From the MoSS? Pit: My Bloody Valentine

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If My Bloody Valentine’s visual and sonic bonanza at the Aragon Ballroom is the last concert I attend this calendar year, it is the perfect cap to 2013. This trip around the sun gave me my third Cure show (at my first Lollapalooza in 19 years), a bucket-list cross-off (Sigur Ros), a “hi-how-ya-doin-great-show” moment with Bethany Cosentino at the Deadwood after a Best Coast show, a proper rock show by the Thermals at the Mill, a festive Wild Belle show at Gabe’s, and my son’s first concert, Vampire Weekend in Kansas City.

What a year. And what a show MBV put on for the Aragon faithful. And thank God, because since the day I bought these tickets, I had this small but nagging doubt that this band would be able to live up to the unbelievable standard set on the albums and EPs. Anyone’s who checked out live clips on YouTube might have the same anxieties. (As you might detect from my iPhone videos below, the camera phone probably isn’t sophisticated enough to accurately capture the pleasant onslaught on the senses.) I also had been experiencing so much joy from the anticipation of the event, I feared that perhaps I was setting myself up for a letdown.

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Bottom line: can the MBV experience really pay off in a live setting?

The answer is yes. No, it isn’t as precise and multi-textured as what you find on the studio output, but the spirit is still there. Gorgeous and lush, dreamy and dense, and, of course, loud as fuck. They still pass out earplugs at the door, with signs strongly encouraging everyone to use them “given the extreme volume of this particular artist” (I’m paraphrasing, but I think that was pretty close to the actual language). I kept them out until the last three songs; I think my friend Kory was the only person in the building who didn’t use them during the finale. (More on that later.)

So our gang of six (me, Kory, Nancy, Denise, Sam, and Travis) had a drink or two at a nearby bar, where I had blue balls.

(Wait, that sounds bad…)

Where I ate blue balls.

(Wait, that doesn’t sound better at all…)

Where I ordered a concoction that involved shredded chicken, peppers, and spices, all shaped into four spheres that were hand-breaded and fried, and then served over a bed of Maytag blue cheese dressing. This menu item was called “[something] [something] blue balls.” I ate those things. They were delicious.

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We entered the Aragon and snaked our way toward the stage as best we could. After a relatively short wait, the “mbv” logo from the new album appeared on the backdrop, and soon enough the house lights went down and out came the shoegaze legends. Well, most of them, anyway. So Kevin Shields starts strumming the opening part of “Sometimes” (a song I always thought was just an OK My Bloody Valentine song until Sofia Coppola used it to perfection in Lost in Translation). Debbie Googe was going to work on the bass and…well…um, someone else was playing a guitar.

Someone who didn’t look much like Bilinda Butcher.

And as someone with a minor crush on Bilinda Butcher, I really wondered what the hell happened to Bilinda over the past few years to end up looking like the drummer, Colm O’Ciosoig.

Until I realized it was O’Ciosoig, strumming away on a song that didn’t require his drum work. Whew.

Bilinda soon surfaced and we were off, bouncing around the catalog a good amount before the night was over. Naturally they played a good deal of Loveless (seven of the 11 songs), and five off the new album. We got three from Isn’t Anything (including one of my favorite songs from that album, “Nothing Much to Lose,” with its frenetic drum fills and guitar squelches bookending the nice verses and bridges) and a couple of songs from the EPs (“Honey Power” from Tremolo and “Cigarette in Your Bed” from You Made Me Realise).

Highlights? “Soon” was definitely cool, and was one of the renditions that probably came close to replicating studio sound. “Only Shallow” delivered, as Debbie just pummeled her bass throughout that one. I thought all the m b v songs sounded great; I was very happy to hear my favorite song from the album, “wonder 2,” and came away loving “only tomorrow” even more after hearing it live. That’s something that deserves mention: the new songs all sounded GREAT live. Really, there wasn’t a bum song in the whole bunch, and as you might note from the pictures, the visuals projected on and all around them were a nice complement to the performance. I especially loved the look during “To Here Knows When,” which you can watch below.

About the only thing that was a bit unpleasant was the way the crowd would become restless between songs. To be fair, there were noticeable gaps between songs as they prepared for each tune, but not everyone was equipped to handle the “uncomfortable silences.” In the video below you can see what I mean in terms of gaps; I hit record about the time I figured the song was about to start, yet I end up with 30-some seconds of nothing as my intro.

But let’s get to the finale, “You Made Me Realise,” infamous for “the Holocaust section” at song’s middle. When you hear the studio version of this song, there is a nice guitar riff intro and a harmonizing verse, a return to the riff, a second verse, the riff, a brief solo of sorts, and then about 45 seconds of repetitive guitar distortion and static and whatever else that builds and builds and then releases back into the standard riff, a final verse, the riff, and a crashing halt.

So live it’s pretty much the same thing, except that intense noise section builds and builds and builds for 10 minutes or so. For economic/fiscal nerds out there, think of the guitar/feedback/white noise in terms of compounding interest: each minute, it earns interest, with the interest earning interest and that interest earning interest, and so on. And while there’s nothing musically impressive about it, from a sonic standpoint it’s quite the experience. It becomes completely physical. (As Denise put it afterward, “I’m pretty sure that last song rearranged my internal organs. All of them.”) I wasn’t dancing by any means but I was grooving to it. The visceral response I had was impressive…almost as impressive as Kory eschewing the earplugs for the experience.

Eventually they crashed back into the main hook of the song, finished it out, and that was that. A band I feared would eternally remain on my bucket list, alongside the likes of Nirvana (argh) and the Beatles (born too late, of course), could now be written in “strikethrough” typeface. And it wasn’t a giant fail. At all.

2013 in live music is rivaling 2013 in record releases. Check back with Todd and me in December, when we tackle the impossible: cutting our favorite album list down to 20, and then ranking those 20 stellar albums. That’s a good problem to have.

Some random statements in the hazy wake of “m b v”

m b v album cover

It’s been nearly 10 days since My Bloody Valentine did the unthinkable and actually released the “follow-up” to Loveless. I put follow-up in quotes because it seems like the statute of limitations should run out if your next album doesn’t come out within, oh, say, 20 years of the precedent. But all the same, the next album in the My Bloody Valentine discography has been downloaded by thousands (millions?) and we’re left with nine good-to-incredible songs and a need for a new longing, perhaps for a new Pixies album or that Goonies sequel.

I could attempt to straight-up review m b v, but I don’t think I want to do that. I’d rather just state some facts…a word that probably deserves the same quotation marks as “follow-up,” but whatever.

First off, before we go anywhere near the new material, I must state that this band’s street cred-to-horrible band name ratio is off the charts.

Seriously, how the band isn’t laughed out of the room for its name alone is a small miracle. Not only does it sound like something the nerds in Fall Out Boy or My Chemical Romance might have gone with had it been available, this three-word sequence also served as the name for a terribly cheesy 1981 horror flick that decided to put a deranged miner armed with a pick axe in the role of the killer. (I watched this movie repeatedly as a preteen thanks to USA Network, I should add.) Then again, Hollywood remade said movie as recently as 2009…

(My Bloody Valentine leads my list of high street cred/horrible band name, followed closely by Vampire Weekend, Japandroids, Hooray for Earth, and Black Moth Super Rainbow. Meanwhile, I’ve always found Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, Interpol, Stereolab, and A Tribe Called Quest to be among the coolest band names ever.)

But more specifically related to the new album…

The best song on the album is clearly either “In Another Way” or “Wonder 2.”

Note that both “Best Song” candidates fall within the last third of the album, the third that seems to either wow or worry fans of the band. I’m clearly in the former camp. “In Another Way” soars in a way that reminds me of “Soon” from Loveless. Instead of the dance-y beats and long guitar plunges of that tune, “In Another Way” uses an overarching synth line and a propulsive stutter of guitar to take the listener to near-all-time heights.

This vibe comes in between cooing verses provided by Bilinda Butcher (and you can’t describe Butcher’s vocals without using the word “coo”), where the guitar has similar tones but a different feel. And all the while, the drums (yes, the drums!) shove you forward like they haven’t since pre-Loveless days. Colm O’Ciosoig hadn’t seen this much volume above the surface since Isn’t Anything tracks like “Nothing Much to Lose” or “(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream” (“Only Shallow” from Loveless is a notable exception, I’ll admit). It might be my favorite My Bloody Valentine song ever; it might be my second-favorite on the new album.

That’s because of the album closer, “Wonder 2,” which to me sounds like the heir to the “You Made Me Realise” throne in terms of songs that could become the freakout centerpiece of live shows. The swirling sounds and Kevin’s vocals ascend for nearly six minutes, punctuated with powerful bursts of guitar hysterics and 300-beats-per-minute drums (an educated guess on the tempo) that add a sense of power and dread.

Unlike some people I know (*cough cough Sam cough cough*) I won’t disqualify a song from being top-shelf material if Bilinda isn’t singing. I think Kevin’s voice works well within the confines of MBV music, especially from Loveless and going forward. That’s not to say that I would rather hear Kevin sing on “Lose My Breath” or “To Here Knows When” or “Loomer” but I think he’s equally up to the task on “Soon” or “Sometimes” or “Who Sees You.” And honestly, it’s hard to say who’s singing on songs like Loveless’ “Come In Alone” or m b v’s “Only Tomorrow.”

“If I Am” and “New You” fit nicely alongside other present-day indie-rock pop songs.

These songs sound like something you’d find in heavy rotation on Sirius XMU. While Loveless didn’t include songs that were this straightforward in terms of pop friendliness, the band was making these kinds of songs around that time. Look at the invaluable B-sides on the Glider and Tremolo EPs and you’ll find songs in a similar vein: “Honey Power,” “Swallow,” “Don’t Ask Why.” The same can be said about songs on the 1988 You Made Me Realise EP: “Cigarette in Your Bed” and “Drive It All Over Me” quickly come to mind. Not to mention gems such as “Bilinda Song” that were found on the Unreleased and Rarities compilation that circulated online during the lengthy hiatus period.

That these new songs are found not on EPs but on the LP itself speaks to my next point…

m b v succeeds despite not being a singular statement.

Yes, my two favorite albums of all time, The Cure’s Disintegration and MBV’s Loveless are certainly monolithic, but for an album to be great it need not sound alike all the way through. Consider that Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and The Beatles are two albums that hold lofty status in my rankings…two albums that certainly meander around in terms of style but not in substance.

And that’s what you get here. On Loveless, you know you’re listening to Loveless; on m b v, you know you’re listening to My Bloody Valentine. The band felt comfortable releasing these nine songs as the next definitive collection, because they felt strongly about the content being solid, not fretting about the need for them to sound “same-y.”

One last point: My Bloody Valentine can still make a mean instrumental track.

Sandwiched between my two favorite tracks on m b v is “Nothing Is,” an intense repetition of instrumental bliss. While it is not necessarily stylistic twins with anything MBV had done previously, it’s a standout track, just as “Instrumental B” was in the late 1980s. For the uninitiated, “Instrumental B” (along with another good track, titled–surprise–“Instrumental A”) lived on a bonus 7″ single packaged inside the first 5,000 copies pressed of Isn’t Anything. “Instrumental B” was as wonderful as it was simple: the drum beat from Public Enemy’s “Security of the First World” was sampled, and squalls of guitar played over the top. That’s it. But it’s a wonderful idea, and even more so when you contrast it against the other way this particular drum beat was used: sampled by Madonna for her also excellent single “Justify My Love” (two years after MBV did “Instrumental B,” it should be noted).

(“Instrumental A” and, for certain tastes, the title track to the Glider EP, are guitar collages that are musts for MBV fans, but “Instrumental B” has greater potential for crossover appreciation.)

“Nothing Is” cranks up the drums (somewhat of a theme for m b vone might say) and spends nearly four minutes punching you in the gut and kicking you in the head and makes you want to drive really fast or double your pace on the elliptical trainer or type like a madman while working/checking Facebook/whatever you do on a computer. Or maybe even fuck like mad. I don’t know; haven’t tried m b v for mood music yet.

It is not your typical My Bloody Valentine song, to be sure, but that’s the whole point of releasing a follow-up to Loveless, isn’t it? The band will always be best known and most revered for what it did on Loveless but this band’s talent and vision was far greater than its previous output. They needed to do m b v far more than we needed to hear it.

And because of that, they made a record that everyone needs to hear.

Even if the band name still kinda sucks.