CATHERINE WHEEL: HAPPY DAYS (1995)
1) God Inside My Head; 2) Waydown; 3) Little Muscle; 4) Heal; 5) Empty Head; 6) Receive; 7) My Exhibition; 8) Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck; 9) Shocking; 10) Love Tips Up; 11) Judy Staring At The Sun; 12) Hole; 13) Fizzy Love; 14) Kill My Soul.
As the first guitar chords of ʽGod Inside My Headʼ appear on the horizon, the horrible thought enters your mind — «Christ! They must have swapped my copy with a bootleg of Metallica outtakes!» Relief will come pretty soon, but the chugging opening is fairly symbolic: it represents Catherine Wheel's ultimate denial of the atmospheric shoegaze ideology and their further advance into the realm of modern heavy rock. Thrash influences are actually quite thin here, compared to the power-chord based grunge / alt-rock legacy, but overall, it is clear that they want to try their hand at «brute force psychedelia» now, rather than simply «distorted guitar psychedelia».
Veteran fans and critics, as far as I can tell in retrospect, despised this decision, but honestly, it was just a fairly logical continuation of the evolution that had already started on Chrome. Perhaps they really were trying to sell out, taking after Bush rather than My Bloody Valentine, but the most important element of the Catherine Wheel sound, the Dickinson/Futter guitar interplay, remains firmly in place, so all they really did was take some focus off the atmosphere and invest it in riffage and power. Admittedly, I cannot insist that it was a correct decision: Dickinson is no heavy metal riffmeister, and I have a hard time trying to remember if there was at least one heavy guitar pattern on this entire record that rocked me to the bone like a Nirvana or an Alice In Chains song can often do. (ʽHoleʼ probably comes closest, but still not close enough).
But let us begin with the singles. ʽJudy Staring At The Sunʼ was the first one, with a title more fit for a Belle & Sebastian record, perhaps, and very little of the band's usual sonic inventiveness — the song puts far more trust in the romantic repetitiveness of its title, where Dickinson is joined by Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses in the quest to raise a little band of angels in support of the world's latest imaginary spiritual martyr ("Judy's day passed out of sight, Judy will be suffering tonight", because it serves you right to suffer, as John Lee Hooker told us earlier). It's not a bad song, except that one or one dozen or one hundred more or less like it was probably written by every British guitar band in the 1990s, and this one, I must admit, does not even make good use of the Dickinson/Futter combo (just the same predictable distortion / jangle pairing throughout, without any attempts to change direction).
The real low point was probably the second single, only released briefly for promotional purposes: ʽLittle Muscleʼ is about... no, it's not about what you probably think (you pervert! I thought about it earlier than you anyway!), it's about, hmm, licking a letter to one's lover with one's tongue, which is sort of the most natural thing to do for a Catherine Wheel song protagonist. The song is short, silly, alternates between quiet and loud passages just like Blur's ʽSong 2ʼ, but without any shades of irony or parody. I suppose that if we really start judging the merits of the album by this kind of song, all criticisms are justified... then again, it was one of the singles. And so was ʽWaydownʼ, which really sounds like a weak attempt to ape the structural and emotional style of Nevermind — loud, quiet, loud, quiet, scream, desperation, noisy guitar break, post-teen angst, but they still can't nail it with as much conviction as Cobain could, maybe perhaps, unlike Kurt, Mr. Dickinson really does not have a gun (fortunately for him, in the long run).
Yet again, this does not mean these loud, short, and totally non-outstanding songs are completely typical of the album. Its centerpiece, for instance, is an eight-minute Talk Talk-ish epic (the least Talk Talk-ish thing about it is its offensive title — ʽEat My Dust You Insensitive Fuckʼ) that's all atmosphere, alternating between soft and subtle guitar/organ textures and squeaky-swampy harmonica breaks with dark side overtones. Another highlight is ʽHealʼ, with a beautifully modulated vocal part from Dickinson: fulfilling the «power ballad» role on this album, it knows when to tone down the grinding distortion and place its faith in the old-fashioned Hammond organ, and the quiet "everyone needs someone" coda has that soulful-melancholic Peter Gabriel / Mark Hollis vibe to it; I wish there were more moments like these on the record, because if you're going to copycat anyway, why not choose the right models?
Besides, it's not as if the album is simple enough to fit into the «if it's long, it's atmospheric and mesmerizing; if it's short, it's stupid and boring» formula. I really like ʽHoleʼ, for instance, which sounds nothing like the real Hole, but is a shapelier alt-rocker than most of the other ones, funkier and with some sneery arrogance in the chorus melody to add to the generic paranoid / pissed-off alt-rock feel. And elsewhere I just wait for the instrumental break, because Futter still dutifully solos like a beast every now and then, saving the band's reputation as best as he can (ʽEmpty Headʼ, for instance). On the whole, you know, I couldn't really bet my head that Happy Days is an objective letdown, in terms of composition, after Chrome — and Catherine Wheel were never about pure atmosphere from the very beginning, either. It does, however, place them in the rather insecure and risky position of diluting their identity, which was never all that outstanding in the first place — and, of course, once we shake the cobwebs away and realize that 1995 was also the year of The Bends, well... there's only so much space in one's head that one should feel free to allocate to music like this, and for 1995, Radiohead occupy most of it anyway.