CATHERINE WHEEL: WISHVILLE (2000)
1) Sparks Are Gonna Fly; 2) Gasoline; 3) Lifeline; 4) What We Want To Believe In; 5) All Of That; 6) Idle Life; 7) Mad Dog; 8) Ballad Of A Running Man; 9) Creme Caramel.
Catherine Wheel's last album always gets a pretty bad rap from fans and critics alike; to me, however, the blow to music lovers' sensitivities that was dealt by Wishville does not feel nearly as crippling because I never fell under their original enchantment in the first place. What it does is smoothly and logically finalize their transformation from a psychedelic art-pop band into a moody alt-rock band — not in a revolutionary manner at all, merely putting the final touches on a trajectory that they began laying out already on Chrome. Maybe the hatred was partially due to all the new happenings in the band: they signed up with Columbia (sell-out!), fired their old bass player, and had Rob Dickinson produce all the sessions himself. Neither of these things per se is criminal, but taken together, they give some cause for premature alarm.
Still, the main single from the album, ʽSparks Are Gonna Flyʼ, is not too bad. Its revolving one-chord melody may well be accused of monotonousness, but then again, this was never a band known for super-complex riffs anyway, and the song's relentless pounding, coupled with the desperation in Dickinson's voice, makes for some decent morose headbanging fodder. At least there's some sort of daring, genuinely aggressive melodic minimalism here, and it still manages to coexist with a massive wall of sound, like in the old days. This is not something that can be said about the second single, ʽGasolineʼ, which sounds as if they were trying to produce one of those creepy, trip-hoppy, Freudian masterpieces Peter Gabriel-style (ʽDigging In The Dirtʼ), but failed because of insufficient musicianship and not enough ideas to make the atmosphere truly creepy (tiny bits of eerie laughter here and there in the corners don't really count). In addition, there's not much to be said about a chorus that consists of just one line, "I love gasoline", which your brain probably refuses to process in a logical manner; personally, I have no idea what Dickinson means by "gasoline" here, and I'm not sure I even want to know.
After that, the record simply goes on to fulfill its original promise — track after track of slow, distorted, melancholic alt-rock where each song sets the exactly same tone as its predecessor, with the main emphasis placed almost exclusively on Dickinson's soulful choruses. That, actually, is the primary problem of Wishville: the near-complete lack of kaleidoscopic guitar patterns courtesy of Brian Futter, who seems content to contribute simple, unadorned lead guitar parts to Dickinson's more-and-more generic alt-rock riffage. Where the vocals on the band's first two albums were more like a cherry on top of the polyphonic guitar explosions, here it's all about the vocals — and too many of these vocals just sound like your average hard rock whiner, paralyzed by spiritual laziness and unable to convert his general dissatisfaction with everything and everybody into anything remotely constructive or properly destructive. Either of the two would work well for me, but nothing is truly delivered.
All in all, it's a fairly sad case of «self-betrayal», when you gradually let go of the things that constitute your strength in favor of doing something where you just can't compete with the best of the competition. Dickinson has a decent voice that can carry a good amount of soul, but when you stare it right in the face, it's fairly monotonous and colorless — certainly nothing like a Robert Smith, for instance, with his capacity of making it ring, rise, and fall, but nothing like a Michael Stipe, either, with his soothing, almost priestly, peace-be-with-you-son murmur. Turning the dial away from the psychedelic guitar sound and into the direction of these vocals was a rather prideful and completely unwarranted development, a gamble that did not pay off, and a sorry finale for Catherine Wheel as a bunch of musicians wanting to leave their own trace in this world — and while I don't know the details, I'm pretty sure that the band split not because Wishville got poor reviews and sold few copies, but because it simply did not make any sense to keep the band alive once the transformation had been completed.
I am not giving the record a thumbs down, though; like I said, acute hatred towards it is a little unwarranted, because technically, it is still several inches above the generic alt-rock waterline — Dickinson is a monotonous, but never truly irritating singer, and there are still enough tasty guitar bits here to last you through at least one listen. But returning to it after your own desire? You'd have to be a real St. Augustine to do that.