Thursday, 24 August 2017

Volume 20 Tracks 1-5 - Oasis, Echobelly, Lush, Veruca Salt, Tiny Monroe

Formats: CD/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1994

If Volume 19 seemed to express some of the confusion that existed in a pre-Britpop, post-Grunge liminal period, and filled itself with a big old jumble of styles and sounds, Volume 20 is a clear pointer. In fact, it's probably one of the closest volumes in the series to what the "Shine" or "The Greatest Album In The World... Ever!" series became. At almost every turn there's a pointer towards alternative stars of either middling or stadium-filling potential (though there are admittedly honourable exceptions and a few instances of arguable filler).

The Melody Maker sponsorship has suddenly returned out of nowhere as well, like a long-lost friend. Other versions of this LP with a differently ordered track listing have also apparently emerged, as documented on another very old Indie Top 20 chronicling website (which contains many spoilers if anyone is actually waiting to see what other surprises are in store). I've never seen such a copy myself, and nor does Discogs seem to document them, but if anyone has the rogue version, please let me know.

By the time this came out, I was the music editor of my university's magazine, a role I took far too seriously given that it was a scruffy, poorly designed paper barely anybody actually read (bar the "sportos" looking at the university match reports in the bloated sports section). The more effort I put into it, though, the more guest list places, singles and albums I was sent, meaning that by the time "Volume 20" emerged, my attitude to this series had become "Huh! Tell me something new, Grandad! I've already heard that band's next single!" It's at this point that new "Indie Top 20" releases stopped becoming records I bought within the first couple of weeks of their release, and often left on the record store shelf for months before buying. Of course, had Beechwood sent me any promo copies I'd have happily waxed on about them to the five readers who cared, but they were too thrifty and sensible to bother.

1. Oasis - Supersonic (Creation)

Oh Jesus. Where do I even begin? Track one, straight out of the traps, The Future (for the next few years at least, anyway). And if you think giving a completely new band like Oasis prime spot on this album was an obvious thing to do, I urge you to think again. While some journalists in the mainstream music press were convinced of their status as huge stars, there were plenty of other people who were cautious about their possible chances. The phrase "reheated baggy" was used a lot around Oasis by generally astute people like Justine Frischmann, who told her record label Deceptive not to bother investigating the band.

Her tag isn't necessarily as lazy as it sounds. The general public's first chance to hear the group came with a demo of "Cigarettes and Alcohol" slapped on to the NME cover mount cassette "The Mutha of Creation" in February. It sounded half-arsed and unimpressive, a limp piece of bar-room boogie worthy of any number of unimpressive ageing local bands I'd had the misfortune to watch that year. Liam Gallagher sounds as if he's doing guide vocals - they have no charisma or power behind them, and the trademark punk sneer he later adopted is absent. In retrospect, the fact that Alan McGee felt it was worth showing off to the public seems like a staggering piece of misjudgement. If, as he claimed, he knew he was sitting on the best band in Britain at that time, why the unflattering introduction? Did The Beatles introduce themselves to the world with free give-aways of their failed Decca audition tapes?

Then came a round of hysterically funny press interviews, and then the release of "Supersonic", which was a vast improvement on the "Cigarettes and Alcohol" demo but was (and is) good rather than great, surely? There are moments that sound thrilling - Liam's confident new vocal style, Noel's crashing guitar slides, the sheer bloody swagger of the thing. Still, though, go back to old recordings of bands like The Real People and Bedazzled (in particular!) - the latter of whom were brutally slagged in the music press for having the audacity to emerge at the tail end of baggy - and the sound Oasis finally emerged with was frankly not terribly far off. We may privately chuckle when pesky foreign types get confused about Britpop and place The Stone Roses and other assorted baggy bands into a long timeline in error, but it's an understandable mistake.

Still, while I strongly suspect that "Supersonic" would probably have climbed to number 94 in the charts before buggering off again if it had been released in 1992, it does pack such a punch that you're forced to stop and listen. Oasis did, seemingly within a matter of months, manage to change their sound into something that sounded slightly threatening, powerful and adrenalin-packed.

I was offered a guest list place for their gig at the Portsmouth Wedgwood Rooms, a 350 capacity venue. It probably speaks volumes about my laissez-fare attitude towards them at the time that, due to an impending exam the morning after, I sent someone else along to review the gig instead with his choice of plus one. The reports I got back were both mocking and confused, probably not helped by the fact that their support band were local progressive rockers Strange Attractor, a bunch who were perfectly good at what they did but couldn't have been a less suited choice if everyone involved had tried. We were surprised to learn that the supposedly vicious, dangerous Gallagher brothers were courteous, friendly and encouraging towards them on the night. Maybe they were pussy cats after all. Cuh! Imagine Damon Albarn even giving them the time of day, eh?

"You won't believe what the lead singer said after the gig as well, Dave!" one of the attendees told me. "'Right, now I'm off to pull some birds!' That's their credibility in the dustbin! Ha ha!"

They were different times, viewers. The 1993 intake of indie listening university students were largely right-on and really couldn't have predicted what lay ahead. Lad culture hadn't come back into fashion again yet. Oasis, at this point of time, felt like some kind of weird outlier to some of us, a quaint act reviving ideas from a mere few years before and attitudes from decades before that. Giggling up our sleeves at them seemed like the only course of action. "First they laugh at you...."

2. Echobelly - I Can't Imagine The World Without Me (Fuave)

There was clearly something in the air by mid-1994, though. Echobelly may have been collectively much more right-on and politically astute than the Gallaghers, but "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" was essentially lead singer Sonya Madden's celebration of her own ambition. This obviously has an entirely different context and layer of meaning when it comes from the lips of an Asian woman in 1994 at a point in time where the BNP were gaining political ground. However, it doesn't, as a whole, make the song itself particularly interesting or effective.

In fact, "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" is essentially one big amphetamine rush whose lyrics sound incredibly contrived, as if a back-room Denmark Street songwriter penned them in 1963 to describe the sensations of teenagers. "And in this world we spin and shout/ We want it all we want it now/ They said 'oh shut your mouth/ You don't know what you talk about'" sings Sonya, not long before finishing the song by singing the word "me" multiple times over. To be honest, it would have been more interesting, and more hilarious, if she had just sung the word "me" throughout.

This pretty much sets the template for the worst elements of Britpop to come. A belief that self-belief is somehow an important or interesting message in itself, combined with a series of high speed, distorted riffs and copped Beatles elements (in this case, the Sgt Pepper styled horns and peculiarly out-of-place psychedelic spasm the group have halfway through). Echobelly produced some good singles, but by Christ, this wasn't one of them, and it actually seems more cringe-inducing with the passing of time. Horrendous video, too.

3. Lush - Hypocrite (4AD)

Lush lay accused of cynically adopting Britpop sounds towards the end of their existence, but the fact that "Hypocrite" can be placed next to Echobelly in this tracklisting and not sound like a jarring gear change is telling. In fact, the group had always "had a Britpop element to their sound", as it were, and "Hypocrite" is actually one of the finest examples.

Allegedly penned about a female friend in another Camden scene indie band at this time, "Hypocrite" is a hurt, agitated, spiky and occasionally spiteful rush of noise with Miki and Emma's vocal harmonies providing the only sweetener in sight. It's much more of a New Wave styled thrash than any of their previous singles, though "Deluxe" clearly had the same aggressive rush beneath its surface.

Bizarrely, 4AD took the decision to issue two Lush singles on the same day, this and "Desire Lines". The impact of both was diluted by this perplexing marketing decision, and neither broke through in quite the way it should have done.

4. Veruca Salt - Seether (Minty Fresh)

"Seether" hung around the indie charts seemingly for an entire season and remained an evening radio favourite, proving that while the times were changing, there was still a huge appetite for fresh American alternative rock at this point. "Seether" didn't really do anything particularly new - though it has considerably more zest and zing than the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins, sitting closer to Elastica on the treble-heavy punk thrash spectrum - but did strike an enormous chord with the indie kids on dancefloors.

Having an almost Ramones styled rock and roll simplicity to its structure and a nagging chorus, "Seether" was brilliantly naive and could probably only have emerged from a new, relatively inexperienced young band making their first tentative steps. Like a much needed kick up the arse and slap to the face, it still sounds strangely invigorating even now.

Formed in Chicago, Veruca Salt went on to release numerous albums, including one for the major label Geffen, and are still an active concern today. Their presence in the UK waned a little after their first LP "American Thighs", but their following the US remained strong enough to ensure that they remained a powerful cult band.

5. Tiny Monroe - Cream Bun (Laurel)

With this single, Tiny Monroe show a considerably more diverse set of influences than the last time we met them on Volume 19. Slowly awaking to life like an early Verve track with an eerie, stoned and foggy atmosphere, it doesn't take long before the guitars brickwall their way through your speakers with malevolent intentions.

"Cream Bun" is at least an interesting and incredibly meandering 45, though, with the big bold stripes of the chorus cutting between periods of black melancholy 3am pondering. I'm not convinced it completely works as a whole, and it's certainly incredibly hard to remember anything about the record an hour after the needle leaves the single's grooves - but it has a clear ambition many of their peers at the time clearly lacked.

Tiny Monroe would continue for another couple of years before releasing their solitary LP "Volcanoes", after which they called it a day.

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