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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Boo Radleys: Giant Steps


1) I Hang Suspended; 2) Upon 9th And Fairchild; 3) Wish I Was Skinny; 4) Leaves And Sand; 5) Butterfly McQueen; 6) Rodney King (Song For Lenny Bruce); 7) Thinking Of Ways; 8) Barney (...And Me); 9) Spun Around; 10) If You Want It, Take It; 11) Best Lose The Fear; 12) Take The Time Around; 13) Lazarus; 14) One Is For; 15) Run My Way Runway; 16) I've Lost The Reason; 17) The White Noise Revisited.

A little presumptuous, wouldn't you think, to name your LP «in honor» of a genuinely trail­blazing record by one of your predecessors, especially one whose vision, professionalism, and artistic depth you have very little hope of matching. All the more strange since the music of The Boo Radleys owes fairly little to John Coltrane, at least not in any direct way. Of course, if you wanted, you could always trace a credible line of development from Coltrane-era modal and free jazz to the shoegaze movement, but, ironically, Giant Steps is The Boo Radleys' first venture well away from the canons of shoegazing and into the territory of more dynamic, concisely structured, catchy psychedelic pop. A giant step for the Boos, perhaps — a fairly tiny blip for mankind, though, I'm afraid.

Technically speaking, Giant Steps satisfies all the conditions for establishing an intelligent pop lover's paradise. Lovely vocal harmonies, a clever balance between acoustic and electric guitars, an even more clever balance between «melodic» and «noise» components, a delirious mishmash of Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties' influences, enough creativity to fill more than one whole hour of music, and a nice cosmopolitan flavour — no traces of the embryonic «Britpop» with its arrogant accents and hip cockiness. How could this not be recommended? You'd have to be tasteless, heartless, and illiterate not to recommend it.

Yet at the same time, even as Martin Carr and Sice move deeper and deeper into the spicefield of vocal and instrumental hooks, I have a nasty impression that they have relatively little talent for these hooks. Giant Steps sounds good, but the songs do not hang around for long, and it is not really a matter of the album's excessive length (though some have complained) as it seems to be their inability to come up with something that would really truly be «the Boo Radleys sound» and nobody else's. A song like ʽWish I Was Skinnyʼ sounds lovely, with its wooing fusion of acoustic rhythm, «tinkling» electric lead, atmospheric brass and organ doubling and tripling of the rhythm, Sice's seductive crooning, and a busy, steady tempo — but that's about it: «lovely», without getting under the skin by means of some truly striking device.

I almost feel ashamed writing this, because I really want to love Giant Steps: the lack of «theo­retical» innovation should not bother us at all, as long as the songs properly hit the proper emo­tional centers. But they do only twice, at the very beginning and then again right at the end. ʽI Hang Suspendedʼ, lyrically conceived as some sort of answer to some sort of antagonist ("ain't that just you know the facts, but you haven't got a clue about me or my life") and instrumentally presented as an energetic funk-pop rocker, is quite a rousing introduction — and ʽThe White Noise Revisitedʼ, closing the album on a gentle farewell note, has a sentimental mantra for a coda ("hey! what's that noise? do you remember?"), lushly arranged and making for a stately conclu­sion, although you eventually begin to wonder if its stateliness does not come exclusively from its repetitiveness... well, hopefully not.

The basic agenda of The Boo Radleys, now that the noise clouds have dissipated a bit, is clear: they are dreamers, escapists, big fans of Sgt. Pepper, and, like all those Elephant 6 bands on the other side of the ocean, they want to restore its original fifth-dimensional colours to pop music. Their basic failure is also exactly the same as in the case of most such bands — they love their influences so much, they want to make that kind of music, but everything that comes out is spi­ritually, if not technically or intellectually, inferior. As an experiment, I have listened to the song ʽBest Lose The Fearʼ, which seemed like a worthy candidate, three times in a row — all I hear is half-hearted McCartnyisms without any real understanding of how it should really work. For one thing, Sice has a beautiful vocal tone, but he doesn't do anything with it — generally staying on the exact same «pretty» frequency, almost as if such a thing as «vocal modulation» never existed. For another thing, the accompanying colorfully distorted lead guitar part never seems to pretend to anything but colorful accompaniment — the humble Martin Carr never lets it develop into a proper solo or even into a particularly flashy, noticeable riff. It's simply there for the color. It's a nice color, but the real nicety of the color always reveals itself when it's organized into a shape.

The big single from the album was ʽLazarusʼ, a densely arranged, epic track into which they really must have put a lot of work — but behind all the overwhelming layers of electronic noise, solemn brass, and roaring guitars, lies a very simple and not specifically attractive or innovative folk-pop melody from God knows back when. They put enough makeup on it to make it into a cosmic anthem, and sometimes, this might work, but for me, ʽLazarusʼ does not work. It seems to be trying to make some big point, and it comes out sounding as heavy psycho muzak.

Despite all these criticisms, I respect sincere craft as much as I worship authentic genius, and be­cause of that, Giant Steps gets a thumbs up. At the very least, it gives us a band that has mana­ged to go beyond the obvious trends and fads of its time and either decide to boldly pursue some eclectic ambitions, or discover its own true colors — or both. In my opinion, The Boo Radleys are mediocre songwriters and unimpressive visionaries, but that does not prevent them from de­veloping a potentially great, colorful, friendly sound, which must have sounded even greater, friendlier, more colorful back in 1993 than it does today, and which still remains well worth revisiting for every serious lover of «psycho-pop».

1 comment:

  1. ʽThe White Noise Revisitedʼ, closing the album on a gentle farewell note, has a sentimental mantra for a coda ("hey! what's that noise? do you remember?"), lushly arranged and making for a stately conclu­sion, although you eventually begin to wonder if its stateliness does not come exclusively from its repetitiveness... well, hopefully not.These guys tend to mistake "annoyance" for "attention-getting", some of the noise really irritated me, so when I saw this track coming up, I was ready to hit stop and move on to the next album. Instead, it wormed its way into my ear. It is indeed repetitive, mantraic, and a little childish, but that damn refrain is STILL circling in my brain...