Cranes are one of those bands that you either love with your entire soul or you can't stand to listen to. Alison Shaw's petite, often indecipherable vocals are off-putting to some, though if you like this band, chances are you really like them. Note that there is no "The" preceeding "Cranes" in the actual name of the band, although it would seem to make more sense, gramatically, to include the "The". The band takes its name from the multitude of construction cranes that dominated the skyline of their hometown during the 1980s.
They span several genres: shoegaze, goth, dreampop, britpop, and minimalism. In part because of this, you'll probably never find a band like them. In a world of musical copycats, this band possesses one of the few truly unique sounds. This, unfortunately, limits their accessibility, and keeps their audience a small, cult-status niche.
The lineup has consisted of a revolving cast of people doing different things, but their core sound has remained true to its late 1980s roots.
The current lineup
- Alison Shaw: lead and backing vocals, most lyrics, electric and acoustic guitar, bass guitar (fun fact: she doesn't alternate-pick when playing)
- Jim Shaw: electric and acoustic guitars (from Population 4 onward), programming, bass guitar, drums (until Population 4), production, samples, occasional vocals
- Paul Smith: programming, production, keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar
- Jon Callendar: drums
- Ben Baxter: bass guitar
Previous band members
- Manu Ros: drums
- Mark Francombe: acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards, album art (he still contributes occasional art for singles/EPs, and he now operates a graphic design business in Sweden)
- Matt Cope: acoustic and electric guitars
The band started out with only brother and sister Jim and Alison in 1986, in Portsmouth, England, which is where the band is still based. It was around this time that they self-released their first demo tape, entitled Fuse. Mark Francombe and Matt Cope had joined by the time Self-Non-Self was released in 1989, which got them noticed by Dedicated Records, with whom they would stay signed to for most of the 1990s. The lineup stayed the same through the next few albums and only changed after the release of Population Four in 1997, when Manu Ros left, as did Mark and Matt. Paul Smith replaced both Mark and Matt and Jim took on additional guitar duties. The band was unable to find a replacement for Manu for two years, during which time they did not tour nor play live, until Jon Callendar came along in 1999.
Complete discography (chronological order, albums in bold)
- Fuse (demo tape / 1986 / Bite Back! Records)
- Self-Non-Self (1989 / Bite Back! Records / re-released in 1997 on Dedicated Records)
- Inescapable (EP / 1990 / Dedicated Records)
- Espero (EP / 1990 / Dedicated Records)
- Adoration (single / 1991 / Dedicated Records)
- Tomorrow's Tears (single / 1991 / Dedicated Records)
- Wings of Joy (1991 / Dedicated Records)
- Adrift (EP / 1993 / Dedicated Records)
- Clear (single / 1993 / Dedicated Records, BMG)
- Forever (1993 / Dedicated Records, BMG)
- Jewel (single / 1993 / Dedicated Records, BMG)
- Forever Remixes (EP / 1993 / Dedicated Records, BMG)
- Shining Road (#1) (single / 1994 / Dedicated Records, BMG)
- Shining Road (#2) (single / 1994 / Dedicated Records, BMG)
- Loved (1994 / Dedicated Records, Arista Records, BMG)
- Lilies (promo EP / 1995 / Dedicated Records, Arista Records, BMG)
- La Tragédie d'Oreste et Électre (1996 / Dedicated Records)
- Ancienne Belgique (promo EP / 1996 / Dedicated Records)
- Population Four (1997 / Dedicated Records)
- Can't Get Free (single / 1997 / Dedicated Records)
- EP Collection Volumes 1 & 2 (2-disc compilation set of OOP early EPs / 1997 / Dedicated Records)
- Future Songs (2001 / Dadaphonic Records, Instinct Records)
- Submarine (single / 2002 / Dadaphonic Records, Instinct Records)
- The Moon City (7" EP / 2002 / Elefant Records)
- Live In Italy (live album / 2003 / Dadaphonic Records, Instinct Records)
- Particles and Waves (2004 / Dadaphonic Records, Manifesto Records; bonus Digipak edition includes a 4-song DVD)
- Cranes (2008 / Dadaphonic Records)
A note on the record labels: Dedicated Records was the band's distributor in Europe, so any that list only Dedicated as the label were Europe-only releases. In the USA, BMG Records, Arista Records, and Instinct Records have all served the band as its stateside distributor. Dadaphonic Records is run by the band itself, and it handles European releases, but hands off stateside releases to Instinct. The Moon City was a one-off, two-song 7" record released only in Spain by Elefant Records, and it is quite rare.
In 2007, Wings of Joy, Forever and Loved were re-released with extra material (B-sides, remixes and new photo books).
Alison has lent her vocals to a couple of other projects: the song "Your Sweet Love" by Trash Palace, which appeared on the 2002 album "Positions"; and the song "Endormie" by Twine, from their 2007 album "Violets".
Ivo Watts-Russell, he of 4AD Records fame, decided to cover the song "Sweet Unknown" (one of my all-time favourite songs), from Population Four, with his "sequel to This Mortal Coil" band, The Hope Blister. Louise Rutkowski provides the vocals. The Hope Blister's only album to date, ...smile's OK, was released in 1998.
Just about all of the early EPs are out of print and therefore extremely rare now, which necessitated the release of the EP Collection in 1997; it gathers most of the EP material (with some notable exceptions, such as the Forever bonus disc) and a few album tracks. La Tragédie d'Oreste et Électre is a full-length album sung by Alison entirely in French (she's fluent in English, French and Spanish); it is based on Jean-Paul Sartré's play Les Mouches.
In 1998, the band was dropped from Dedicated Records, hence the noticable lack of releases between 1997 and 2001. Dadaphonic Records was formed by the band to release their new material. 2001 also saw the release of a chapbook of lyrics written by Alison and entitled Til the Stars Shine, which was in response to their fanbase, as many of her lyrics are undecipherable. It had a limited print run and is therefore pretty rare now. I have a signed copy!
Cranes toured the USA this spring (2002), during which time I met Alison Shaw, and, just like her voice, she is one of the sweetest, kindest people I've ever met. During the show, I was standing in the front row, right by Alison, and I was singing along to every song. When "Paris & Rome" came up, she pointed to me and said "this is for you!" I was like "EEEEE!"
Through the years, the band has embarked on a number of of European and American tours, sharing the stage with The Cure (1991/92), Slowdive (1993), Rasputina (1997), and Matthew (2002). Touring with The Cure was in itself quite interesting -- Robert Smith is a fan of the band and personally invited them to tour as the opening band on The Cure's Wish world tour in 1991/92. One night on tour, Alison was ill, so Robert took her place on stage, singing a full set of Cranes lyrics and playing Alison's guitar parts. Robert later remixed the track Jewel, which appears on the Forever Remixes EP and on the Jewel single, and he also produced the band's Forever album, which I consider (along with Loved) to be one of their best.
They keep a fairly regular schedule of appearances in Europe (mostly) each year, including appearances at the various spring/summer festivals like WGT and tiny tours that run for about two weeks (at most) and stop at many large European cities.
I recommend starting with Loved or Forever -- Population Four is somewhat of an attempt at college radio rock, not that it isn't also very good (it contains my favourite Cranes song, after all), but the previous albums are much richer and more likely to draw in a new listener. The earlier releases are usually agreed by most hardcore followers (like myself) of the band to be better.
I've seen this band live once (New Orleans, 2002)