As a general rule, music doesn’t have that much of a nostalgic function for me. Without sounding too bloodless, I’m only interested in a record if it sounds good to me right now; the fact that it might have soundtracked various epiphanies/crises/whatevers in my life is, by and large, irrelevant. If I were ever to end up, God forbid, on some “Desert Island Discs” thing, I’d maybe choose something from “On The Beach” (a review of Neil’s first Manchester show is over at the Reviews Blog, incidentally), even though I might have actually spent 1974 listening to Mud. I’m not ashamed of my musical past, I just don’t like those records any more.
I’d like to think that this fairly ruthless and unsentimental approach has kept me going as a critic for so long, but occasionally I hear something which reminds me of the past before even I can start calculating whether it’s stood the test of time. This has happened a couple of times in the last week or so, thanks to the arrival of a couple of early ‘90s reissues. Sebadoh’s “Bubble And Scrape” and the Lemonheads’ “It’s A Shame About Ray” were critical records to me, both personally and professionally, as I was just starting my career at NME.
Last week, of course, I mentioned in a blog about Carl Wilson’s excellent book, “Let’s Talk About Love”, that I had a general aversion to personal narrative taking a prominent part in record reviews. So I’ll stop the moist-eyed, long-haired reminiscing and get to my point: how reassuring it is to discover that these two albums still sound wonderful today.
They do, though, sound slightly different from how I remember them. “It’s A Shame About Ray” remains a zippy, exhilarating hybrid of punk, powerpop, country, indie and a little grunge, but its lyrical punch seems greater now. Listened to a certain way, Evan Dando’s perfectly constructed little songs contain masses of foreshadowing, plenty of hints that Dando was far from the dippy lightweight he was often portrayed as.
It’s not just the dazed Juliana Hatfield duet, “My Drug Buddy”, it’s all that talk of being a “ship without a rudder” and being – if only it had been true – “tired of getting high”. The deluxe version augments the original album with that accursed version of “Mrs Robinson” but, more interestingly, a bunch of solo demos which reveal these bright, sparky songs to have been originally much darker and more introverted in tone. Still a great record, either way.
As is Sebadoh’s “Bubble And Scrape”, happily. Hindsight doesn’t make this one any darker in tone – how could it, when Lou Barlow had laid out the details of his personal life with such unexpurgated zeal on “Soul And Fire”, “Two Years Two Days”, “Happily Divided” and so on?
What is a surprise, though, is that this album – once memorialised as quintessentially indie and lo-fi – now sounds so chunky and satisfying, a relatively orthodox rock classic. Perhaps it’s the generally spindly, fey tone of so much American college indie over the past few years, but the substantive fuzz of these rueful, frequently harrowing ballads gives them musical as well as emotional heft.
The virtue of “lo-fi”, or whatever, is that the production of albums like “Bubble And Scrape” doesn’t date like bigger budget endeavours. So these fantastic songs still sound crisp and direct, but classicist now, too. Even Eric Gaffney’s wayward, nervy skronk-outs sound less disruptive. Maybe it’s the sheer weight of leftfield music I’ve listened to in the intervening 15 years, but, far from jarring and atonal, they seem relatively melodic to me now.
And they make sense in the volatile, impressionistic and ultimately still moving sprawl of “Bubble And Scrape” (now up to 32 tracks, with added tape hiss, demos and so on). Like “It’s A Shame About Ray”, this one’s worth holding on to for posterity.