There are only a few bands in the canon of indie rock that still inspire genuine awe: the Pixies, the Arcade Fire, and Pavement, to name three. The strangest of them all, though, is My Bloody Valentine. They are a band so loud and clattering, so deep and layered and weird, that no one knew what to call them until a British journalist, watching them rehearse, declared their style “shoegaze,” after Kevin Shields played a ten-minute set without looking up from his boots. They came, they played, and they left aging Generation X the legend of Kevin Shields, an art-rock counterpoint to Kurt Cobain. “Loveless,” their 1991 album, changed music. But that was fifteen years ago.
In 2006 it means nothing to say you know these things. When “Pitchfork” ranked “Loveless” the second best album of the 1990s, every hipster with a laptop and an image to uphold bought the record, and now if you listen closely you can hear it lulling to sleep a million girls with self-cut hair. I know this because this was my own introduction to the record, as well as that of all my friends.
So when Serena-Maneesh released the first major shoegaze record in fifteen years, I shelled out twenty dollars for the import and played it on repeat in my car, in my house, and in my head. It’s true that one record cannot speak for an entire style, but if there ever was or ever will be an heir to the swirling storms of My Bloody Valentine, that heir is Serena-Maneesh.
“Drain Cosmetics” opens the album simply enough; a steady drumbeat matched with a basic three-chord progression keeps us barely aware of shoegaze’s trademark wall of noise. Brick-by-brick crackling feedback and ghostly, muffled vocals build and surround the melody, burying it in layer upon layer of static. For the most part, the album follows this setup like a blueprint: basic guitar, simple and catchy drums, and a cat-and-mouse game between the tortured guitar cries and Emil Nikolaisen’s voice.
This pattern breaks briefly for “Candlelighted” and “Simplicity,” stripping the guitars in the former and the background squall in the latter. Both songs relieve the album of over-repetition, but since neither of them stand up very well as songs on their own, they serve mainly as counters to the album’s real hits: the aforementioned opener, which provides the catchiest tune in the bunch, and “Your Blood in Mine,” the twelve-minute finale that dabbles in twenty different song structures without sacrificing unity. Partly as a result of these two, the album feels very cohesive; it begins and ends on its highest notes.
However, in other ways, this placement makes the album suffer. The album isn’t long, but it still feels padded. “Selina’s Melodie Fountain” acts as an artificial edge, an incongruous freak-out that pales next to deeper soundscapes. If the band wants to reel in the punks, there are better ways to do so than six-minute-long repeated strums: a few harsh screams would do the trick.
As it is, these filler songs subtract from the album’s overall confidence, giving the impression that while these guys can rock their goddamned hearts out when they’re playing for themselves, they lose it (as does anyone) when caught up in their audience and fearful of the crowd.
Relax,Serena-Maneesh. You’re far too good to worry.