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One of several female-led Britpop combos to emerge from the pack, London’s ECHOBELLY were indeed quicker on the draw than rivals ELASTICA and SLEEPER to unfetter an album. The band’s jagged, SMITHS-like indie-pop and socially-astute lyrics drew considerable critical acclaim and, combining studied cool with a vaguely PC agenda, singer Sonya Madan, became something of a female figurehead for the genre, along with Justine Frischmann and Louise Wener (respective singers with the aforementioned groups).
The dream-pop brainchild of Anglo-Asian Sonya and Swedish-born boyfriend at-the-time Glenn Johansson on guitar (who’d once edited a porn mag), the pair called upon bassist Alexander Keyser and drummer Andy Henderson to join ECHOBELLY, some time in 1992; the moniker suggested as, they put it, “being hungry for something”. With dark-haired Madan’s BLONDIE/DARLING BUDS-esque vocals set to a SMITHS-style musical backdrop, the 4-piece were one of Britpop’s early leading lights, debuting as they did in late ’93 on the independent Pandemonium Records, with the `Bellyache’ EP.
Subsequently inking a deal with Fauve Records, through Rhythm King and Epic, daytime airplay was achieved when the impressive `Insomniac’ reached a respectable No.47 in the charts. The addition of former CURVE guitar abuser, Debbie Smith (who’d initially/briefly filled in for an injured Johansson on a tour of the States with fan of the band, MORRISSEY), arrived just in time to consign another track, `I Can’t Imagine The World Without Me’, to the Top 40.
A pop/rock alternative to the likes of the aforesaid ELASTICA and SLEEPER, the 5-piece looked to have come of age when debut album, EVERYONE’S GOT ONE (1994) {*7}, held its place within the Top 10. For many pundits, too much the female-led equivalent of The SMITHS, the near-cloned fourth 45, `Close… But’, smoked no cigars as it stubbed out at a lowly No.59.
However, ECHOBELLY’s album’s success spurred them on to greater things as the Britpop phenomena reached its zenith in the summer of ‘95. In that mind-expanding year, ON {*7}, was a bigger budget affair that, nonetheless, still managed to capture the band’s abrasive immediacy. Careering into the Top 5, Madan and Johansson’s slinky songwriting was as caustic as ever; reflected gloriously on Top 30 hit singles, `Great Things’, `King Of The Kerb’ and `Dark Therapy’. Unusually, not as poignant among the John Peel Show fraternity, although a session that April 1st – featuring LP tracks `Go Away’, `Car Fiction’, `Four Letter Word’ and `Pantyhose And Roses’ – was well appreciated. The group’s first personnel casualty resulted in Keyser moving aside for James Harris.
By the release of 1997’s LUSTRA {*5}, however, the Britpop bubble had long since burst and, along with acts already feeling the pinch, ECHOBELLY seemed to be at the sharp end of the backlash. Only scraping into the lower regions of the Top 50, attendant single `The World Is Flat’ was its only pop chart saviour as `Here Comes The Big Rush’, stalled at No.56.
Out for the count for around three years as Epic Records baulked, ECHOBELLY (Sonya, Glenn and Andy, plus bassist Simon Robinson and keyboardist Ken Campbell) sprung back into action for a self-financed `Digit’ EP, on their own Fry Up label. As the latter newbies couldn’t withstand the subsequent brief re-arrival of Harris (on a one-off single, `Tell Me Why’), order was restored (and Debbie Smith) for 2001’s “comeback” set, PEOPLE ARE EXPENSIVE {*6}. A marked improvement on their lack-“Lustra” set (Harris replaced by bassist Ruth Owen), it nonetheless failed – as did follow-up single `Kali Yuga’ – to generate any new fanbase. The same ECHOBELLY 5-piece were back once again for fifth album, GRAVITY PULLS (2004) {*5} – had it really been a decade since they burst on to the scene?
Another five years down the line, Madan and Johansson were still plugging away on the circuit, performing acoustic songs at Manchester’s MoHo Live. Promises of an album, `I Seek Identity’ (under the billing of Calm Of Zero), never materialised in 2009, but one good thing that transpired was the eventual re-grouping as ECHOBELLY, although this didn’t happen until 2014 when re-masters of all their albums sold reasonably well. A year later, and selling out at London’s Scala venue, a decision to record a sixth album – with the aid of Pledge Music – was given the green light.
Although one could never count the proverbial chickens before the hatching, Sonya and Glenn (with additions Oliver McKiernan: bass, percussion, keyboards, and Ash Hall: drums, percussion) finally dispatched the wonderfully sublime but low-key, ANARCHY AND ALCHEMY {*7}, in May 2017. A fine ECHOBELLY album for fans missing Sonya’s subtle singing, tracks such as `If The Dogs Don’t Get You, My Sisters Will’, `Hey Hey Hey’ and the lilting `Autumn Angel’, raised their bar more than a little.
© MC Strong 1995-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Jul2016-May2017

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