Saturday, December 06, 2008

Number 21: Delays

Nearer Than Heaven (Rough Trade RTRADS175)

Chart Debut: 3rd April 2004

Writer: Greg Gilbert

There's almost a story behind this one. At any rate, the original release of this single in April 2003 is one of the last times I heard a record on the radio by somebody I'd never heard of, loved it and was determined to get hold of it. And that was back in the days when I was on a dial-up internet connection so it really meant going out and getting the CD single. Except that neither of the shops in Harrow had it - hard as it is to believe, there was a time when there were three record shops in town, although only two bothered with singles at the time. I finally managed to track the disc (bottom right in the photo) down in Sister Ray in Berwick Street one day when I had to go into London for an exam. I have a particular memory of sitting in the cafe in the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones drinking coffee con panna and feeling inexplicably pleased with myself.

When it comes to writing, one regular challenge is to avoid the temptation to concentrate exclusively on the lyric, which is always easier for a non-specialist to write about. In this case, however, the lyrics aren't really something I noticed much when I originally heard it: I don't think I ever knew what they were until I saw them written down somewhere or ever, and even now I'd struggle to recall them all out of context, still less to paraphrase them. With all due respect to whatever Greg Gilbert was trying to say here, it's obvious that the words aren't a focal point, except perhaps sonically, which presumably accounts for those Cocteau Twins comparisons. Co-producer Graham Sutton (of Bark Psychosis) lends some sumptuous soundscaping here, but one reason this really stands out is that it's counterbalanced by other parts of the track, especially the muscular drumming (by the enigmatically-named Rowly) and the shards of twelve-string guitars - it was claimed at the time that Geoff Travis had signed them to Rough Trade because they reminded him of The Hollies. You don't hear backing vocals like that every day either. The combined effect of these elements is to keep the song from being so wispy as to blow away in the wind, but without seeming to bludgeon you with its self-importance.

Needless to say, I was hooked. I like to think that I can claim a tiny bit of credit for their next single 'Hey Girl' breaking them into the Top 40 (at the very bottom rung). I even bought the limited-edition 7" single of their version of Mazzy Star's 'Ride It On'; when I later got them to sign this at an instore event they denied having seen one before. I was even happy for them when this turned up on the soundtrack of the blatantly awful movie Blackball. After the big hit 'Long Time Coming' at the start of 2004, a re-release of this was inevitable, and so I bought the 7" and the new CD (with different B-sides) illustrated here. I'd still have liked it to be a bigger hit, but it was a pleasure to see this land one place ahead of the latest overcooked, overhyped Missy Elliot single. I don't think I even thought twice about paying the extra to get the album with bonus DVD, despite not having anything to play it on.

I've kept on buying the albums and most of the singles since. I can't honestly claim that I've been as enamoured of the more electronic style they've moved towards on later releases, but it still feels like a shame they've never been able to match this level of commercial success, not even now they're on a major label. This early material will always be special to me though.

Official website:
YouTube if you want to: official video. And the band themselves have also posted the original demo. Also see a surprisingly amateurishly shot performance for some magazine in a pub in Camden - this audience all seem to know the words.
Where to find it: Even though this blog is meant to be about singles, I reserve the right to gush over albums. And Faded Seaside Glamour is certainly one to gush about.

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