My Bloody Valentine's mbv: A First Listen
This'll be a bit perverse, but so will every review. I'm not My Bloody Valentine's No. 1 fan but I do love them, and not just the timeless pyramid Loveless. More so than any other critics' band, I've never thought their legend annoying enough to feel the temptation to backlash. Their singles and EP compilation was a scream, every bit on par with the two proper albums. And they disappeared for what seemed like good reason: insurmountable pressure to scale higher heights than the majestic guitar effects they bankrupted England's biggest indie label with. So reviewing mbv, the album Kevin Shields all-but-randomly just dropped on the world, is kind of like reacquainting oneself with a child who was abducted 22 years prior. It feels weird and creepy to have no insight into the development of then to now, and then to push this poor defenseless thing up against an unconditional love that's stood the test of time. But welcome to the Internet, let's gut the bastard.
"She Found Now"
The first thing you heard on Loveless was drums. This song doesn't have drums at all. Rather buried melody, but it's definitely there -- chords keep changing. The guitar at bottom grinds like a starting car that's been slowed to half-speed, at top a surf guitar falls in and out of tune with the usual MBV wavepool. Takes a bit to notice the strums of individual clean guitar chords poking out of this odd sea, but by the five-minute mark it's significantly less underwhelming than when I first assumed I was hearing an intro. Still not entirely sure it's a song, but I definitely hear a guitar solo drowning down there by the end. Certainly an interesting curio of a re-introduction to the world.
Kind of a bluesy stomp -- if your idea of the blues is Dirty Projectors' "Gun Has No Trigger" as tincan-produced by Nick Zinner. Kevin Shields barely layers a voice that he may have actually lost in the past 22 years. He sounds exactly like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse now, with a hint of fucking Chino Moreno. Enjoying the woozy, wayward structure, but this ain't a rocker. It's kind of a diddler. Nevertheless, this band can drive in circles just fine. This goes to six minutes: jammy, unrushed, a bit underwhelming. But warm. The sensualists who wrote "Soft as Snow (And Warm Inside)" never could pull off icy distance.
"Who Sees You"
Kind of a riff, over dull-end "Airbag" drums, and a vague sense of going somewhere, even though vocals don't arrive for a minute. Feels like a jet engine, sandpaper, and a grainy recording of a harmonica all at once. It kind of melts from a rocker to a ballad by the end. Now that we're a third into the record, it's quickly becoming apparent (as if the barebones title and thoughtlessly clip-art cover weren't hint enough), that this is far more scaled-down than Loveless -- no Chinese Democracy attempted here. But it also lacks the urgency of Isn't Anything or "You Made Me Realise." The strongest identifying trait of mbv so far is that it sounds just like that title, an abbreviated, lowercase version of the band. Make of it what you will, but I'm a little bored.
"Is This and Yes"
Synthetic organ, and finally Bilinda Butcher. Also rather aimless -- solo organ might've helped shore up the David Behrman ambient piece this desperately wants to be, but instead Butcher sighs the whole way, giving it an ersatz church choir effect that not gonna lie, kinda blows. But I didn't like when Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack" did it either, so what do I know.
"If I Am"
I may eat my words -- as I felt similarly of Portishead's Third and Sleater-Kinney's The Woods, both now high in my life canon and this also by a trusted musical source -- but we're halfway through and these just are not songs. Drones, not quite. They don't really build. Vamps, sort of. They float and bob more, like they're just treading water. It's really, really hard to bite my tongue about Loveless, which had both hooks galore and sounds like had never been made with instruments. Its opener legitimately not even making a stupid fucking metaphor here sounded like elephants fucking. This sounds like talented people dicking around in a room until something is half-pretty.
Just as I was being a real shit about songs, here comes a genuine one, perhaps the most pared-down pop song of their career, although Butcher's vocals are still hushed-indistinct and it's a full minute before you hear words (probably five listens before you understand any). "New You" has the most recognizable sounds of MBV's life as well: very clear tambourine throughout, fuzz bass, rappy drums. The guitar doesn't appear to be adorned with much more than a tremolo. All it needs is a damn hook. But it's nice, and I respect that they don't want to go that way. Even though this is shaping up to be the weakest thing ever released under the My Bloody Valentine moniker, I really do understand the need and necessity for a low-key affair. Shields wanted a monkey off his back. But I can't feign disappointment that his unparalleled tightness for writing a verse/chorus/verse below all those textures has evaporated over time. That was what really separated him from every other kid-in-an-effects-pedal-store producers.
"In Another Way"
Aggressively tuneless. The wacky sounds are compressed into a hard ball here. It's fascinating for sure, how it keeps turning like a rubik's cube trying to find the correct combination or which way is up. Sonic Youth's made masterpieces from endless confusion. But this is more in line with say, limited-release Aphex Twin, one of his AFX records maybe. Pleasant ideas run through a harsh filter rather than subjected to the lavish care supplied to the songs that do prove the artist's genius. Nevertheless, pretty cool how it still sounds like no one else, even if the guy did skip straight from his OK Computer to his The King of Limbs. MBV (and their fans) are way more reasonable than Radiohead though. No one's expecting this album to be interplanetary. Anyway, the coda of "In Another Way" recalls Unwound's beauteous, curious Leaves Turn Inside You when those strings finish it off. But that album had natural ambitions rather than an exhausted need to prove its own modesty. mbv hasn't been... satisfying. I don't mean it's not satisfying as a 22-year wait -- no one could possibly fulfill that kind of monument and the wait time would be dubious even if the artists was still sharp. I'm sure (am I?) that it will grow on me to a point, most of my favorite challenging music had to.
Well, this is polarizing as fuck. 3:33 of rodeo-industrial guitar noise and distorted drums, one riff looped some two hundred times, getting louder and more... surrounding in its attack. Hated for a little, then got into it, then it still had a minute to go. I wish it was cooler than it is, and maybe live it'll climb the mountains. But its committed emptiness is more indicative of what isn't here than what is. That is, "Nothing Is."
A fast, stuttering song that might as well be drum and bass, buried under effects that dare us even further to compare airplane noises, which are so bright and all-encompassing that you can't even notate what's happening. Even straining, it's hard to make out the machinery and logic under the blinding surface, though I love the energy and the idea of doing that. But this is the record. It's tastefully handled, closes a bunch of cases, adds some weird maybe-hits to the canon (not that I will be able to hum a fucking one for you even if I play this 45 times). I get it, I get it, I get it. But I want to love it.