My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”

This past seven days, I’ve been listening to My Bloody Valentine’s album “Loveless” from 1991. I devote each week to a different album considered great in order to improve my own craft as a songwriting musician. It also introduces me to a lot of great music. This week was an unusual challenge. At first, I thought the album was awful. By the end of the week, I thought it was mostly awful. The blame does not fall on the songwriting. In fact, I find it difficult to speak about the songwriting at all. The recording and production choices stand as a major hurdle for me. The way they play their instruments did not help either.

This album drowns the listener in a lush warm fuzzy wall of sound. The use of reverb, including the weird reverse-reverb, gives instruments like the guitar an expansive atmosphere of depth. Or at least they would, except the sound is often flattened by emphasizing the production layer. This album often reminded me of an old cassette tape deck I had. The worn out belt would cause the playback speed to rise and fall. Parts also reminded me of another tape recorder on which the head wasn’t aligned quite right. When used to record music on a tape that already had something on it, you would get a mix of the new audio, the previous audio, as well as a little bit of the opposite side in reverse. All of these oddities brought focus to the medium of tape, which is flat. Much of “Loveless” sounds two dimensional to me in the same way.

Guitarist and principal artist of My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields, has a fascination with the whammy bar. He strums the guitar while applying pressure to the bar. This creates an effect where the guitar frequently undulates in and out of tune. Pushing this through layers of reverb provides the listener with a feeling of seasickness. It sounds cool, except that he’s doing it too much.  As a child, I dug the syncopated way my Speak-N-Spell said “apostrophe.”  I pushed the apostrophe button over and over again; It brought me joy while annoying everyone around me.

The guitar, the effects on the guitar, dominate the album. For most songs, the guitars shove the other instruments to the back. Drum loops rotate behind the wash of fuzzy reverb. Hints of bass guitar come and go. Sometimes something that sounds like keyboard overloading a toy speaker pushes between the blanket of guitar.

The songs also have vocals. I’ve heard them washed out by reverb and pushed well-beneath everything else. This is not true with all songs, but it seems to be the preference. The vocals sing in a quietly disinterested way, as if they are provided more out of obligation than desire. This expresses a cautious layer of self-conscious cool.  It almost works, but I would push the vocals more forward, give them some presence. They do have melodies and probably even lyrics, if you can manage to hear them.

The start of Only Shallow misleadingly implies a guitar-driven alt-rock album. As mentioned earlier, the focus on the album is more production and creating atmospheres of noise. While it can be argued that these are integral to the songs, I feel that the songs became reasons to create noise. This leads to soundscapes enjoyable in small doses. They wear tiresome long as whole songs.

Frequently, I would get whiffs of Stereolab, one of my favorite bands. The second track Loomer reminded me of Stereolab’s album Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements like the song “Jenny Ondioline” which I love. My Bloody Valentine released “Loveless” two years before that Stereolab album. I may’ve liked My Bloody Valentine more if I’d heard them when I was in high school, instead of 25 years later.

Here Knows When” provides a strong example of the elements I don’t like about this album. I suspect fans of the band love this song for the same reasons. Imagine alternately recording Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, Stereolab on a worn out cassette tape with a cheap recorded and then recorded the sound of a motorcycle race over it. I really feel like this started as a good song.

For me, When You Sleep stands out as the best track. the song brought “Degrassi High into my mind for reasons I can’t understand. The use of a melodic instrument between verses and choruses helps tremendously. Vocal samples of ‘ooo’ played like a warped mellotron interact musically with the apparent synth. They’ve layered male and female vocals in a way that successfully brings the vocals forward, almost. I still don’t know what most of the lyrics, but I like what I’ve caught. I suspect an expression of awkward teen crush and bubblegum. Then it goes on too long, over-compressed and lacking variation.

Ramones’ “Ramones”

I’ve been listening to the Ramones’ 1976 self-titled debut album this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album definitely provides a contrast from the modal jazz of last week’s Miles Davis album. I got my introduction to the Ramones through the “Ramones Mania” collection. I liked most of the thirty tracks; However, the songs seemed musically redundant. I mostly wrote them off. When I met my wife 18 years ago, she reintroduced me to her favorite band the Ramones. Thankfully, they had a broader range than I’d originally thought. So, what about their debut album?

Some see punk rock as a rebellion against disco banality and prog rock excesses. Some focus on punk as a revival of rock n roll, from which disco and prog had originated but drifted far away. The Sex Pistols, especially Johnny Rotten, probably leaned more toward the rebellion side. The Ramones were more perhaps more revival. On their debut album, the Ramones music bears elements of their influences like the Ronettes, the Beach Boys, and 1910 Fruitgum Company. The members of the Ramones heard these pop bands on the radio through their childhood. By the mid-70s, they’ve also been influenced by harder music like “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin. The Ramones brand of punk music strips early rock n roll and pop music down to its basic elements; They create short songs with catchy melodies, simple direct lyrics on adolescent themes, I-IV-V chord progressions, and basic rhythms.

The drummer plays minimalist beats with little to no flourish. The bass further drives the rhythm staying almost constantly on the tonic note of each chord. The guitar, likewise, provides a nonstop barrage of distorted barre chords. These give the music a wash of rock n roll sound, creating a style by opting out of stylistic additives.

The band will emphasize two consecutive beats in some songs, which is a distinctly Ramones rhythmic technique. They achieve this usually through the following. Throughout the rest of the measure (or two), the bass will drive along with constant eighth notes while the guitar is likewise being played with non-stop down-strokes. The snare will hit every 2nd and 4th beat with a kick every 1st and 3rd and maybe a downbeat in-between. To emphasize the two beats, the bass will play quick quarter notes and the guitar will strike then rest on both.  Usually this will be the V and IV chords of the key. The snare will hit on both, accompanied by a cymbal. This pattern gets repeated every two bars.

Joey’s vocal make these songs worth listening to. His melodies are simple, yet catchy. His style incorporates a variety of approaches while always sounding very much like Joey Ramone. They are fed by a desire to mix early rock n roll with a 1970s New York cool. He’s often crooning like Elvis Presley incorporating vibrato and tremolo.  Lines are punctuated with odd rockabilly hiccups and sputters, and occasional spits and snarls. All of these style in the vocals keeps the songs engaging while the rest of the instruments provide a utilitarian background.

The song “Blitzkrieg Bop” opens the album as a perfect introduction. The Ramones “Hey Ho Let’s Go” gets us “revved up and ready to go.” The lyrics “What they want, I don’t know” combined with the earlier lines “They’re piling in the back seat, They’re generating steam heat, Pulsating to the back beat.” sum up a lot of the album. These songs are soaked in a mixture of energetic anger, adolescent apathy, world-weariness, 50s rock n roll mythology, and naïvety. There’s that sense of seeing that the adult world sucks, but we’re not children anymore, so we’re going to have a good time in between.

The mid-album track “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” differs from the rest of the album. This slow song overtly wears more of the Phil Spector inspiration. Johnny Ramone even shows off an ability to play guitar beyond constant downstrokes.  True, it’s still a I-IV-V chord progression, but the Ramones are built on stripped down rock n roll. I also like that this song features one of my favorite instruments, the glockenspiel. However, the mix buries the bells.

These are great rocking songs with the most basic of essentials. All of them work, not in spite of, but because of their simplicity.  These very direct songs get the job done and get out. On the other hand, listening to them several times a day for a full week started to get boring. So, I learned that you can do a lot with very little. I don’t want to say these songs are without substance, but there’s just not enough there to keep them interesting.