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Rediscover: Rollerskate Skinny

Rediscover: Rollerskate Skinny

The quartet brought an ambition rivaling the Beatles to their two albums.

When Paul McCartney’s younger brother broke into show business later in the ‘60s, he did so as Mike McGear. After Kevin Shields’ band My Bloody Valentine broke into the British charts two decades on, little brother Jimi stuck with his surname. Yet in the intimate Dublin rock scene, the association with MBV dogged him and his mates, who in 1992 formed Rollerskate Skinny. Although it somehow made even less of a dent on the music world than Mike McGear’s The Scaffold, Rollerskate Skinny deserved more.

Named after Holden Caulfield’s description of a young woman in The Catcher in the Rye, the quartet brought an ambition rivaling the Beatles to their two albums. All Music Guide‘s Tim DiGravina defined this pair as a combination of Beatles melodies, MBV feedback and experimental song structures akin to The La’s, Killing Joke, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Echo and the Bunnymen. Rollerskate Skinny captured the neo-psychedelic, post-punk and indie guitar moods of its contemporaries, but these four young men rejected easy choruses and catchy repetition.

Instead, Shoulder Voices, co-produced by Guy Fixsen (who engineered Loveless) featured odd pop filtered through chiming miasma and clattering dynamics. Alternating delicate tunes with aggressive roars, Rollerskate Skinny refused to play along with peers who often toned down their idiosyncrasy to get radio play beyond college stations. While spot-the-influences tempted critics, this band sneaks around any pigeonholes.

Both of the band’s albums rush out of the starting gate and then settle down halfway down the track, ambling into the finish line as a seemingly different beast. The first five songs of the group’s Beggars Banquet debut rattle along with threats and chants. Jimi Shields integrates the traditional Irish bodhrán drum into “Lúnasa,” which mixes in the ominous percussive beat under a tribal melody. Recalling an earlier, inventive and overlooked Dublin ensemble, The Virgin Prunes (more related to U2 than MBV), the band conveys an intelligent nod to the island’s folk roots, enriching the noise rather than smoothing it out. “Bring on Stigmata” finds Shields’ vocals echoing and wailing as keyboards churn.

Unpredictable guitar by Ger Griffin (no relation to bandmate Ken Griffin) supports the band’s sound while Stevie Murray’s bass thunders under “Bow Hitch-Hiker,” the last combative track on an album that shifts gears for a pleasantry akin to late-period Mercury Rev or Flaming Lips. Luckily, Dave Fridmann, producer and tamer of both those American bands, was not on hand to dampen down whatever Rollerskate Skinny had turned up to 11, at least for a while.

Unfortunately, after press coverage of Rollerskate Skinny consistently referenced MBV, the younger Shields quit the band before its 1996 follow-up Horsedrawn Wishes. A leaner band thickened the layers of instrumentation, creating even denser and more challenging harmonics and greater confidence. With co-producer Aidan Foley, it reached a clever apex in exploiting whatever Warner Brothers had shelled out for studio costs.

For most of the album, the now-trio shines on keyboards and guitars. As the AMG noted, “Speed to My Side” marries Beatles shimmer to MBV shudder. These skewed songs float and dip, cresting over waves of volume as texture. Rollerskate Skinny stack up the voices and pile on the momentum, at least for half an album.

“Man Under Glass” has the members vowing their hate of the sun, or maybe the Son. This bobs over a mad flurry of mechanical tinkering over rhythms capable of crushing the wary or inspiring the saintly. If each of the band’s albums ends up gliding after soaring, maybe the band just needed to rest. Its energy dissipates gradually on album B-sides that bring a listener back to firm ground. But the best moments remain in the unsettling, giddy, surprising and woozy rides that precede the landings.

After the band’s demise, its members went on to the usual side projects. Dave Fridmann inevitably weighed in as co-producer of Jimi Shields’ Lotus Crown–Chokin’ on the Jokes (1997) resembles the bands Fridmann is best known for, but it also tilts on a shoegazing foundation that Jimi Shields builds up with engaging and offbeat songs. It also suggests that Ken Griffin may have been Rollerskate Skinny’s mastermind rather than Shields; Dead City Sunbeams, a project of Griffin’s alter ego Kid Silver, roused critical applause just before the millennium.

Ken later collaborated with Philadelphia neo-psych veterans Aspera as Favourite Sons, who moved to Brooklyn and released a few albums that suggested Iggy meets The Strokes or Echo meets The Church. Finally, The Radio (2004) generated Ger Griffin’s dream-pop back in Rollerskate Skinny’s hometown. It’s a shame that streaming services do not enable audiences over two decades later to enjoy all of Rollerskate Skinny. For now, Lotus Crown and Shoulder Voices survive to whet the appetite for a band that deserved better press.

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