There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Baby, baby, where did our love rock go? A decade ago, indie pop that sparkled and swooned was a major minor-league forceif anything that was alternately labeled “twee pop” or “cuddlecore” can be said to have force. Back then, the alliance of two sweet-natured post-punk bands (Heavenly and Beat Happening), their respective college-town scenes (Oxford, England, and Olympia, Wash.), and labels (Sarah and K) was proclaimed nothing less than the International Pop Underground. In 1991, its constituents were called to a weeklong convention that even fighters-more-than-lovers Fugazi attended.
Fugazi? Well, as it happens, D.C. was a love-rock town, too. Lois Maffeo, a member of K’s inner circle, lived here for a while; Arlington’s Simple Machines paid homage to the influence of K and Beat Happening, complete with a tribute album to the latter; and by its second long-player, Velocity Girl had forsaken My Bloody Valentine for a Heavenly sound. Chickfactor, the love-rock journal par excellence, was founded in D.C. (to be more specific, in the offices of the Washington City Paper). Both of Chickfactor’s original editors have left town, but D.C. is now home to Matinée, a label that releases music by bands such as the Would-Be-Goods (featuring Heavenly guitarist Peter Momtchiloff) and Sportique (featuring Heavenly singer Amelia Fletcher).
Heavenly is gone, of course, although most of the band regrouped in 1998 as the gently triphopped Marine Research. But K continues, and it has recently released an expanded version of Heavenly vs. Satan, the band’s ideally titled and just about ideal 1990 debut album. For Americans following strict best-of-2001 rules, it should be noted that this is technically not a reissue: The album was originally released in Britain and Japan, but not the United States.
Heavenly buffs know that the story doesn’t start with Heavenly vs. Satan. Before that, the band’s four original membersthe other two were bassist Rob Pursey and drummer Mathew Fletcher, Amelia’s brotherplayed in Talulah Gosh. And even before that, the roots of the “shambling” sound ascribed to Talulah Gosh (and many others) were put down bywell, the Kinks, for one, but let’s start with the Buzzcocks. Lovestruck punk made with dirty guitars and immaculate intentions comes around again and again in Britain, as does its jauntier, more satirical art-pop offshoot, which has produced such bands as the Television Personalities, the Newtown Neurotics, and the Monochrome Set (whose family tree, conveniently, leads to the Would-Be-Goods). In the mid-’80s, punk-rooted Brits melded the sound with skiffle, folk-rock, rockabilly, lounge balladry, and French cafe music. The enduring result was four albums bysorry, Aztec Camera fansthe Smiths, whose no-love rock has a sensibility that can’t be duplicated but a guitar sound that is infinitely refurbishable.
According to Johnny Rogan’s obsessive history Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, guitarist Johnny Marr and producer John Porter began layering Smiths tracks with crisp guitar figures because Morrissey had, according to Porter, “a range of about eight notes” and refused to use backing vocalists. Heavenly never spurned backing vocals, although the harmonies became lusher after the addition of a fifth member, singer-keyboardist Cathy Rogers, in 1991. (She arrived sometime during the recording of the three 7-inches that have been appended to Heavenly vs. Satan, expanding the original album’s eight songs to 14.) Still, the debut album’s trademark is the elegant Smiths-style dialogue between Amelia Fletcher’s girlish voice and Momtchiloff’s trebly guitar. “It’s You” canters across the fields of impossible love as eagerly as anything on The Smiths, and “Our Love Is Heavenly” assimilates funk as skillfully as “How Soon Is Now.” “Stop Before You Say It,” originally the album’s closer, even features the band’s tactful version of a guitar rave-up.
In retrospect, Heavenly’s recordings may seem pretty much alike. Yet the band quickly began expanding its sound. In addition to Rogers’ vocals and keyboards, 1992’s Le Jardin de Heavenly introduced harsher (if still discreetly succinct) guitar solos and a contrasting croak from Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson (whose range never reached eight notes) on “C Is the Heavenly Option,” which also includes a Shangri-Las-like recitative by Amelia Fletcher. Subsequent releases got noisier and even (marginally) funkier as the band tried to find suitable settings for songs about date rape (“Hearts and Crosses”) and unwanted pregnancy (“Sperm Meets Egg, So What?”). Opposing Satan turned out to be a rougher business than it initially seemed.
The ironically (if presciently) titled The Decline and Fall of Heavenly preceded by two years the event that ended the band: Mathew Fletcher’s suicide in 1996. His sister addressed his death indirectly in “Hopefulness to Hopelessness,” a Marine Research song about some of the “million reasons for wanting to carry on living.” But poignant in another way altogether is “Escort Crash on Marston Street,” a playful B-side added to the expanded version of Heavenly vs. Satan in which Amelia Fletcher fantasizes about what would happen if Rob crashed the band’s tour bus at 80 mph. As the song recycles at higher speed the melody of the album’s “Wish Me Gone,” she imagines herself dead and Mathew brain-damaged, embellishing the latter with a sisterly swipe: “But that’s not so different/Could you tell at all?”
The essential Heavenly song, however, may be the one that opens Heavenly vs. Satan, an ode to a girlish crush on a “Cool Guitar Boy”: “I love him a lot and I wish that he’d see me/The Cool Guitar Boy/He looks so brilliant when he plays his twelve-string/And smiles/Oh pure joy!” These lines encapsulate love rock’s Tiger Beat-goes-to-college sensibility even better than Maffeo’s liner notes, which forsake all notions of history and criticism for a quick list of Heavenly’s likes that doesn’t distinguish between Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (Amelia) and Toni Morrison (Mathew) and ends by reveling in the fact that Maffeo became friends with Heavenly. (Love rock can be such a cozy affair that mere listeners may wonder if they’re crashing the party.)
This unwillingness to distinguish between like and lovebetween favorite candies and infatuations with cool guitar boys and genuine passion and painis the style’s philosophical weakness. If everything is cute, then nothing is crucial. The outlook is embodied by the romantic counsel of “C Is the Heavenly Option”which insists that a flagging amour can be revived if you “kiss her ’til she’s obsessed”as well as by the title song on the new Would-Be-Goods’ EP, the pleasant but inconsequential “Emmanuelle Béart” (which might as well be titled “Cool French Girl”).
Would-Be-Goods singer-songwriter Jessica Griffin (whose career was originally conjured by Mike Alway’s él Records, a trendy-in-Japan-but-unknown-in- the-United States ’80s British indie) gets credit for actually singing in French, but “Emmanuelle Béart”‘s invocation of Continental glamour is simply love-rock formula. (The “Why don’t I look like Emmanuelle Béart?” refrain could just as easily be “Why don’t I sing like Françoise Hardy?”) Although not without charm, this four-song discwith photographs by Chickfactor editor Gail O’Haraseems as dilettantish as the music Griffin made back when the Would-Be-Goods were essentially a make-believe band.
Not so Heavenly vs. Satan. With this one album, the Fletchers & Co. created a perfectly ordered universe, with every vocal trill and guitar fill in its place. Even the fact that most of the songs are about failed, spoiled, or fantasy romance doesn’t break the spell. Their love was heavenly indeed. CP