That’s my old indie-rock record collection burning. Vinyl makes an awful stink when it’s torched. My collection made an awful stink on the turntable, too.
OK, not all of my indie records are bad, but lately I’ve been trying to rekindle the sort of over-the-top emotional reactions to musicbad or good, onto the pile or notthat I used to have in the late ’80s, when I became a dedicated reader of British music periodicals such as the NME and the recently deceased Melody Maker. The writers for those magazines scribbled with passion, intelligence, and a wicked wit. Even if you hated Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and couldn’t understand why such a shitty group had made the cover, it was fun to read the writer’s hyperbolic ravings and the band’s self-assured rantings.
One of the first groups Melody Maker turned me on to was the Telescopes, a cocky bunch of Jesus and Mary Chain wannabes from Burton-Upon-Trent with a psychedelic garage-rock fixation. My first Telescopes record was the To Kill a Slow Girl Walking EP, a cheeky blend of the Stooges, the Stones, and shoegazing. A whole new world opened up to me: sassy sounds, stylish rockers, obscure labels, overpriced import vinyl. Life felt OK for once.
I bought a lot more by the Telescopes, following the band as it grew from aggressive pop psychedelia to pastoral pop psychedelia over six more EPs and two full-lengths. The Telescopes broke up soon after their self-titled 1992 album for Creation Records, the group’s first American release, did a belly flop on both sides of the pond.
Head ‘Scopes Stephen Lawrie and Joanna Doran formed Unisex soon after their old group’s demise, releasing various singles for various microindie labels. Now, nine years after I last paid attention to them, the prime movers of a band that once stupidly, innocently, bravely claimed, “We’re not into repeating history in attitudes, music, or in anything we do” are back in my life with the debut Unisex album, Stratosfear. What better time to revisit the Telescopes?
As it turns out, I probably hadn’t played those Telescopes records in nearly a decade for a reason: They stink. On ice. The EPs are padded with noise jams; the LPs meander from subpar punk to psychedelic pap and back. Oh sure, there are moments: the menacing title tracks to The Perfect Needle and the 7th # Disaster EPs, and the entirety of the blissed-out Everso EP. But the Telescopes’ musical batting average falls well below the Mendoza line. And despite its members’ few years in the minors honing their skills, Unisex’s is no better.
Stratosfear begins exactly where the Telescopes left off: lightweight, low-key psych-pop that sticks to your ribs about as much as rice puffs. Lawrie’s whisper-sung lyrics deal in dark, sci-fi imagery, and the music backs him up with appropriate sounds: Theremin, wah-wahed and ebowed guitar, Fender Rhodes, vibes, and clarinet drift through the mix. But the universally midtempo tunes are all vague. I’ve listened to the album 17 times, and not one song merits a shout-out. Songs such as “The Full Force of the Sun,” “The Anti Gravity League,” and “Midnight in the Stratosphere” are all good examples of Unisex’s combination of ’60s pop and ’90s wombadelia, but I chose to mention them only because of their names. I remember nothing about them.
If Unisex could harness some of its atmospherics to memorable hooks, the band might be on to something. But that might have to wait another nine years: Word on the Web is that the Telescopes are re-forming. Time to post those old EPs on eBay.
The Boo Radleys were another British noise-pop outfit that got the Melody Maker seal of approval. They got mine, too: Six albums and nearly 20 EPs are in my collection and have thus far escaped the bonfire. Albums such as 1993’s Giant Steps and 1995’s Wake Up! are among the most exhilarating pop records from that decade. Equal parts Beatlesque pop, quirky Brian Wilson-like studio wizardry, and My Bloody Valentine-style stomp-box rock, the Boos’ sound as I remember it was both inviting and explosive.
Songwriter-guitarist Martin Carr led the Boos, but he handed his lyrics off to honey-voiced singer Sice. To judge from Brave Captain’s Go With Yourself (The Fingertip Saint Sessions Vol. II), Carr’s first post-Boos solo albumnot to mention Sice’s uneven solo outing as Eggman, 1996’s First Fruitsit was an artistic marriage that benefited both.
Go With Yourself sounds like a Boo Radleys demo: Fuzzed and tremoloed guitars mingle with strings and synths, but missing are the dub-inflected bass lines of the Boos’ Tim Brown and Sice’s soaring vocals. Carr sang harmonies in the Boos; here he’s the lead, delivering every lyric in a reed-thin voice that cracks and strains when it has to go outside its narrow range. At least when Sice sang Carr’s self-pitying lyrics, they were in tune and lush. When Carr shakily croons, “As I watch her getting dressed/You know I can’t believe/It’s another day and I’ve survived” on “Hermit Versus the World,” a cringe runs through me from brow to bum.
But, unlike Lawrie and Doran, Carr can at least write good hooks (the horn-driven, Sesame Street theme-ish “Reuben,” the soft-rock “Go With Yourself”) and augment his songs with spacey sounds that enhance their melodies rather than substitute for them (the orchestrated “Running Off the Ground,” the Sgt. Pepper’s-like “Where Is My Head?”). Still, Go With Yourself is a letdown. Carr needs his band to keep him in checkand in tune.
On “Where Is My Head?” Carr sings, “Where are my friends/Sice and Tim and Bobby Boo?” Here’s hoping the Boos do re-formI’m sure they’ll still sound better than the Telescopes. But then again, I haven’t played my Boo Radleys CDs in a while. And now I’m afraid to listen. CP