Music/Popular Culture

After 22 years, My Bloody Valentine is back: geniuses or the most overrated band ever?

I had this little Facebook exchange yesterday with Tony Hamera, guitarist and songsmith for one of my favorite bands, The Blueflowers.

Tony Hamera MBV – I don’t think there is a more overrated band in the annals of music history…..

Sam Smith Even if they were overrated, what happens to the last 20 years of music without their influence? They’re tremendously important.

Tony Hamera Sam, I’m not sure what would have happened the last 20 years…I did concede they were highly influential, I just don’t know what relevant bands of the last 20 years have been influenced by them. I was merely commentating on the reaction to their latest release.

Sam Smith I think MBV resides in an interesting category: highly influential bands that probably weren’t nearly as good in their own rights as were the bands they inspired. There’s no questioning their importance in laying the groundwork for a generation of shoegazers. My collection is overrun by bands that owe their souls to what MBV (and Cocteau Twins and J&MC and Ride and Catherine Wheel and Verve) did in the early ’90s. Honestly, I don’t listen to MBV that much because I think their artistic progeny have surpassed them.

The subject, of course, is My Bloody Valentine, the seminal British Shoegazer band from way back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

…My Bloody Valentine redefined what noise meant within the context of pop songwriting. Led by guitarist Kevin Shields, the group released several EPs in the mid-’80s before recording the era-defining Isn’t Anything in 1988, a record that merged lilting, ethereal melodies of the Cocteau Twins with crushingly loud, shimmering distortion. Though My Bloody Valentine rejected rock & roll conventions, they didn’t subscribe to the precious tendencies of anti-rock art-pop bands. Instead, they rode crashing waves of white noise to unpredictable conclusions, particularly since their noise wasn’t paralyzing like the typical avant-garde noise rock band: it was translucent, glimmering, and beautiful. Shields was a perfectionist, especially when it came to recording, as much of My Bloody Valentine’s sound was conceived within the studio itself. Nevertheless, the band was known as a formidable live act, even though they rarely moved, or even looked at the audience, while they were on-stage. Their notorious lack of movement was branded “shoegazing” by the British music press, and soon there were legions of other shoegazers — Ride, Lush, the Boo Radleys, Chapterhouse, Slowdive — that, along with the rolling dance-influenced Madchester scene, dominated British indie rock of the late ’80s and early ’90s. As shoegazing reached its peak in 1991, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, which broke new sonic ground and was hailed as a masterpiece. Though the band was poised for a popular breakthrough, it disappeared into the studio and didn’t emerge over the next five years, leaving behind a legacy that proved profoundly influential in the direction of ’90s alternative rock.

As it turned out, Loveless was the last we heard of MBV. Until a few days ago, when they released m b v, their first new CD in 22 years. The  immediate response was perhaps predictable: the mad dash of fans crashed the Web site.

My Bloody Valentine: The m b v Reviews Are In

Critical response to the disc, which Shields says includes material from a planned mid-’90s album that was never finished, some earlier demo work and some new tracks, has been mostly positive.

  • The Chicago Tribune‘s Greg Kot gives it 2.5 stars out of four: “With expectations equally stratospheric for m b v after a two-decade wait, it’s difficult to imagine how My Bloody Valentine could possibly have measured up. Instead, Shields and his bandmates have made a transitional album, one that nods to the band’s storied peak but winds up heading in a new direction.”
  • Alexis Petridis of The Guardian seems to like it: “The songs on m b v, however, are more melodically complex, intriguing and often pleasing than anything he has written before. The tunes and chord progressions keep slipping their moorings and heading down unexpected paths. There’s occasionally something oddly jazzy about m b v, as evidenced by the shifting time signature of only tomorrow, which leaves the song sounding as if gasping for breath; and the song is this and yes boldly strips away all Shields’s trademark sonic mayhem, leaving behind only Butcher’s voice and an organ playing a strange and gorgeous chord sequence.”
  • Jason Heller at AV Club is at once confused and enthralled, which is probably about right for anything from MBV: “It’s tough to tell what Shields was shooting for with m b v, let alone if he came close to hitting it. How far back do the basics of these recordings stretch? Is the album an attempt to re-create what a 1993 follow-up to Loveless might have sounded like? Or is it a clean-slated attempt to open a fresh chapter in the band’s existence? Conscious or not, the loose ends from Loveless are impossible to ignore, but neither are they easy to condemn. Loveless’ main drawback was the fact that, for 22 years, it stood as a monument to thwarted promise, a teaser of what might have come if only Shields and crew had gotten their shit together. Finally, they have. And regardless of whether it’s an echo of the past or a bridge to the future, MBV stands as something potentially timeless—and immediately breathtaking.”
  • Several SPIN reviewers get together and are…well, SPIN reviewers. Their average score is a 7.25 our of 10, with plenty of sevens and eights.

One of the Most Influential Bands in History?

Tony’s “overrated” challenge is an interesting one. As I make clear in my response, MBV aren’t my favorite from that era – there are plenty of DreamPop and Shoegaze bands (original and latter-day) that I like better. At the same time, love ’em or hate ’em, there’s simply no way to deny how incredibly important My Bloody Valentine was. Have a look at the “Followers” list noted at AllMusic. Here are just a few of the bands that derive their sound, either directly or indirectly, from MBV:

  • Ride
  • Sigur Rós
  • Swervedriver
  • The Boo Radleys
  • The Verve
  • Catherine Wheel
  • Chapterhouse
  • Cranes
  • Curve
  • Garbage
  • Mazzy Star
  • Mogwai
  • Smashing Pumpkins
  • Spiritualized
  • The Chemical Brothers
  • The Dandy Warhols
  • Velocity Girl
  • Asobi Seksu
  • Fields
  • Japandroids
  • M83
  • Primal Scream
  • School of Seven Bells
  • Starflyer 59
  • The Apples in Stereo
  • The Black Angels
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  • The Raveonettes
  • The Sundays
  • Atlas Sound
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
  • Boards of Canada
  • Explosions in the Sky
  • Peter Bjorn and John
  • Silversun Pickups
  • The Stratford 4

As I say, that’s just a few. For instance, you’d also add to this list one of the best bands I ever encountered (although they never broke through into the sort of fame they deserved), Space Team Electra. Let’s sift back through the past few years of my Best Of series for even more (in addition to the ones on the list above):

  • Tamaryn
  • Dum Dum Girls
  • Dotsun Moon
  • Washed Out
  • Able Archer
  • The Horrors
  • Ladytron
  • The Scottish Enlightenment
  • Rabbit Velvet
  • The Black Ryder
  • Tame Impala
  • Hoopherphonic
  • Blonde Redhead
  • LoveLikeFire
  • MiniPop
  • We Start Fires
  • …and, oh yeah, Radiohead

Conversations like this always bring me back around to criteria. When we say somebody is the best, what do we mean? What is “great”? When we say “underrated” or “overrated,” what precisely are we trying to communicate? As I have said many times, arguments over who’s best at a given thing are usually arguments over criteria in disguise.

Some years ago I took a whack at the criteria that I think are important in evaluating any given artist. Note item #3:

Influence. Great art begets great art. The greatest albums/CDs are ones which influence and inspire other musicians to greatness, and as such their import extends well past the direct impact they have on audiences. So when many brilliant recording artists point to a common influence, a greatest albums list would do well to include that influence.

There you go. Now, there are plenty of other criteria to be considered, but on this one, it’s clear that MBV scores major points.

The Student Has Surpassed the Master

Still, I suggest above that some influential bands are ultimately surpassed by those they inspire, and I think that’s likely the case for My Bloody Valentine. Let’s look at those lists above again and ask ourselves how the actual MBV catalog stacks up against some of their followers.

  • The Verve: Who knows what might have happened had their momentum not been kneecapped by litigation on the part of The Rolling Stones’ attorneys?
  • Catherine Wheel: Arguably the most underappreciated band in rock history.
  • Curve: Inventive, ground-breaking – they took the MBV ball and ran with it.
  • Garbage: The (mostly) American answer to Curve.
  • Smashing Pumpkins: One of the greatest bands of the grunge era, and the 2012 release was their best since 1995.
  • Spiritualized: Never my favorite, but unquestionably one of the most important players in the Ambient Rock movement.
  • M83: Have you heard the last two CDs?
  • The Apples in Stereo: One of the most important and influential low-fi indie pop bands in the last generation.
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Perhaps the best of the current wave of noisy indie-pop bands.
  • The Raveonettes: Pound for pound, one of the best bands in the world over their last four releases.
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: They owe more to Jesus & Mary Chain than MBV, but the MBV influence has been an undeniable force in establishing BRMC as one of the best bands alive.

Say you buy my argument that MBV wasn’t as great for their own music as they were for their influence, hypothetically (not that I expect people to buy this without a fight, but let’s play along for a moment). Are their other bands of which we might say the same thing? Are their other sacred cows I might gore here?

Joy Division: Back in the mid-1990s I’d never have believed for a second that in the future, JD would emerge as one of the biggest influences on the Indie/Nu-Wave movement of the early 21st century. But here we are, and the list of Joy Division devotées is as long as your arm. Interpol. Editors. The Killers. TV on the Radio. Bloc Party. The Rapture. The Bravery. The Futureheads. The Horrors. She Wants Revenge. The Mary Onettes.

And frankly, I’m just not that into JD. They had their moments, but I thought New Order, which emerged from the ashes after Ian Curtis offed himself, were a better band.

The Doors: Sweet hell, has there ever been more ado about nothing? The tunes were pedestrian, the musicianship was nothing special, and Jim Morrison was a poet like I’m a world class extreme skier. If you think the Lizard King was profound, you need to step away from the horse tranquilizers.

Velvet Underground: Maybe one of the five most influential bands in history. In addition to everything else, they were a key touchpoint for both Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine. Much respect. But how often do I listen to them? Like, never. I much prefer Lou Reed’s solo work.

Bauhaus: There’s a crowd of people with pitchforks and torches gathering outside my apartment right now, but the truth is that the idea of Bauhaus was a lot more interesting than the music of Bauhaus. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and the cover of “Ziggy Stardust” and several albums worth of filler. Peter Murphy’s first four solo releases were far more interesting (especially Deep) and I can probably say the same for the first three Love & Rockets albums.

So there. A bit of heresy to spice up your day. Are there others you can think of?

Meanwhile, you can sample m b v here.

Image Credits: ThisIsFakeDIY, rcrdlbl, golyr

9 replies »

  1. okay, the fact that i only recognize two or three of the bands on this list does indeed show my appallingly shallow understanding of modern pop music. but dude, you had the ultimate valentine’s day post and you couldn’t wait a week? seriously.

  2. This is probably as applicable here as it was whenever it was first said about another band (Velvet Underground? Sex Pistols?) : MBV didn’t have a lot of actual fans, but almost every fan they had went out and started a band.

    I think this pattern fits Suicide, too, that minimalist electronic punk band.

  3. It’s not just you, Otherwise. I’m pretty musically literate and I only recognize maybe half the bands (well, 60%, say) mentioned here. The siloing of rock into sub-genres was already underway by then, so my lack of interest in most of these bands’ oeuvre has something to do with my ignorance – it is somewhat purposeful.

    A more interesting question to me is this one: Why do some “important” bands “break through” (to use Sam’s term) with the public and others don’t? There’s the old quote about VU that only about 100 people bought the first Velvet Underground album – but that all those people formed bands as a result. That’s influence for sure – but while Lou Reed “sort of ” broke through, VU never did.

    Mass popularity is no measure of a band’s quality as the careers of most of the bands in the last TOR proves. But the lack of popularity/success of a band that is claimed by critics to be “great” raises questions about a) the worth of critical opinion and b) the knowledge of audiences in what is supposed to be a “popular art” form.

    Both groups a and b raise hackles of contempt along my own spine for wildly different reasons. But to turn to Sam’s question of whether successors “improve” or “surpass” their progenitors – well, that’s a set-up for that tired argument that ever so many bands are greater than say – oh, let’s say The Beatles.

    But the Fabs “broke through” like no one else in history – and their influence is Biblical in its scope. So that doesn’t answer my question.

    Why do some “important” bands break through and others do not?

  4. I’m hurt that you’d accuse me of being party to a set-up.

    Ahem. The answer I suppose is as simple as the criteria list. I list what, nine criteria in that linked post? When we’re talking about ultimate greatness, we’re attempting to treat them as nine facets of one unitary thing, but it’s equally valid to treat them as nine completely separate things. You can the most influential artist at something in history, and yet you have no commercial appeal. Look at literature, for instance, where all kinds of people cite Burroughs as a huge influence, including one of my heroes, Gibson. But Burroughs never enjoyed popular appeal, while Gibson and others certainly have.

    Put another way, you can easily accuse me of artificiality when it comes to my criteria list. It’s arbitrary, in some ways, even though it’s well informed. It’s a package I have pulled together in my own assessment of greatness. And we can argue over that list a good bit. Certainly we don’t regard all nine elements as being of equal value.

    So the answer, I guess, comes down to semantics and mutually agreed-upon cultural and subcultural values. Those 100 VU fans found tremendous value in some criteria, but they spun that influence out in ways that emphasized a different mix of qualities., which appealed to a different set of fans. I love Gibson. I hate Burroughs.

    I feel like I’m rambling here, but I also suspect you know what I’m getting at.

    • I just had an epiphany: MBV was/is Christ-like to many because they gave hope to “musicians” who could not sing or write songs but could string along a plethora of effects pedals and play really loud. For the non musican, it indeed was something sonically “new” and interesting to listen to, but in the end, gimmicky.

  5. I’ve listened to MBV (the band) several times and while I like them, I don’t love them as much as The Black Angels or Catherine Wheel. Does Black Mountain belong on that list also?

    It’s an interesting question about “greatest” and influence. Is it a matter of how rabid your fans are, even if there’s only a couple hundred?

    Well, I love Joy Division. They were a very late discovery for me and I’m sad for all the years I didn’t know about them. And I love The Doors, but then I can be fairly pedestrian in my taste. I don’t think Morrison is profound so much as a line here and there catches my attention. It’s the music I love. The groove.

    Velvet Underground had a compilation come out in the ’80s called VU that I loved, but that’s the only album I love all the way through. When I first heard Velvet Underground and Nico I was pretty stunned that it influenced anybody.

    Love and Rockets far surpassed Bauhaus. This goes back to my question about rabid fans though.

    And how did I know Jim would mention The Beatles?

  6. I have had sex more to Loveless than any other album. I have tripped more to Loveless than any other album. Now I’m married and I don’t have sex to music anymore (why not?), nor I have I tripped in 15 years or so, buy maybe it’s time I start again.

    The last few days all I want to do is drive around in my car cranking MBV on 11. 40 year old bald white guy in a $75k car, blasting the ultimate in white people’s music. This is the ultimate gift to anyone who was in college in the 90s.