Just For A Day

Slowdive, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

Rust Is Just Right and Slowdive have a bit of a shared history, as our first story was an article discussing their surprise reunion earlier this year.  At the time, we were unsure whether the reunification was a one-off deal, but luckily the band would not only launch a tour, but they would stop by our corner of the world here in Oregon.  Considering we were too young to catch them during their initial heyday, we jumped at the opportunity to see the shoegaze legends live.  As they proved Wednesday night, The Jesus And Mary Chain may have created the genre and My Bloody Valentine created its masterpiece, it was Slowdive that perfected the craft.

Slowdive up in lights.

Slowdive up in lights.

Just seeing the headliners would have been enough of a treat, but we were blessed with the additional bonus of Low opening up the show.  Low is definitely a band worthy of its own headlining tour (though they may not be playing in venues as large as the Crystal), but when given an invitation from icons like Slowdive, you take that gig in a heartbeat.  As such, we tried to get in as close to the start of the show as possible, and despite a slight delay at the Will Call office due to some confusion with the customers in front of us, we were able to arrive as their first song faded and “Plastic Cup” began.  This started a run of songs from their overlooked recent album The Invisible Way that the crowd ate up, leading me to suspect that there may have been more than a few people who bought tickets to the show on the strength of the opener alone.  Low stuck with some of their heavier, more bombastic material, like “Monkey” and the sublime “Dinosaur Act”, which elicited cheers from the crowd as soon as the first hints of its melody drifted through the venue.  The band finished up a tight set to thunderous applause, leaving the crowd wanting more, even though we were eagerly anticipating the headliners.

The interstitial music coming over the PA featured some inspired choices like The Shins’ “Caring Is Creepy” and Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”, which kept the audience in a suitably relaxed mood before the main act arrived.  But even though we were prepared for an evening of gorgeous, dreamy music, that didn’t stop us from providing a rapturous welcome to Slowdive as they walked onto the stage.  The band kicked the show off with some of their earliest songs, from the Slowdive EP, with the guitars swirling and Rachel Goswell’s and Neil Halstead’s vocals floating in and above the haze in a gorgeous, dreamlike state.  Though those components are the hallmarks of the Slowdive aesthetic, in the live setting you get a full appreciation for Simon Scott’s drums, which not only provided a necessary tether to the ethereal songs, but also provided some brilliant beats in and of themselves.  His contributions tend to go unnoticed on record, but they formed an integral part of the performance.

A glimpse of the psychedelic set

A glimpse of the psychedelic set

The early results were pleasing, but the band hit another level with “Catch the Breeze” from Just For A Day, with an exhilarating climax propelled by Scott’s thunderous drums enhanced by a delirious strobe effect, in perhaps the most effective use of the trick I’ve ever seen.  It was this moment that confirmed that as wonderful as their albums are, it’s no comparison to Slowdive’s live show.  Highlights included favorites from their classic Souvlaki like “Machine Gun” and “Alison”, which strangely enough were the only songs introduced by the band even though they rank as among the most recognizable.  With all the pure noise generated from the several guitars over the course of most of the set, it made the delicate and sublime “Dagger” stand out even more, as all the reverbs, delays, wahs, filters, and phasers were stripped away for the mournful ballad, backed by a light setup that focused on various bulbs that enhanced the somber overtones of the song.  Considering the respectful silence that greeted the song, I may have been a bit too excited in unleashing a “whoo” as soon as I heard its opening chords, but dammit I was happy to hear one of my favorite songs played live for the first time.

Setlist from an amazing show.

Setlist from an amazing show.

It was an amazing experience from beginning-to-end, and hopefully it inspires the group to continue–whether it be with new music, re-releasing out-of-print albums, remastering their old material (while we’re generally not in favor of the “loudness wars”, the Slowdive back-catalog would benefit greatly from a volume-boost), or just launching more tours.  Because as I said after the show, Slowdive live was even more beautiful than I imagined.

The Return of Slowdive

The biggest news from Monday was the surprise announcement of the reunion of seminal shoegaze band Slowdive.  While the news didn’t break the internet like the shocking release of My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited followup to Loveless, it still brought a cheer to those who remember those lonely nights while Souvlaki played softly on the stereo of an empty apartment (though actual personal experiences may vary, it is has been my experience that these are in fact the optimal conditions for listening to the album).

For those who are interested in the particulars of the news announcement, the band announced that they will be playing the Primavera Sound festival, which takes place in Barcelona at the end of May.  Just take a look at all the other headliners–it’s hard to imagine a more loaded lineup.  In addition, the band announced a London show, and more dates will be added.  And have no fear American fans (like myself), the band is hopeful that they can record a new album together, so there’s reason to think it won’t be a one-off kind of thing like the Pavement reunion was (the new go-to example now that the Pixies have decided to release new music once again).  And while there were some publications that expressed reservations about the motives of the band (see Stereogum, AV Club), in an interview with The Quietus the band assured fans that this was done with more noble intentions in mind.

So, why should you care about this particular reunion?

In my mind, there were two titans of shoegaze, a peculiar genre that was popular in Britain in the late-80’s/early 90’s: My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive.  I’ve always appreciated the term “shoegaze”, because of all the various microgenres that the casual music fan might encounter, it gives the best idea of what the music actually sounds like (contrast it with say, “krautrock”).  It conjures up both ideas of melancholy (staring at the “shoes”)  and dreaminess/haziness (the “gaze” component), both of which appear in sizable quantities in the genre.  I always felt that MBV focused more on the former, while Slowdive’s great asset was its emphasis on the latter.  (For the record, if you are completely unfamiliar with My Bloody Valentine, I suggest you visit this link and then repeat the video ten times, because that will allow you to fully process what a mindfuck Loveless is to the uninitiated. )

The best introduction to Slowdive is probably their second album, Souvlaki.  Few albums perfectly capture the concept of “dreampop” like this one–there is an ethereal quality to the swirling guitars, but they don’t overpower the delicate hooks and melodies.  This is apparent from the very first track, “Alison”.

It captures the attention of the listener immediately, and gives a roadmap of what to expect from the rest of the album–layers and layers of echoed guitars with reverb to spare, a gentle melody, and those beautiful backing female vocals, all in a mid-tempo three-and-a-half minute pop song.  Another highlight is the haunting ballad “Dagger”.

The band strips down most of the effects and leaves a gently strummed down-tuned acoustic guitar, with suspended chords adding to the tension of the lyrics.  It is the quintessential melancholic 3 am song.

“Machine Gun” is another highlight, a ballad that features a great contrast between the vocals of Rachel Goswell for the verses and Neil Halstead for the chorus. I find that the song itself presents an interesting juxtaposition with its title, not only in style but in its lyrics as well, which focus on water-related imagery.

If you love what you’ve heard so far, then great news, there’s a strong chance you’ll love everything else in the Slowdive discography.  Their debut Just For A Day is stylistically similar to Souvlaki, though it doesn’t quite gel in the same way that the later album does, and suffers a bit from weaker production.  Pygmalion was a bit more of a stylistic shift, with some experimentation and an icier atmosphere, but is not a radical departure from the gorgeous Slowdive sound.  All of this should bode well in case we’re lucky enough to see a new album.

Welcome back, Slowdive.  You’ve been missed.