifiably doesn’t fully understand yet. Every song feels like a struggle as she tries to figure out why this happened and what she does now.

“Jesus Loves Me” is the most emotional song on the album, as Hardy sincerely sings about her newfound spirituality and references bible verses while backed by piano and strings. “I know Jesus loves me, because my life is miserable and ugly,” she sings. But then, minutes into the song, she lashes out in a seeming non-sequitur: “These days everyone can blow me/Talking shit, acting like they know me/They can laugh, they can all make of me/But I know that Jesus is my homey.” It captures the feeling on this album that Hardy is trying to be grown-up and mature about this, but at the same time is angry and resentful that it happened to her. And so the old Annie Hardy, who was immature and fond of talking trash in the Giant Drag days, makes an appearance.

That song sums up the appeal of Rules and Hardy herself: she isn’t afraid to show her flaws, and they actually become her strength here, because an album made in this circumstance shouldn’t be perfect. Her non-traditional raspy singing voice adds to the anguish and power of her simple lyrics, like on “Want” when she sings “I want my baby back” — a line that takes on a whole new, terrible meaning in this context. The end of that song is my favorite moment of the album, a mournful guitar solo that expresses what Hardy has been through more than words possibly could.

It goes without saying that this is a really depressing album, but there is a bravery and resilience in Hardy’s performance that is inspiring, and makes Rules feel essential.