I resisted looking online at what people were saying, and decided to just press play and record my thoughts. I consider what follows not to be a review, but to be a 'listening,' a kind of transcription of my experience before too much conversation or contemplation can get in the way. I would like to write another listening after a week or so, and possibly after reading the mountains of writing that will be done about this. But for now, here is what I heard tonight.
The first half of the album is the long lost material, the second half a series of experiments or side-steps. Looped synth drum tracks were always the first and most solid musical element of the band, making a groove over which distortion and vocal color can move. The drums here are higher in the mix than ever before and more heavily reverbed while remaining with core principles of coupling the beats with tambourine and avoiding any kind of crash or percussion-oriented crescendo.
I feel the way about Shield's guitar the way a christian feels about god. To the existing perfection here is added a lot of experimenting with double-tracking, masking and combining instrumental lines to that of the guitar melodies to accentuate certain timbres or give a bit of punch to phrases. Perhaps unfortunately, or historically accurate, the instruments sound synthetic and push the treble heavy mix even higher. MBV was always a teeter band in a woofer era, and this album is no exception. The mix of Bilinda Butcher and Shields's vocals remains similar, although the treatment of the vocals seems less fine grained (I suppose there wasn't hundreds of thousands of pounds to spend this time, unfortunately) and the mix of the album in general suffers from unpolished edges.
The second half of the album is just not coherent, but I suspect that it is the result of Shield's meta-anxiety of influence. Sometimes the only thing to do when one is a perfectionist is to say fuck it and barf out current drafts. Each song distills elements already existing in the band's formula but pushes one element further: "new you" focuses on sun pop, "nothing is" on aggro noise, "wonder 2" on creative incongruity, and "in another way" on organic instrumental hip hop vibe for the head tripper set.
The first half is coherent though the sequencing seems purposefully anti-climatic. It takes a true act of masochism to put "she found now" first, as it is no epic opening, more a mid album soft lull. Are we to think this side C of Loveless? The distortion pattern of this total bliss cocoon recalls "Isn't Anything" while a cleaner channel pulls along a melody for Kevin's voice to follow.
Of the first half, "only tomorrow" and "who sees you" are the 'timeless pieces inspired by the original.' "only tomorrow" is a monster pop jam in want of a lyric in the grand tradition, with a trademark drum flutter opening to an oceanic opening hook and immediate give of vocal luxury. Twenty first-century flourishes appear as expert stitching, exquisite details in the silence spaces, one becoming a sweep that goes into the most anachronistic of all contemporary song elements: a guitar solo. "who sees you" brings out the bends and tambourine lead, but is otherwise a variation on the techniques of "only tomorrow. " "if i am" takes larger melodic leaps than the others and is driven by stadium drums and Bond-ian guitar line. The full drum sound and long pauses between each melodic phrase make for a lot of empty space. After the first iteration of the verse, subsequent verse vocal lines are doubled with odd synths the way Wayne Coyne's voice is often mixed with odd sounds to unsettle the otherwise traditional lines.
"is this and yes" is the transition piece, informed by Messiaen by way of Radiohead (don't front, that's how most of us got there): a wordless monochrome with small points of Medieval drums. The song's framed by those rubbery percussion plucks and moves by shifting tones, with small, subtle dynamics and Butcher's breathy bell tone front and present.
Of the second half, "new you" is the most stereo-friendly listen. It's a straightforward new wave tune akin (blasphemy coming) to U2 in the Zooropa era. Like that album, it is a successful answer to the question of how to use guitar divinity in modest ways. This is unrepentantly sunny, ye ye pop with vocal phrases genuflecting at the Beatles, a bold step away and towards, like "1979" was for Billy Corgan. This song feels destined to be immediately sold off to the highest syncher, although the nostalgic indie rocker in me (who I am sort of fighting aesthetically here) would hope that Shields doesn't do it. This is where I confess that I don't actually know if MBV has licensed their music to anyone, but I have certainly never heard it and as the target market I feel like I would have had it happened. But even as I write this I wonder if it wouldn't be a good thing if more…kids…started liking MBV again. Not that there's a shortage of synthy-shoegazy pop bands at the moment.
"in another way" is all the edges of Shield's experiment bundled together with a drumline sufficiently frenetic to make the mess cohere, more or less. The first thirty seconds twist tones around a rubber boom bap that goes deep field distortion and an uncomfortably thin doubling of Butcher's vocal on guitar. The guitar then takes the lead over unnuanced string synths. A secondary guitar line irks over the top, sounding all the world like something Thurston Moore would have done to support Kim Gordon's choppy delivery when he did that sort of thing ("No more panty line, ine, ine…"). I fear that my sense of parts to wholes is being fucked with here and that I either have to listen to this song louder or further away, which is to say "live," in order to understand it.
"nothing is" takes the lessons of liveness to the studio. Because texture and volume always trumped lyrical intelligibility, the truth of MBV's sound was always in its being rather than meaning. This track is a one riff drum and guitar lock groove straight from the post-Providence noise tradition, or more precisely like latter day Ex Models. The major problem is that the riff itself seems distinctly un-MBV, like the intervals are too close and traditional, and the whole riff is too fast. Again something about it as a recorded work doesn't add up, or maybe the complete crap of my stereo is showing because I am not being given the full feeling of the pulse and repetition that is so obviously the point. Whatever is going on, it needs to be louder for it to go on for me.
"wonder 2" is a low flying drone war over the Stereolab concert that was the '90s. Guitar hooks sound the alarm and the song fights valiantly on. The song just ends with no resolution. We know who won but Kevin doesn't, and that's why we love him and keep listening.
[How is this the last song? I am totally annoyed by the sequencing and immediately rearranged it (okay not immediately, fucking iTunes 11, what a useless pile). A suggested re-sequence for your classic MBV pleasure: only tomorrow / if i am / who sees you / is this and yes / she found now / is this and yes / in another way / wonder 2 / nothing is / new you.]