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Holy Hell!: Souvlaki Turns 20

Holy Hell!: Souvlaki Turns 20

slowdive-souvlaki1Despite its members’ youthfulness – averaging 19 years of age when they signed to Creation Records in 1990 – Slowdive arrived late to the scene eventually referred to derisively in the British music press as shoegaze. In many ways, the five-piece outfit was victims of circumstance. Following the excesses of My Bloody Valentine’s monumental Loveless (1991), which nearly bankrupted Creation, perceptions of the still-nascent genre turned a corner and initial champions turned their backs on the mop-topped gloom rockers. As part of Creation’s stable of early ‘90s dream-poppers, Slowdive managed only two LPs and a handful of EPs as a full band before the critical pushback against shoegaze and fickle fans effectively killed any chances at longevity.

But squeezed between the bookends of this brief, turbulent period were stellar releases, the most rewarding and well aged of which is undoubtedly second LP Souvlaki, now two decades old and, with Loveless, perhaps the most succinct communication of the genre’s aesthetic as well as its internal differences. With a fiercely diffident “anti showmanship” affect earlier established by contemporary influences such as Lush, Galaxie 500 and Cocteau Twins, Souvlaki’s murmuring waves pegged the band as the gentle counterpoise to Kevin Shields’ walls of unearthly guitar squall.

Ultimately Souvlaki helped to carve out what “shoegaze” eventually came to signify: intertwined male-female harmonies, lush arrangements set against textures and fuzz, oceanic swells of guitar and muted percussion that always threatens to burst forth violently at any moment like a lanced boil (follow up Pygmalion would see the group dive into even more ambient minimalism.) Vocals masqueraded in the mix to operate as another instrument and lyrics taking a firm backseat to holistic cascades of noise, most of Souvlaki, while not instrumental, gives the impression of being so. This is no better exemplified than on one of the album’s primary standouts – the raw “Souvlaki Space Station,” which, while revolving around guitarist Rachel Goswell’s vocal lines, is more preoccupied with the miasma that slowly overwhelms it.

The band had initially asked Brian Eno to produce Souvlaki. Eno elected instead to co-write “Sing” and contribute keys and textures to it and “Here She Comes.” The latter, for Souvlaki, comes closest to the simple, understated pop that would characterize Neil Halstead’s later career output. (“Altogether” falls into this category as well, bringing handclaps in to anchor a sprawling twilight pastoral.) Though Eno declined to produce, the album doesn’t lack for much: “When the Sun Hits” harkens back to the gothic jangle of certain 1980s acts before it heads into the clouds, breaking the track open with a shimmery curtain of synth and drummer Simon Scott’s patient pacing. Swirling opener “Alison” sees Goswell’s ethereal backing vocals peeled off the underlying textures in solid chunks as Halstead’s inflected whisper murmurs about “TV-covered walls.” The excellent “Machine Gun” ambles into ruts like those the tracks run around on MBV’s Isn’t Anything, Goswell and Halstead trading off vocal duties as a spare acoustic guitar is strummed over building noise, dissonance and delay.

The album’s original UK version ends with “Dagger,” a blunt-ended acoustic ode, Halstead’s vocals cut up with his own, the bare plink of piano in the background as he solemnly intones, “You know I am your dagger/ You know I am your wound.” As found on the version put out by their U.S. label SBK in 1994, tracks 11-14 on Souvlaki are tacked on to the original: a dark, subdued take on Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning” and three cuts from their 5 EP. Presented this way, the downbeat electronica of “Good Day Sunshine,” “Missing You” and the Mazzy Star-like dreaminess and bending guitar chords of “Country Rain” provide a relaxed comedown for the now hour-long record. The revamped Souvlaki remains the version with which this reviewer remains most familiar since he first acquired the album on CD (in the late ’90s, but still).

Adding to the external struggles the band faced were conflicts within Creation itself. Though Sony purchased equity in the label the year before in an effort to stabilize it, and 1993 is the same year it pushed out Sugar’s Copper Blue (one of its highest profile releases to date), the label’s slow implosion was well underway by the time Souvlaki dropped. While the creative control over the band’s output exerted by volatile label head Alan McGee was a source of constant anxiety for the band while in the studio, that ultimately had less of a chilling effect than the antics of their U.S. label, SBK, and the creative choices of primary songwriter Halstead. It was only after Halstead set the rest of the band mostly to the side to record Pygmalion that Slowdive began to unravel. Dissatisfied by the way SBK mismanaged promotion and release of Slowdive records, Scott quit in 1994. Two disastrous U.S. tours and constant bad press left the band feeling demoralized and in 1995, with the threat of Britpop bearing down, Slowdive was released from Creation Records a week after the release of Pygmalion and broke up not long thereafter.

Creation having signed Oasis the same year Souvlaki debuted, it’s clear Slowdive’s fate was written in the stars. After being dropped, Goswell, Halstead and final Slowdive drummer Ian McCutcheon (who replaced Scott) went on to form the spacey alt-country outfit Mojave 3, a more prolific if less inspiring arrangement that saw them put out a series of quality records through the late 90s and early 2000s. Halstead solo would record folk records that completed the transition away from dream-pop and toward the pastoral as the first wave of shoegaze faded from memory. Fan focus shifted to grunge and Britpop (both scheduled for self-destruction only a few years later) and, further on, resurgent independent rock and the garage revival that gripped England in the last years of the 90s.

Especially in the neon glow cast by the acts who have proudly adopted the shoegaze label in the two decades since, Souvlaki shines. The revival of the soundscapes Slowdive and others trailblazed makes the band and their sophomore record seem more prescient than, as they were vilified in the press at the time, late arrivals to a dying, tired genre lacking new ideas. Everything from Mogwai and pre-Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming M83 to Beach House and Asobi Seksu’s classic Citrus (2006) owe something to Slowdive. Today Souvlaki is lodged in the firmament alongside other iconic releases from the period. But given the pressure cooker politics of music at that time and the band’s overall misfortunes, there was a good chance Souvlaki wouldn’t have seen the light of day at all were it not for a few lucky alignments. For all we know, every Loveless, Nowhere and Souvlaki has an aborted twin that never made it out of Alan McGee’s trash bin.

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