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Slowdive

+ {Mojave 3} + {Neil Halstead} + {Rachel Goswell} + {Black Hearted Brother} + {Minor Victories} + {The Soft Cavalry}

From MY BLOODY VALENTINE to LUSH, and much more besides, the sonic and psychedelic shoegaze scene had another string to its bow a la SLOWDIVE. Not nearly as successful as their prosperous peers (including near neighbours RIDE), the 90s did however yield one of the more auspicious acts of the pre-Britpop era; and one, who in time, and a re-formation, reaped the right rewards.
Formed in the Thames Valley hub of Reading, Berkshire, 1989 saw musically-minded school friends Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead write songs together whilst doubling as lead singers and guitarists; and occasional keyboardists. The Pumpkin Fairies, as they were initially monikered, duly recruited bassist Nick Chaplin, but almost immediately abandoned any indie-pop designs when they duly accepted third guitarist Christian Savill, who’d been so desperate to join up, he’d answered the group’s want ad for a “female” band member. His lonesome appearance at the audition and his willingness to don a dress, if required, swung the votes his way.
The SLOWDIVE nom de plume was chosen from a SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES song, and also a dream Halstead had during their settling in period. After only a handful of gigs under their belt, the quintet – with drummer Adrian Sell on board – signed to Alan McGee’s stalwart Creation imprint; then responsible for breakthrough acts PRIMAL SCREAM, SWERVEDRIVER, RIDES, MY BLOODY VALENTINE et al.
A self-titled debut EP, spawning their eponymous `Slowdive’ composition (not SIOUXSIE’s), garnered a healthy response from reviewers and the public alike. However, Adrian’s presence was short-lived; as was the brief booking of Neil Carter (ex-Colour Mary), who didn’t have much time to catch his breath when Cambridge-born Simon Scott (from The CHARLOTTES) was drafted in on the back of the `Morningrise’ EP; released in February ‘91.
SLOWDIVE’s third EP `Holding Our Breath’ just fell short of the Top 50. However, the band’s debut album, JUST FOR A DAY (1991) {*7}, easily surpassed the feat that September. Immersed in shimmering, distortion-happy guitars and ethereal atmospheric harmonies, their sound lay somewhere between COCTEAU TWINS, CHAPTERHOUSE and aforesaid fellow Reading-based shoegazers RIDE. Alternating vocals between the wispy Rachel and the sombre Neil (showcased on the detached dream-pop swirl of minor hit `Catch The Breeze’, `Celia’s Dream’ and `Waves’), the sloth-like SLOWDIVE floated gently into the minds and hearts of indie followers everywhere; even America where they’d inked a deal at SBK Records.
Thenceforth, emerging grunge acts from over the big pond, spearheaded by NIRVANA, were to hasten SLOWDIVE’s disinclination to compete; well at least in the music press stakes where “shoegazing” bands were now suddenly looked down upon. Compounded by the separation of couple Rachel and Neil, only a few John Peel sessions and a solitary `Blue Day’ compilation EP surfaced in 1992. The EP left out an earlier B-side cover of SYD BARRETT’s `Golden Hair’.
However, after an 18-month hiatus, SLOWDIVE put any divisions to one side and heralded their “difficult” sophomore set with another EP, `Outside Your Room’. The Top 75 record included the head-spinning `Souvlaki Space Station’, which also appeared within the SOUVLAKI (1993) {*9} album; named after a Greek dish (some say a Jerky Boys prank/skit!). It was clear from contrasting reviews and corresponding poor (hp#51) sales they’d left it too long. Across in America a further delay ensued in order to allow in a cover of LEE HAZLEWOOD’s `Some Velvet Morning’. The “slow-burning” album itself had the inspirational presence of ambient brainbox BRIAN ENO on two pieces, `Sing’ and `Here She Comes’, though it was the awe-inspiring openers `Alison’ and the celestial `Machine Gun’, that were the big ticket lures for fans who’d patiently stayed the course.
The aptly-titled `5EP’ showed further resolve, utilising techno acts Reload and Bandulu to boost their fresh direction. After SLOWDIVE’s third, and for many, their most ambient set of songs, PYGMALION (1995) {*7}, they were dropped amid a fundamental shake-up at Creation. The record was a sombre sayonara that saw Halstead take the reins over guest Goswell’s backseat allocation, though the cerebral chill-out experience was absent of any sugar-sweet shoegaze; the icy layers underlined by `Rutti’, `Crazy For You’ and `Blue Skied An’ Clear’ kept it from drowning in Neil’s own sea of soliloquy. Drummer/percussionist Ian McCutcheon (ex-Mermaids) had more or less filled for Simon, who’d later resurface as frontman for INNER SLEEVE; Halstead briefly joined Zurich.
In effect, the subsequent re-vamped MOJAVE 3 project were SLOWDIVE in all but name. And luckily Halstead, Goswell and McCutcheon were promptly snatched up by Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD outlet; emerging later that year with the much-underrated ASK ME TOMORROW (1995) {*6}. Mapping out an entirely different territory from their previous incarnation, the songwriting axis was now geared towards lone composer Halstead’s wistful, heavy-lidded amalgam of countrified alt-folk/pop, chanelling the likes of COHEN, COWBOY JUNKIES and MAZZY STAR. This much was evident from even a cursory listen to their aforesaid inaugural sadcore long-player (featuring pianist Christopher Andrews and other guests), that showcased `Love Songs On The Radio’ and `Mercy’.
Unfortunately it would be three long years before a follow-up; the partly acclaimed but generally ignored OUT OF TUNE (1998) {*7}. In terms of the music industry’s eternal obsession with the emperor’s new clothes, MOJAVE 3 (plus 4th member Simon Rowe) resembled a threadbare favourite shirt: as comfortable and reassuring as the last time one fished it out from the bottom of the closet. The former couple was now at ease with their redefined alt-country/alt-Laurel Canyon aplomb (whilst roping in steel-guitar legend B.J. Cole); emphasized gloriously on the Nashville Skyline/DYLAN-esque `Who Do You Love’, `Give What You Take’ and `Baby’s Coming Home’.
Rarely deviating from their exquisitely realised melancholia, the Mark Van Hoen-produced EXCUSES FOR TRAVELLERS (2000) {*7} was another glistening gemstone to file within their effervescent CV; the added bonus of a lead vocal from Rachel was rarer still, though in the co-scribed `Bringin’ Me Home’ she’d excelled, given her ever-decreasing duties next to former guest pianist-turned-full-time-member Alan Forrester.
In fact, such was NEIL HALSTEAD’s talent for writing downbeat elegies to life’s emotional pitfalls that he gravitated to a solo album: SLEEPING ON ROADS (2002) {*6}… a record for all the songs that didn’t quite fit into the MOJAVE 3 (or “5”) scheme of things. As it turned out, touching tracks like `See You On Rooftops’ and `Two Stones In My Pocket’ (penned when he was temporarily homeless), weren’t quite up to the consummate, lugubrious quality fans had come to expect, though they still stood head and shoulders above the competition.
Sandwiched between a pair of desert-rock MOJAVE 3 sets, SPOON AND RAFTER (2003) {*7} and PUZZLES LIKE YOU (2006) {*7}, RACHEL GOSWELL came into her own for WAVES ARE UNIVERSAL (2004) {*6}. Somewhat reduced to bit-part status on the first of these pedestrian-ish “Mojave” albums (starring the 9-minute opener `Bluebird Of Happiness’ and `Starlite No.1’), Rachel roped in co-writer Joe Light, producer David Naughton and steadfast CHAPTERHOUSE drummer Ashley Bates. She’d promised much since her time as SLOWDIVE cohort, however as Britain’s crystalline folk rock-ish answer to the alt-country movement (think BETH ORTON or SHERYL CROW fronting MIDLAKE), GOSWELL missed a trick. There was however merit for the likes of `Warm Summer Sun’, `Coastline’, `Save Yourself’ and a few others.
MOJAVE 3’s swan song set in 2006 posed the puzzle as to why they’d found it tougher than most to break into the mainstream. Maybe the answer was in the close-knit Americana fraternity keeping a tight rein on their musical domain, or maybe it was simply Neil’s reluctance to share the spoils on previous efforts. That was not true to form on this occasion however, as both ex-partner Rachel – and Ian McCutcheon on self-penned addendum, `The Mutineer’ – was again noticeably sharing some of the limelight. Having promised so much in the last decade, MOJAVE 3 bowed out with some freewheeling, organic and indie pop tunes such as `Truck Driving Man’, `To Hold Your Tiny Toes’ and `Running With Your Eyes Closed’.
Subsequently signed to JACK JOHNSON’s Brushfire imprint, NEIL HALSTEAD would turn out his second solo set, OH! MIGHTY ENGINE (2008) {*7}. As sincere and sombre as it sounded, the singer-songwriter couldn’t escape the NICK DRAKE or PERNICE BROTHERS comparisons. Neil had come a long, long way in his attempts to win over a strong and stable audience; recorded as it was in L.A., but fans in the know could take comfort in the fact that `Elevenses’, `Little Twig’, `Witless Or Wise’ et al, were sort of exclusive for the few rather than the many.
HALSTEAD’s long-awaited PALINDROME HUNCHES (2012) {*7} roped in producer Nick Holton and the Band Of Hope to extol live-in-the-studio virtues to the record, a record that took only a mere four days to cut. `Tied To You’ and `Spin The Bottle’ found their way into the singles market, though it was the demure and dusty `Bad Drugs And Minor Chords’ and `Hey Daydreamer’ that caught the attention of musos from both sides of the Atlantic.
With shoegaze on a surprise upsurge, Halstead teamed up with Mark Van Hoen (ex-Scala) and COLEY PARK’s Nick Holton (whom he’d both worked with previously) to form BLACK HEARTED BROTHER. Neil had known said Mark since the man’s days helping out SEEFEEL and LOCUST, and in the rather electro-textured STARS ARE OUR HOME (2013) {*7}, the triage blended several shimmering shards of the post-krautrock light; best examples spun from `(I Don’t Mean To) Wonder’, `Stars Are Our Home’ and the dream-pop piece `If I Was Here To Change Your Mind’.
Rumours of a SLOWDIVE reunification morphed into reality when Halstead, Goswell, Chaplin, Savill and Scott ventured out on the festival circuit in 2014. However, all five had commitments elsewhere; most notably Rachel.
MINOR VICTORIES were the amalgamation of said Goswell, MOGWAI guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, EDITORS guitarist Justin Lockey, and the latter’s bass-playing film-maker brother James Lockey (of the obscure Hand Held Cine Club). They came about when the alt/indie supergroup revealed their intentions to record together via social media in July 2015.
Produced by Tony Doogan, and intended for release early 2016, other commitments took precedence while a download of `A Hundred Ropes’ appeased some anticipation. Finally, the eponymous MINOR VICTORIES {*6} was unloaded to the public in June (by Play It Again Sam Records in Britain, and Fat Possum in the States), although reviews remained decidedly tepid. There was no doubting the ethereal vocal range of the graceful but gloomy Goswell, but the sonic effect of Braithwaite (bar `Folk Arp’) was almost posted missing. The highlights were surely the intervention of Messrs James Graham (of The TWILIGHT SAD) and MARK KOZELEK on respective diversions, `Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)’ and `For You Always’. What sounded good on paper didn’t quite carry on to the field of play and, with the England football team stalling before the quarter-final stages at the Euros to minnows Iceland, maybe “Minor Victories” would’ve been better served with BJORK as a reserve – not that it concerned Glaswegian Braithwaite, whose nation… err… didn’t even qualify.
The eponymous SLOWDIVE {*9} set was finally unveiled by Dead Oceans (a subsidiary of Secretly Canadian Records) in May 2017; the anticipation for their swooning, “somnabulist soundscapes” – as AMG succinctly put it – guaranteed sales across the board, even in austere America. Yes, it all sounded like a cross between the COCTEAU TWINS and MY BLOODY VALENTINE, but with both shoegazing fraternities virtually posted awol, there was room now for the nostalgic SLOWDIVE to harvest some fruits from the labour. Eight tracks in all, the quintet reeled off classic after classic by way of `Slomo’, `Star Roving’, `Don’t Know Why’, `Sugar For The Pill’, `Everyone Knows’, `No Longer Making Time’ et al.
In the interim, Rachel had married Steve Clarke (whom she’d met on SLOWDIVE’s aforesaid reunion tour), and it was this pairing that put together the eponymous THE SOFT CAVALRY (2019) {*7} set. More upbeat and unified than her dream-pop diversions with her ex’s band, there were moments of comparisons and inevitable pigeon-holing; but essentially the canny collaboration (taking in slots for keyboardist Jesse Chandler, drummer Stuart Wilkinson, guitarist Tom Livermore and Steve’s brother Michael on production duties) won over most musos. Just where had the confessional Clarke been hiding was one question that popped up; especially on the big ticket `Spiders’, a contender for song of the year if others such as `Dive’, `Bulletproof’ and `Passerby’ don’t usurp it nearer the finishing line.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Jul2019

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