Medicine played a strand of shoegaze in the early 1990s when the mainstream was primarily fixated on grunge, alt-rock and – at least for dedicated listeners – their 1980s indie ancestors. Reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain but not derivative of either, the California band’s first two LPs – Shot Forth Self Living and The Buried Life – were released to scant commercial and critical attention. Even today this isn’t particularly surprising: shoegaze never reached critical mass in the States the way it did in Britain, and Medicine was simply a band out of time and out of place.
Medicine’s sound would eventually be categorized as “dream pop,” a term that’s far too delicate to describe both of these LPs. With founder/guitarist Brad Laner running his guitar through a four-track recorder, and Beth Thompson’s ethereal vocals, the band found an interesting middle ground of melody and outright noise. Nowhere is this more apparent than on 1992’s Shot Forth Self Living, an album that featured the band’s largest lineup (Laner and Thompson are joined by Jim Goodall, Jim Putnam and Eddie Ruscha) and that is rightly considered the band’s finest moment. Though parts of the album could be lumped into such a category – especially slow, hypnotic tracks like “Aruca,” “Defective,” “A Short Happy Life” and “5ive” – Shot Forth is striking for the way it establishes, and exploits, a clear tension between a relatively sedate vocal delivery and bursts of guitar feedback and thick layers of noise. There’s very little that’s dreamy or pop about songs like “One More,” a nine-minute opener whose abrasiveness might have been a twisted attempt to weed out impatient listeners, as well as the equally aggressive “Queen of Tension,” “Miss Drugstore” and “Christmas Song.” It might have been out of step with its times and had more in common with a music scene taking place across the Atlantic, but in retrospect Shot Forth stands as perhaps the definitive American shoegaze-influenced album.
The Buried Life followed in 1993 as a trio effort of Laner, Thompson and Goodall, and even if it does not reach the same heights as Shot Forth, it’s worth hearing once again. The album’s opening three songs – “The Pink,” “Babydoll” and “Slut” – are thematically focused in a way the rest of the album isn’t and easily match anything from the debut, while the deceptively bouncy piano line that opens “Live It Down” is atypical of the band (the song soon falls in step with Medicine’s typically gauzy style). But Shot Forth remains a difficult, uneven listen: its vocals are almost fully submerged in the mix, and a degree of rigidity reduces “She Knows Everything,” “Never Click” and “Beneath the Sands” to the mechanical. Whereas Shot Forth still plays like an effortless album – the clichéd “band at the peak of its powers” – its follow up brings to mind the image of someone trying like hell to shove a puzzle piece where it won’t fit.
Each release is nattily packaged with lyrics and period photos and nicely rounded out with a bonus disc of demos, EP tracks and live performances, making these reissues a perfect entry point for newcomers as well as a recommended purchase for anyone looking for an upgrade. It’s now easy to find plenty of current indie bands exploring the type of terrain Medicine covered about 20 years ago, which probably speaks more to the cyclical nature of music than any large shadow Medicine has cast. Still, regardless of what one thinks about the glut of reissues that flood today’s market or the motivations behind them, when they re-introduce a somewhat-forgotten band like Medicine and are done the right way, they’re immeasurably worth it.