North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

This Is Not A Review of My Bloody Valentine’s M B V

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I think like most self-described rock fans, I was curious about the new My Bloody Valentine album. Over the past few years – maybe even a decade? – there are rumours and talk about whatever their followup to Loveless will sound like and it usually all came to naught. You know the story: it’s coming in a few months, just a couple more, it’s on its way we swear. And it’s pushed back, delayed, quietly slinking away without a word.

This weekend the damn thing finally came out. It’s called m b v (all lower case, with spaces) and it crashed their website within minutes. Maybe because it was the only place the damn thing came out on. So the midnight release date got pushed back to something like 3am London time, mid-evening local, and only then could we all pay $16 for the lossy MP3 download, over $20 for a CD copy and still more for a vinyl edition. It’s a presumptive price: more than both of their albums combined on iTunes or Amazon and for lossy tracks, too. So much for Perfect Sound Forever.

But then, isn’t MBV frontman Kevin Shields supposed to be a sound-obsessed man? Recently, he went back to the 1/2″ master reels to make a new remaster/mix of Loveless. And the new album makes great pains to tell you they recorded on analog equipment. Analog! Even Steve Albini uses digital stuff these days.

The phrase Labour of Love will get used a lot in reviews. So will words like Dedicated and Perfectionist. After all,  Shields is known for his obsessive quest for interesting sounds. It’s why his guitars use strange open tunings, played with the tremolo all the way down and through amps cranked to ungodly volumes. It’s why there are stories about him fretting over amp placement when recording and using something like 30 pedals when playing live.

In a way, every MBV album, even the EPs are part of his quest to find the right sound. Just listen to the progression over the years. On Isn’t Anything, they sound more like actual guitars, but are played with reckless abandon: the chorus of (When You’re Awake) You’re Still In A Dream is a guitar riff rolling out of control. On the EPs, they range between dreamy fuzzscapes (Drive It All Over Me) and fuzzy dreamscapes (Feed Me With Your Kiss). By the time they recorded Loveless, their most famous album, they’d expanded their sound with new textures and sounds, but it was still largely the same old bag of tricks.

The guitars were massive, the vocals were half-whispered and the drums were always there, pounding away in the background someplace. Sometimes everything sounds all screwy, sometimes it sounds like there’s an acoustic guitar added for texture and most of the time, I’m not even sure the vocals are there for anything but texture. I’m not sure anyone’s ever said this as a criticism, but Loveless is one of the most Critic’s Albums I can think of: it’s the sort of thing people will put on a soundtrack if they want to seem arty and hip, the kind of album cool taste makers always keep in eyesight and the kind of thing almost nobody under 20 rocks out to. It’s a fine album and it’s even a fun one in doses, but it’s been praised and highlights and given so many props from so many critics, both self- and professionally appointed, that it’s assumed some mythic status, where it’s the peak of shoegaze and British rock and that whole scene which more or less vanished once Oasis and Blur started putting butts in seats.

So maybe it wasn’t much of a wonder that a followup took so damn long. Music was already changing when Loveless came out in 1991. It hit stores less than two months after Nirvana’s Nevermind came out and in case you’re wondering, everyone under 20 still rocks out to that album. In a burst, alternative rock shifted away from these kind of records and towards the kind of thing Frank Black and Kurt Cobain excelled at: rawer, less polished and infinitely more aggressive, even if their approach to guitars wasn’t all that different (like Shields, Cobain was no stranger to pedals).

Part of the reason Loveless is so beloved by critics is because it was the last of its kind: MBV didn’t have a followup and the scene faded away; Lush, the only other shoegaze band of note, turned to power pop for their final album. So the stories about albums readied, then abandoned, the reunions and gigs without revealing new material and constant promises that yes, the followup was coming, helped give this album its legendary status, the work going into topping it making the original seem more and more impressive. With so much attention paid to a record, making it must have been a daunting task.

So, then, what do we have with m b v? We have an album packed with expectations and hype. It’s in demand enough to crash websites and to charge a premium price for. We have the thing Shields and the rest of the band have been working on for years: if not since the 1990s, then at least over the past few years. And what we have is more of the same: melancholy, throbbing, fuzzy rock. It’s interesting sometimes – I kind of like the warbling guitar on If I Am – but mostly it’s rather dull. The deeper I get into the album, the more I expect some kind of a punchline: people paid upwards of $16 for this?! You mean to tell me it took 20 years to re-create Loveless? Well, I suppose analog equipment can be hard to find these days.

Mostly though, m b v feels like pretension. Just like it’s predecessor, this is an album made for the critics: there’s enough texture, depth and scope here to satisfy two, maybe three editors at Pitchfork, where my sources tell me, one critic gave the album a perfect 10 before going limp and refusing all food and water, craving only another listen of the album. But I find it rather lifeless and tepid: it doesn’t offer much of anything new and when it does, it’s on tracks like Nothing Is, which is little more than a loop played for a minute and a half. That’s a fun trick when it works, but Brian Eno did it a hell of a lot better.

And maybe that’s the best way to really sum this whole thing up: it sounds like something Eno and Fripp would’ve cooked up back in the 70s if they were into taking downers and wine, not occultism and art. But it’s pretty much par for the MBV course: lots of swirling guitars, lots of breathy vocals and, I imagine, a whole lot of praise from the music critics. In the last 20 years, a lot has evolved and changed in the alt-rock community. It’s too bad MBV hasn’t.

Ed.’s noteFlashfact is on “vacation,” as one email put it. And until (if?) it comes back, I’ve moved Mark on Music here. Until further notice, it’ll show up on North of the 400 every Tuesday.

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Written by M.

February 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm

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