Thursday, April 03, 2008

Shuffle : Lazarus

Unless you're a fan, mention of the Boo Radleys will probably make you think: Britpop band. One hit. Irritating Wake Up song. And no more.
Maybe you'll remember that the singer was bald. Maybe not. Maybe, just maybe, you'll remember one of the post "Wake Up Boo" (for that was the name of the irritating wake up song) singles, or an appearance on Later...with Jools or one of their videos. Probably not.

For a handful of bands, after the initial deliverance it provided to the land of the chart single and a minimal public profile, Britpop was sort of a curse. Once it was over, as a movement, so were hundreds of careers, careers that might have been just fine were it not for Britpop. But yolked to a non-existent movement because they played some sort of guitar-based pop, dozens of bands just dissolved once pop culture moved on.

So here's the thing. The Boo Radleys were never Britpop. They began as a shoegazer band, influenced mainly by My Bloody Valentine. As such, nobody paid them much heed, despite the fact that even those early records - an assortment of EPs and singles, Peel sessions and a flawed first album - were filled with evidence that Martin Carr was a songwriter of real promise and vision. His version of a shoegazer record was a three minute suite ripe for experimentation, filled with unexpected melodies, a McCartney bassline here, a cloud of orchestral atmosphere there, a vocal harmony on the chorus, a house beat mingled with tribal percussion, whatever he thought he could get away with, whatever he could smuggle in.

In 1993 that all changed. Carr wrote "Giant Steps", the album that would prove to be his creative breakthrough and his band's masterpiece. Building upon that solid shoegazer foundation, his songs were eclectic, epic and thrillingly personal, his sonic palette suddenly freed from any generic bonds he had previously adhered to. The album features songs based on ringing guitars, splashes of strings and horns, "ba-ba-ba-ba" backing vocals, flirtations with house and dub music, and is lyrically concerned with life as a twentysomething in the early 90s and its attendant issues. But fundamentally it sounds as if he has sat down and listened to the records he loves - the Beatles, the Byrds, Love, the Beach Boys, the Zombies and the like from the sound of it - and decided to make a record like the ones they used to make. Only he utilises modern recording techniques and he understands that it is in the right spirit to absorb some modern music , too.

When I first heard "Giant Steps" at some point in the mid-90s it sounded unbelievably fresh to my ears. I understood instantly what Carr wanted to do. I could tell that this was a record that wanted to be a Beatles album, in effect, that he was trying to make a modern-day "Abbey Road" or White album. And he got close, too, I thought. The range and breadth of styles was there, the multicoloured soundscapes, the psychedelic cover art, the always melodic, hook-driven songs. "Giant Steps" sounded like a masterpiece to me then, and it still does today. Its centre-piece, and the greatest song Carr ever wrote, is "Lazarus". It had already been released in a shorter, inferior version as a single, on "The Lazarus EP" before the release of the album, signalling that the band understood its quality. On the album version, they included a minute long dub prologue, huge rumbling basslines and reggae guitars shaking the speakers and playing between the channels until they finally culminate in that beautiful, epic horn refrain, played by what sounds like a massed orchestra and rising on layers of distorted guitar. Then the verse kicks in.

And everything goes quiet. Thats how Lazarus works. Without a conventional chorus, the song relies upon that mighty horn melody - a tremendous, shambling beast of a melody if ever there was one - to carry its hook. So the horn refrains are thunderous, the guitars crunching and droning away and the bass bubbling energetically beneath that marvellous, sighing horn sound. It sounds like take off. Every time. Meanwhile the verses are exercises in minimalism. Just a band - bass, drums, guitars and a singer - carry the verses. Vocalist Sice always had a sweet choirboy's voice and he makes this melancholic lyric sound genuinely vulnerable as the backing vocals "ba-ba-ba-ba" behind him. It ends with a rising, intensifying reprise of the horn refrain, as it had to.

I always wondered why "Lazarus" wasn't picked up for use as the backing music for "Goal of the Month". Or used in an advert. Its the kind of song that you can imagine being used in a movie in a decade or so, and given a new lease of life. Because "Giant Steps" died a commercial death. Despite winning "Album of the Year" from NME and Select, it entered the Top 20 briefly, then basically disappeared. The band toured then began work on a new record. They must have wondered what they had to do to gain any real success. How good they had to be. As it turned out, they didn't even have to be that good ever again. In the interim, Blur released "Parklife", Oasis released "Definitely Maybe" and the British music industry changed utterly.

The Boo Radleys' next release was "Wake Up Boo", which is basically a hyper-charged skiffle song with a great chorus and a manic brass section. Musically, at least. Lyrically its a dark portrayal of life with a depressive partner ("You have to put the death in everything"), a fact that the chirpy chorus blinds most listeners to. It, and its parent album "Wake Up" were both massive hits, and its the song that people identify the band with. Their next album, "C'mon Kids" is their least commercial and seemed an aggressive attempt to shed the fans that they had gained, though Carr denied this, claiming it was an attempt to introduce such fans to something new. By that time Britpop was dying slowly, and the album failed commercially. Their last album, "Kingsize", was a sort of return to the styles of "Giant Steps", though the songwriting was not at quite the same level. Then the band broke up. Carr went solo as "Bravecaptain". "Giant Steps" has a little cult following that you can find if you google it. It might just be the great lost album of the 90s, though there are many worthy contenders for that title. "Wake Up Boo", on the other hand, will be mentioned in any obituary of Carr, and feature on 90s compilations forever. Thats fine, its a good song.
But its not "Lazarus".

This is:



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