Listen close and don't be stoned
* * * *
Souvlaki is Slowdive's second album, released in the UK on May 17, 1993 on Creation Records. It follows 1991's Just For A Day and an interim period between the release of that album and a year of follow-up recordings that were rejected by Creation Records. Souvlaki is now regarded as one of the seminal albums from the shoegaze genre. It was recorded in 1992 mostly at Courtyard Studios in Sutton and was produced and engineered by Ed Buller.
I can't put too fine a point on it: it's a masterpiece. It's Slowdive's magnum opus. Generally, if you like shoegaze music, you'll prefer more strongly either this album or My Bloody Valentine's classic 1991 offering Loveless as the top of the line from the original shoegaze movement (1989-1994). It's a crown jewel and there isn't a single bad song on it. It's had such a profound effect on me that I'd probably be a different person had I never heard it. It completely changed my taste in music at a pivotal point in my life. It's not just music—it's a work of high art. Now, twenty-two years after its release, it's still regarded very highly although when it was released, the British music press (wankers, the whole lot of them, then) wrote a multitude of articles describing it as "crap" because it didn't sound like the then-ascendant grunge and Britpop music that was all the rage at the time. But it has its fans, to the point that I'd wager anyone who enjoys shoegaze owns a copy, just like MBV's Loveless.
As I write this, I've just finished watching Pitchfork TV's "Pitchfork Classic" documentary on this album's production, so while it's fresh in my head, I'd like to give you all the low-down on the circumstances under which it was made. Following the release of Slowdive's debut album in 1991, they immediately returned to the studio to record a follow-up record, which Creation Records' boss Alan McGee rejected, calling the output "terrible". At this time, Neil Halstead (vocals, guitar) and Rachel Goswell (vocals, guitar) had just ended a long romantic relationship and some of the songs reflect that. The album's centrepiece, "Souvlaki Space Station", contains lyrics about the end of that relationship and how Rachel, who wrote the lyrics, felt at the time about being in a band with her ex-boyfriend, and the closing track, the acoustic and stripped-down "Dagger" is Neil's take on losing his relationship with Rachel. Given the rejected album submitted to Creation prior to the Souvlaki studio sessions, Slowdive was more or less allowed to do "whatever they wanted", according to McGee, just to get them out of his hair after he rejected around twenty-five new songs recorded after the release of Just For A Day. So, Creation arranged for Neil to stay in a small cottage in Wales by himself, so he could write some new songs without distraction. The results of the two weeks he spent there can be heard in "Machine Gun" (track 2), "40 Days" (track 3) and "Dagger" (track 10).
I will now break down each track and elucidate my thoughts on them and some of the creative processes behind the songwriting and music, based on what I know from reading various interviews over the years along with the Pitchfork TV documentary.
- "Alison" - in my opinion, one of the best shoegaze songs ever recorded. It's even a bit radio friendly and was released as the only single from Souvlaki. The background of the song is that Rachel and Neil had been sharing a flat with friends of theirs, Michelle and Alison. The song is actually about Alison, but not in a romantic way. The out-there lyrics such as "Listen close and don't be stoned" and "I'll wear your clothes when we're both high" give this song an unexpected (but minor) psychedelic feel. Just hearing the first few notes of this song eases my mind and makes me feel very nice indeed. I retreat to it often when I'm home alone recharging my introvert batteries. "Alison" initially sounded very different, but with the intervention of producer/engineer Ed Buller, became more radio-friendly, hence its release as a single. Neil handles the vocals on this track.
- "Machine Gun" - this song is one of the three new songs that Neil brought back with him from his songwriting marathon in Wales. Rachel and Neil sing alternating verses and they blend together with the wall-of-sound shoegaze style very slickly. In keeping with the rest of the album, Rachel's vocals are very much in the foreground but still manage to sound dreamy and far away. This is a remarkable song and sounds/feels absolutely flawless.
- "40 Days" - more fruit from Neil's stay in Wales, this song is among the more upbeat songs on this album. It has become a fan favorite and after Slowdive reunited in 2014, they added it to their encore at non-festival appearances. Really wild guitar in this song, courtesy of the non-standard three-guitar setup provided by Neil, Rachel and Christian Savill, leading to a brilliant build-up and finish. The lyrics aren't so far away in this song but are equally as thrilling as any other of the songs on this album. "If I saw something good, I guess I wouldn't care..."
- "Sing" - McGee managed to get Brian Eno to work with Neil on this song, and you can hear his synths bouncing around softly while he plays them and mixes the output of them and Neil's guitar work at the same time. Going into recording this song, Neil was unfamiliar with most of Eno's work, knowing only that he'd worked with David Bowie in the 1970s on albums such as Low. In the Pitchfork TV documentary, Neil admits his lack of knowledge about much of Eno's oeuvre then he comes to the conclusion that if he'd been more familiar with his works as the "father of ambient music" he'd have been a bit awestruck and would have been intimidated. He probably would not have been able to come up with the soaring high notes present here. Rachel provides the vocals for the whole song. The guitars were mixed down some here so that Eno's contributions could be more clearly heard.
- "Here She Comes" - Eno worked on this song with Neil as well. It's very stripped-down when put up against the rest of the album (with a few exceptions). Pretty much the only instrumentation in play is Neil's guitar, Eno's synths and drummer Simon Scott's brush-drumming. Neil's whispery vocals are almost lullaby-like and the subject of the lyrics, while cryptic, are clearly sung by someone heart-broken.
- "Souvlaki Space Station" - the album's centrepiece is a masterpiece. It's everything you could want from a dream pop/shoegaze/space rock song. Nick Chaplain's bass-line is the driving factor behind this song, and the mostly indistinguishable lyrics were penned and sung by Rachel; they're about her breakup with Neil. The vocals are so dreamy and incomprehensible that even most lyrics websites get them wrong. Each verse contains a statement about not wanting to see someone—certainly Neil, in this case. The vocals overlap themselves and what's buried underneath the foreground vocals are lines like "and I don't want to see/know/hear you" before closing with "I curse your soul / I don't wanna know you". Really the only aggressive song Slowdive has ever done, but the lyrics are entirely Rachel's, and it's so processed and reverbed that it doesn't sound aggressive. The music is spacey and stellar over the course of the nearly six-minute song.
- "When The Sun Hits" - another fan favorite, this one. Most think it's about drugs—even McGee, after first hearing it, phoned up Neil and said "You're on heroin, matey, right? Yeah, 'when the sun hits', alright. Better clean yourself up!" but Neil reassured him that he wasn't a junkie, although cannabis use influenced the structure of this song, mostly by Rachel and Neil. Admittedly, this is a lovely song to sink into while stoned. The whole album is, but this song in particular makes you feel a swelling in your heart and a deliciously aural orgasm in your brain.
- "Altogether" - this song is a strange bird; if you removed the vocals and time-traveled the music back to the late 1970s, it could easily have been a David Bowie song during his Berlin years when he was collaborating with Eno. "Sleepy head, what did you know? / I saw you talking but I didn't hear a word..." It also may have influenced a B-side, "So Tired", that backed "Alison" when it was released on an EP entitled Outside Your Room. I'll get to the non-album tracks after the main tracklist here.
- "Melon Yellow" - here we fade in from the previous track into something nevertheless very different. This is a standout, genre-defining song, but is little regarded since it was only ever an album track and never appeared on any other releases during the band's first time 'round (they reunited in 2014). It's slow, dreamy and absolutely lovely. One could easily fall into this song and swim in its lush textures. Ahem. Yeah, cannabis.
- "Dagger" - the final piece of Neil's sojourn in Wales. It's just Neil on vocals and acoustic guitar with no backing instrumentation. To close an album this monumental in its genre with a bare acoustic track seems weird, I'll readily admit, but it's a perfect closer for the album. This was Neil writing about the dissolution of his relationship with Rachel. In the Pitchfork TV documentary, Rachel admitted that she couldn't listen to this song at all for years. As a result, it wasn't played live often. An electric version of this song later surfaced on some demos Christian gave to a Slowdive listserv in the early 2000s, but I prefer the album version. Neil, in his solo career, often plays this song live since it fits with his non-Slowdive work, which is folk/acoustic/almost country music, even. It seems unlikely that "Dagger" will be performed at any upcoming Slowdive shows unless it's to give the band other than Neil a short break. I'm not sure what Rachel thinks of this song now—in the interview segments with her in the documentary, she relays how she felt about this song before Slowdive broke up, but not how she felt about it after. I don't think she was angry at Neil for writing it (after all, she'd done the same thing to him with "Souvlaki Space Station"), since the two later went on to form another band, Mojave 3, so they must have maintained, if not a friendship, then a working business relationship. I hear they're on good terms with each other now, which benefits everyone because it will eventually produce new Slowdive music.
This is where the album proper ends. Other versions include additional songs, and two EPs were spawned from it: Outside Your Room and 5, both released the same year as the album (1993).
Here are the tracklists for those EPs:
Outside Your Room
- "So Tired"
- "Souvlaki Space Station"
- "Moussaka Chaos"
- "In Mind"
- "Good Day Sunshine"
- "Missing You"
- "Country Rain"
Band lineup for all of the above (unless denoted otherwise):
Additionally, a cover version of "Some Velvet Morning", originally recorded by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood in 1967, was included on the US release. Slowdive puts a very soothing spin on this classic 1960s song. Another EP was also released, but I don't really count it as an official EP because it contains only two remixes of the song "In Mind" from the 5 EP, which is the first indicator of what to expect on Slowdive's next and, at the time, final album, 1995's Pygmalion, a trippy, ambient, electronic and totally different album than either album that came before it. The American release of Souvlaki contained the B-sides from the 5 EP except for "In Mind" but with the inclusion of "Some Velvet Morning", making the final track count for that release fourteen.
Suffice it to say, I love this album with all my heart, and I have from the first time I heard it in 1995 to the present day. Many of these songs were performed on Slowdive's 2014 world tour. I saw them in July of that year at the Pitckfork Music Festival at Union Park in Chicago and then a second time at the Majestic Theatre in Detroit. Can you imagine? Having your favorite band reunite after nineteen years and then seeing them twice in the span of about three months. Those shows were so good. Great, even. At the end of my life, I can die a little happier for having seen Slowdive perform in person after waiting for so long and never expecting them to reunite much less go on a world tour and, I've read, record a new album. I still get shivers thinking of those shows and I openly wept with joy during a few songs, particularly "When The Sun Hits", "Catch The Breeze" (both of the previous links are the live performances at Pitchfork) and, particularly, "Avalyn", the song I take my name from.
I don't normally review albums as I consider it too time-consuming and it is, after all, only my opinion, but this one has waited long enough. And before you ask about the references to Greek food (souvlaki and moussaka), allow me to explain: they come from the fleetingly famous Jerky Boys, who made recordings of prank phone calls and released them as albums. They even had a movie made, which I remember very little about other than Ozzy Osbourne's cameo appearance. Anyway, one particular Jerky Boys skit, entitled "X-Rated Hotel", contained the line "My wife will suck your cock like souvlaki!" which apparently had the band in stitches as it was released while Souvlaki was being recorded.
In closing, I hope I have enlightened you to the appeal of shoegaze music, and I implore you to give Souvlaki multiple listens. I know it's old, but like many albums, it's timeless and in my opinion will always be very relevant when discussing the shoegaze genre as a whole, because it makes up a big part of that whole. In fact, I wouldn't hesitate to call it the perfect record, but only because it actually is.
Pitchfork.tv Presents "Pitchfork Classic" Documentary on Slowdive's Souvlaki
Slowdive Discography at Discogs.com