Plenty to like in—per the title—what’s spread across five CDs and 83 tracks, going back to the beginning of shoegaze (Jesus & Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, House of Love, Ultra Vivid Scene), and winding up with its flowering in the U.S. and elsewhere.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
The late 1980s to early 1990s were full of bands that bent glistening, feedback altered layers of guitars over hazy, half-buried vocals, that elevated chilled, half-dreamed purity over the sharp hooks of pop or the hot syncopation of funk. The large but in no way comprehensive collection Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze 1988-1995 (Creation) documents most of the movement, from the earliest fuzz-bound forays of Jesus & Mary Chain and the Cocteau Twins, through an early 1990s flowering of bands like Ride, Slowdive, Swervedriver and Lush, to the spread of the genre across oceans and continents to the Americas, New Zealand, even Japan. Be aware, though, that it has one glaring omission. You can hear the influence of My Bloody Valentine everywhere, but of the band itself, nothing.
That’s weird enough to mention, since My Bloody Valentine has become synonymous with shoegaze, the fluff on the needle aesthetic of Isn’t Anything and, especially, Loveless defining the way that distorted guitars could obliterate and soothe at the same time. Yet Loveless is also credited with bankrupting Creation Records; the band and the label split up acrimoniously after its recording. There’s no explanation in the liner notes for why the band that created an album that “both encompassed and eclipsed the whole shoegaze phenomenon.” isn’t on any of these five discs. You have to assume lingering bad blood and contract troubles.
Still there’s plenty to like in what is included, arranged in roughly chronological order over five CDs and 83 songs. The compilation begins with the bands in at the beginning of shoegaze (with one exception, see above) — Jesus & Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, House of Love, Ultra Vivid Scene — in disc one, moves through its early 1990s flowering in disc two, follows its global spread in discs three and four and makes some rather attenuated connections in disc five (Luna, Mercury Rev and Bardo Pond?). Most of the artists in the compilation get one track to make their respective cases (though Sonic Boom is represented three times in a Spacemen 3 track, his own “Angel” and a Spectrum cut), which range from genre-defining (Ride’s “Drive Blind,” Slowdive’s “Slowdive”) to half-forgotten pleasures (Chapterhouse’s “Falling Down”, the Boo Radley’s “Kaleidoscope” and Bowery Electric’s “Next to Nothing”) to curiosities (The Flaming Lips “Talkin’ Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues” for instance).
The fun comes in the bands you never heard or can’t remember like one-time Peel favorites 14 Iced Bears, whose dreamy, distended “Surfacer” floats like pond weeds on the tranquil backwaters of disc 1, or squealing, tone-bending Astrobrite whose Orange Creamsickle on disc 5 almost compensates for the dearth of MBV. If you grew up in the states, you might mostly associate House of Love with their desperate grab at mainstream success, but here on disc one “Christine” is a near-ideal blend of bleary discord, goth moodiness and alt.guitar hookiness.
You do get the sense, after a disc or three, of being moored on an all-white, all-middle class, roots-loathing island where other early 1990s genres like rap and grunge have never made landfall. Shoegaze’s first nickname came from the players tendency to focus on their multiple foot pedals, but its second, “the scene that celebrates itself” makes sense as you hear how insular these bands were, how tightly coordinated their innovations. Shoegaze more or less lost its impetus when grunge hit the UK; its elegiac reveries were no match for the visceral assault of teen spirit. And yet, if it was economically and racially homogenous, shoegaze truly welcomed women; in recordings, the roar of guitar feedback was tamed to a level that pretty, unruffled female voices could dominate. Lush, Cocteau Twins, Velocity Girl, Cranes, all put women in key positions. Compare the notes in Still in a Dream to, say, the index to Our Band Could Be Your Life, and you’ll see that women were nearly equal players in shoegaze, as they never were in post-punk.
Still in a Dream comes packaged with extensive contemporary photographs, and two essays, one on the origins and history of the movement from Neil Taylor, the other one an American perspective from the Big Takeover’s Jack Rabid. There are detailed track-by-track notes. The box set doesn’t contain any newly discovered, unreleased material, nor are there any blazing revelations or new insights, and, as noted at the beginning, an omission on the level of leaving Black Sabbath out of a “History of Metal” or the Beatles out of “the story of Britpop” undercuts its authority. Yet even so, this is a very enjoyable round-up of shoegaze, shoegaze influenced and vaguely-similar-to-shoegaze bands, including some material you’ll know well and some that will likely be less familiar. I like disc two best, hitting some old favorites like Ride and Slowdive and Catherine Wheel, but there are slow-blooming, fuzz-crusted, landscapes to explore on every disc. If you’re a long-time fan, think of it as a mix-tape. If you’re not, there’s lots to discover.
Top photo, obviously, credited to an unknown YouTuber – get in touch and we’ll gladly plug in your name, however!