1. Pale Saints - Porpoise (4AD)
Another unusual track choice for "Indie Top 20", "Porpoise" was the second track off Pale Saints' "Flesh Balloon" EP. Far better known was their cover of Nancy Sinatra's "Kinky Love" which graced the same record and received rather more airplay than shoegazing bands were used to, bursting out of evening transistor radios and "The Chart Show". This shouldn't be altogether surprising, since it was a dreamy, rich and detailed cover which bought the original into the technicolour early nineties - a final number 72 chart position barely seems like a just reward for the band's efforts.
"Porpoise", on the other hand, is an atmospheric instrumental lead by an unexpectedly cheap Casio keyboard riff (my ears immediately identified that it's the same Casio keyboard we used to have cluttering the stock cupboard at my comprehensive school). If it sounds like it belongs anywhere at all, it's as part of the backing music that Channel 4 used to use on their testcards in the early eighties. That's not actually meant to be a cutting criticism, since some of the things they included were melodic but with very peculiar production flourishes and edges (Bob Morgan's "Fool In Love" is a fantastic example) but it feels out of kilter with the times. That beefy bassline and those shimmering guitars do give it a 1991 datestamp, but the rest seems to be begging for a home in a KPM library music vault somewhere.
Still, it makes for an interesting piece of music which showed Pale Saints could operate outside their shoegazing comfort zone very easily. As to whether it's the finest piece of music they've ever produced, well, obviously not. It's a likeable curiosity and little more.
2. Dodgy - Summer Fayre (Bostin)
Well, here we are. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that this is the first instance of Britpop on the "Indie Top 20" series. Of course, there are mitigating factors to my claim. Firstly, The Boo Radleys have already featured, but their music at this point is barely recognisable from what it became circa "Wake Up!". Secondly, of course, nobody was using "Britpop" as a description for any music at this point (And you could be doubly mean and try to engage me in a debate about whether St Etienne do or don't qualify).
Still, though, absolutely all the stereotypical ingredients, for better or worse, are in this 45, to the extent that it could almost be a parody. That chirpy, retro sixties chorus. Those shuffling, bouyant rhythms. The cheeky vocals which almost seem to come accompanied with a wink. The determined return of fussy basslines and twiddly guitar solos. It sounds as if it should have a brass section as well, but presumably the budget didn't stretch to that. It really is absolutely bloody uncanny.
My curiosity was tweaked by this song, and I went to see Dodgy live when they came to play my town around this time. The audience in the small club just seemed bemused in general, and the band struggled to connect despite their best efforts. My gig-going companion was moved to comment "Well, I quite like the elements of The Who they've incorporated into their sound" but therein lay the problem. Very, very few indie or alternative groups were mining classic rock and pop in quite the way Dodgy were at this point, and they were peculiar anomalies on the gig circuit. Neither fully-fledged Rock, nor ethereal indie, nor grunge, they seemed like "Your Dad's record collection" being pushed through the bodies of young men from Birmingham (not literally, that would be painful).
In time, this would work in their favour enormously, although it's notable that they've never been given much credit for being ahead of the pack. In 1991, however, it meant releasing records on their own label (Bostin) and waiting for everyone else to wake up to their charms.
3. Pierre Étoile - In The Sun (Rough Trade)
Following the demise of Galaxie 500, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang decided to release the last few songs they had written together on Rough Trade, with no real intentions of trying to turn the duo into an ongoing concern. "In The Sun" was the sole effort under the Pierre Étoile moniker, which is even more fragile than a lot of Galaxie 500's work. Stripped back to a basic drum backing, a strummed guitar, and hushed vocals, this has a decidedly demo quality about it, which obviously isn't unexpected given the circumstances.
The pair commanded enough of a cult following at this time that this release was relatively big news in indie circles, but it's been largely forgotten since. It's actually very pretty but unfinished sounding, as if we've been given permission to listen to a campfire session the pair were having - it's the kind of twee indie you feel an urge to listen to last thing while having a cheeky nightcap drink.
Shimmy Disc took over the reigns and persuaded the duo back into the studio after this release, and a vast number of records have followed under the more simplistic Damon & Naomi banner. Those works are a bit - though admittedly not enormously - fleshed out from this original low-key vision.
4. No-Man - Mahler (One Little Indian)
This is probably one of my favourite No-Man tracks, combining slowly looping Dance rhythms to hushed vocals and rather precious classical violin solos. Despite its quiet approach, it possesses a strange and slightly disturbing drama, as if relaying to the listener a distant memory of a doomed relationship. "I shouted out and called your name but you were hiding in the trees" could be a sweet childhood memory, or a metaphor for something altogether less reassuring. The song ends on the lines "The ascent to your heaven... I can't stand them laughing at us" before the tune collapses into ambient atmospherics, which also breaks the tranquility slightly and hints at an undisclosed darkness.
It's also deftly arranged, with the violin lines never once seeming unnecessary or overly flowery. In all, it's a beautiful soundscape which manages to create intrigue, drama and even bursts of elation across its six minutes. The problem is, it's also the sort of song you can't begin to write about without sounding truly pretentious - No-Man's sound and identity is actually slightly pompous, so as soon as you start to try and untangle all the various elements, you end up just getting trapped by the delicate, sticky web they've woven until you become part of their world. The bastards.
5. Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (Factory)
Cath Carroll was already an indie veteran by this point, having been the lead vocalist in Miaow, who featured on the C86 compilation and were later signed by Tony Wilson to Factory Records. Whereas Miaow's sound was skittish and almost jazzy at times, by this point Carroll had moved on to a slicker, more commercial sound.
"Moves Like You" has none-more-1991 pop dance beats as its backing, very subtle Acid House squelches, and Carroll's smooth, sultry vocals. It sounds like the airy, slick, celebratory pop you might hear on a commercial FM radio station on a late night cab ride home. Breathe deeply and you can almost smell the pine air freshener.
Despite this, it wasn't a hit, even though you suspect Tony Wilson had designs on its success. I also don't intend my descriptions of it above to be entirely negative. "Moves Like You" has a beautiful late night sassiness to it that makes it an effective and enjoyable slice of pop, albeit one that feels faintly jarring in the context of this LP. Should it have been a hit? No. I suspect it lacked enough of a powerful chorus or drive to really be a breakthrough single, sounding more like something an established artist would put out as the second or third single off a successful album. Cath Carroll's voice does a lot to suck you into the single, but it's not enough to push the track to the next level.
Cath Carroll works as a writer first and foremost these days, though has occasionally been enticed back into the studio to work with other bands on their projects, having recently worked with Trembling Blue Stars and The Hit Parade.