My Bloody Valentine Reissues: A Closer Look
It’s easy to forget that there was a time in the early 90s when musicians competed with each other to blur the lines between melody and noise. Guitars got louder and weirder, while vocals became softer and more ambiguous. Grunge had yet to take over the cultural landscape, and the future stars of Britpop were still wearing short pants.
The music of this era became known as “shoegaze,” a term that just about everyone involved has tried to disown. There’s some dispute as to whether this was an actual genre or just a vaguely connected scene. Whatever it was, most will agree that My Bloody Valentine had the strongest impact.
They had unwittingly giving birth to the nascent sound by merging an English melodic sensibility to the guitar-fueled aggression of American bands like Husker Du, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. Thus began a three-year period of experimentation leading to the release of their critical and commercial peak Loveless in 1991.
After touring behind their breakthrough album and attempting an aborted follow-up, My Bloody Valentine went on hiatus. Rumors of bankruptcy, drug abuse, and mad scientist-level obsession followed. Fickle audiences soon forgot the pedal-hopping craze in favor of the more direct approach of Nirvana and Oasis.
Luckily, the band left a string of brilliant records as their legacy. Their influence continued to grow, trickling down to younger generations and eventually seeping back into the mainstream.
In 2008 they reunited for a series of live dates. Once again, minds were blown as the group unleashed their strange, beautiful, and frequently loud music upon the world. There were talks of a reissue series to coincide with the reunion, but the project never materialized.
In May, after years of false starts, speculation, and allegations, Sony finally released new versions of Isn’t Anything (1988), Loveless (1991), and EPs 1988-1991, a two-disc set of (mostly) non-LP tracks. Each disc was carefully remastered by songwriter/guitarist/mastermind Kevin Shields.
No U.S. release date has been announced, and vinyl editions are promised “in a few months” (which in MBV-speak could mean a few years). Despite these significant drawbacks, the reissues look and sound fantastic. Hopefully U.S. audiences will soon be able to enjoy them without paying for overpriced imports.
Loveless stood to gain the most from a sonic upgrade. It’s a complex and textured album, and their most “produced” sounding release. Yet the music suffered from the limitations of the compact disc format and mastering standards of the time. The mix often seemed thin, and only after cranking the volume was the listener truly immersed.
To remedy this, Shields included two different versions: one sourced from DAT (digital audio tape), and one from ½ inch analogue tape. Within days of their release, The Power of Independent Trucking blog posted an article claiming that the Loveless discs had been mislabeled. To make a long story short, the version used for this review does appear to have the analogue master on disc 1 instead of disc 2.
So does it matter? Not really. Both mixes are an improvement over the original CD. They are louder without being over-compressed. If anything, the dynamic range is increased. Disc 1 has some additional warmth and presence often associated with analogue recordings, but it’s barely perceptible. Most listeners will not notice a difference.
A hallmark of Loveless has always been the tendency for individual guitar and vocal parts to blend into one. Here, they are surprisingly distinct. This is especially noticeable on “Come In Alone,” where Shield’s insistent voice rides confidently on top of the mix, as if in defiance of those who accused him of burying his vocals in the past. Don’t expect any great lyrical mysteries to be revealed – the first verse is still difficult to understand on both discs. The words primarily serve to add another nuance to the music, a technique the band began to employ around the time of the Glider EP.
Sound quality aside, Loveless remains a compelling album. “Only Shallow” and “Come In Alone” still sound revolutionary in the way they use traditional rock techniques (heavy guitars, feedback, drum fills) to create music that sounds unlike anything heard before. The drum loop for “Soon” is probably dated, but doesn’t sound any worse for it. The breathlessly sad “Sometimes” is genius in its contrasting use of soft acoustic and distorted electric guitars.
The weak links are still “Blown A Wish,” which could be a Cocteau Twins outtake, and “What You Want,” an experiment in pitch bending that proved more successful on the EP track “Honey Power.” Loveless is best taken as a whole, rather than as a collection of individual songs, so even these tracks serve their purpose. They help set the tone of the album, and create an inevitable buildup to the climax of “Soon.”
Live, My Bloody Valentine is a ferocious beast propelled by the frenetic drumming of Colm O’Coisog and anchored by the fuzzed out bass of Deb Googe. Isn’t Anything came closest to capturing this sound in the studio. In contrast to Loveless, the material is altogether heavier, from the driving beat of “(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream” to the multiple crescendos of “Nothing Much To Lose.” It’s a fascinating document of a band exploding into fruition.
This version is not remarkably different from the original, but does sound louder and crisper. The cacophony at the end of “Cupid Come” is more distinct as it gradually envelops the listener. “All I Need” previously sounded muddy; now the floating “glide guitar” and weary vocals each occupy their own space in the mix.
More remarkable is the EP collection, which chronicles the band’s considerable evolution over a three-year period. The sonic leap from the fuzzed-out abandon of the Feed Me With Your Kiss EP to the textural genius of the Glider EP is thrown into sharp relief. Two years had passed, during which the band were already working on their ambitious follow-up to Isn’t Anything. Glider and Tremelo both hinted at things to come: A ghostly, multi-layered sound with seemingly limitless possibilities.
Several tracks appear on CD for the first time, including “Instrumental No. 1 & 2,” originally included with vinyl copies of Isn’t Anything. Previously unreleased songs “Good For You” and “How Do You Do It” sound remarkably similar to other MBV tunes from the late 80s, from the squalling guitars to the frenzied drum fills – but this will hardly disappoint hardcore fans.
Each disc comes in a gatefold Digipak sleeve. EPs 1988-1991 has a color booklet with full artwork from the original releases. The cover art remains compelling, with a uniformity focusing on minimalist graphics and sensual imagery. The most striking thing about the packaging might be the vintage band photos. My Bloody Valentine just plain looked cool; their tangled hair and blank stares echo in the carefully styled press photos of countless bands today.
This brief period in the history of My Bloody Valentine remains compelling not just for the influence it had on other musicians, but for the sheer quality of the music represented. They had challenged musical conventions about structure, pitch, and volume. With their androgynous vocals, even gender roles in music were up for grabs. It’s safe to say that anyone who owned a copy of Loveless heard music differently from that point on.
Those who prefer digital formats need look no further than these reissues. Loveless benefits from vastly improved sound. The confusingly labeled individual masters are a nice bonus, but not essential. Isn’t Anything has a bit more crunch to it, and the comprehensive EP collection is a must-have. Until a comparable vinyl release appears, this is as good as it gets.