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Shoegazing to My Bloody Valentine

By Andy Lee

I was halfway through last year’s “Lost in Translation” when I noticed something unusual. As Bob and Charlotte were taking a late cab ride back to their hotel, the camera drifted across the bright lights of the Tokyo skyline.

The sight conveyed a sense of lazy peace, but strangely, the soundtrack had just become its loudest. A wall of sound had crashed through the speakers and, at first, it seemed like an awkward contrast of sleepiness and noise. Over time, however, the guitar chords carved out a melody that surprisingly clicked with the mood of the visuals.

After the movie, I wondered why the song should make any sense for that scene. I would have to hear it a couple more times to better understand it... and then a few dozen more times for good measure.

Around 1991, the British band My Bloody Valentine recorded the song “Sometimes” along with ten other tracks for their final album, “Loveless.” The band was already notoriously deliberate in the studio, thanks in no small part to the perfectionist mentality of the band’s mastermind, Kevin Shields.

By recording the album, their record label, Creation, lost most of its own money from recording expenses alone. Incidentally, the band Oasis saved the label by selling records in huge numbers.

My Bloody Valentine had already shaped the musical landscape of Britain with their previous full-length album “Isn’t Anything.” With electric guitars that sounded alternately like an air raid siren and a sinister blender, the album helped inspire a rock movement whose main signature was waves of distortion and feedback.

These new bands became known as shoegazers for the indifferent way in which they performed on stage: standing completely still while staring straight down.

Someone could argue that their music was as alienating to their audience as their performance style was. More optimistically, shoegaze was about experimenting with the sonic texture of the electric guitar rather than simply assaulting the listener’s ears.

So why have “Loveless” tracks been zooming up the ranks of my “Most Played” playlist in iTunes? What is so impressive about “Loveless” is not just how it transforms typically confrontational noise into something comforting, but how good the songs themselves are. Warm melodies, powerful riffs, and even a few dance beats help each track find its own strange way to be catchy.

The opening song, “Only Shallow,” is one of the loudest songs I’ve ever heard and even with the volume turned down it can still scare your cat from the room. “Loomer” sounds pleasant for something apocalyptic. The romantic centerpiece “Sometimes” is so good that its presence alone makes this album a classic.

Looking past the keyboard bliss-outs and droning guitars, these are rock-pop songs at their core, albeit ones with barely audible lyrics. The way Shields’ and Bilinda Butcher’s voices sit in the mix with the other instruments complements the dreamy tone of the album extremely well and the lyrics become secondary to the sound of the words themselves. All the instruments, including the vocals, find a harmonizing balance that must’ve taken weeks of experimentation to find.

The album is so tightly designed and produced that you can appreciate how much discipline and time it took to achieve the final product. If you need an embroidery metaphor, “Loveless” is like an elaborate, complicated quilt that your eyes adjust to, letting you see the innovative textures and patterns.

“Loveless” was a critical success, but ironically, it meant the end for My Bloody Valentine. Shields wouldn’t let the band release a follow-up that was inferior and it was rumored that he scrapped full studio albums for just that reason. His other bandmates were tired of waiting around for nothing and left to continue their own music careers. The shoegaze movement never followed up “Loveless” either and Britpop soon became the dominant music of the early 90s.

Though the band bit the dust, elements of My Bloody Valentine’s sound can be heard throughout 90s alternative rock, including Weezer’s self-titled debut and especially The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream.” If you don’t immediately toss off the headphones in disgust, take a little time to figure this music out and it will probably grow on you. I hope someone else can get as excited about My Bloody Valentine as I am.

And the play count to beat is currently 76 for “Sometimes.” No cheating.