The Darling Buds, “Erotica”

erotica

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #35 – released October 6, 1992)

Track listing: One Thing Leads To Another / Sure Thing / Off My Mind / Gently Fall / Please Yourself / Angels Fallen / Isolation / Long Day In The Universe / Wave / If

I came of age just a few years before the Internet suddenly, gloriously materialized and radically changed the way we receive and send information. These days, I’ll almost mechanically go to Spotify or YouTube or iTunes or any other platform for streaming (and sometimes purchasing) music—I’ve done it this way for so long that a part of me forgets the old, seemingly limited ways of discovering it: listening to the radio, going to concerts, trading mix tapes with friends, hearing something in a record store and reading reviews. Of course, all these things still exist, some more so than others (sadly, physical records stores have all but vanished) but with the exception of live music (I’ve never been a big concertgoer), none carry as much weight as they did before DSL became as common as compact discs once were.

In the early-mid ‘90s, I heard about new music most via magazines. I picked up every new issue I could of Request, the unexpectedly great free rag one used to procure at Musicland or Sam Goody along with a purchase of a cassette or CD. I also subscribed to Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone primarily for the reviews. In late 1992, this book, an offshoot of the latter, became my new bible:

rs album guide

The recently published third edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide was not flawless: it employed but four writers and too neatly condensed an array of artists warranting more than the requisite 250-500 words given them. Still, like Automatic for the People, it arrived at just the right time; I read it nearly cover-to-cover. Over the next few years, it generously filled in gaps regarding my knowledge of pop music not covered by the local classic rock radio station or the sixth edition of The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. And without its gushing essay by J.D. Considine on the band’s first two albums, I might’ve never heard of Welsh quartet The Darling Buds.

Originally lumped in with the “blonde pop” movement in the UK (i.e.—guitar bands with blonde (and Blondie-influenced) female vocalists, like The Primitives or Transvision Vamp), The Darling Buds started off as rather sugary retro-pop (their 1988 debut was even called Pop Said…) but quickly transcended that label with Crawdaddy (1990), which Considine dubbed a “masterpiece of ‘60s revivalism.” With its soaring melodies and fuller, more ambitious arrangements, Crawdaddy (a used cassette of which I soon picked up in a bargain bin) should have been massive. Alas, female-fronted alternative rock (with the exception of Concrete Blonde, perhaps) mostly remained near the margins in 1990; the single “Tiny Machine” was a college radio hit but it did not cross over to pop, while in the UK, the album sold less than the debut—the band’s moment already having passed.

Still, reuniting with Crawdaddy producer Stephen Street, The Darling Buds made a third album, Erotica. It had the misfortunate to come out a mere two weeks before Madonna’s astronomically higher-profile album of the same name, though that gaffe did ensure a deluge of mistaken purchases of the wrong Erotica would frequent used bins around the world (that’s where I secured my copy). On first listen, I could discern another reason why Erotica flopped—less immediate than Crawdaddy, it found the band diving head-first into dream-pop territory, upping the guitar distortion and general wooziness, relying a little more on texture and atmosphere. I quickly retreated to Crawdaddy’s relatively simpler, more direct pleasures.

However, I didn’t entirely forget about Erotica. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t give up on it, for it proved one of those records that reveals its worth gradually over time—after numerous listens, I acclimated myself to the album’s amped-up sound and occasionally drifting demeanor and it all began to make sense. The best place to begin with Erotica is right in the middle, on track six, “Angels Fallen”: it kicks off with an onslaught of impressionist noise (like a furious Cocteau Twins) only to switch to the sort of crisp, clean sound Street perfected when producing The Smiths a few years back. The remainder goes back and forth between these two disparate poles. It’s as if the band couldn’t settle on being My Bloody Valentine or The Sundays and decided to strive for the best of both of those worlds; that they pull this off seamlessly while taking full advantage of the delirious tension resulting from this dynamic it what gives Erotica its unique allure.

Other songs dutifully follow this pattern, but it never becomes blatantly formulaic. For instance, “Gently Fall” has an extended intro that starts off all glowing and pastoral until the crunching guitars come in after twenty seconds. When vocalist Andrea Lewis finally arrives nearly a minute later, she’s practically submerged beneath driving, stabbing barre chords, which enables her abrupt, cascading “ohhh” at the chorus to pack quite the punch, especially as it’s suddenly backed by briskly strummed acoustics. The song concludes as it begins, with an extended outro throwing in some cellos and a pounding piano reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”; it’s the only time Erotica enhances its guitar-bass-drums-vocal instrumental palette.

And yet, it’s often stunning what Street and the band eke out of such a traditional lineup: the layers-upon-layers of interlocking riffs in “One Thing Leads To Another”, the distorted guitar shading that makes the bass-up-front “Isolation” sound like so much more than just a distaff Cure or New Order, the way potentially remedial, two-chord “Off My Mind” transforms into forceful wonder by sheer determination and a host of tricks ranging from a case full of guitar pedals to its thrilling false ending. Granted, everyone from The Pixies to Sonic Youth was doing this sort of stuff at the time, but not with a singer like Lewis. Although her voice is on thin end of the spectrum, it’s a vital part of Erotica’s sound. She’s often utilized as if she were an additional bass or rhythm guitar, delicately wrapped around the other instruments instead of merely playing over or on top of them. By the way, Lewis’ unorthodox approach here anticipates another UK-based female vocalist a few entries away from making her 100 Albums debut.

For all of its sonic experimentation, Erotica retains the strong melodic instincts of the band’s first two albums. “Sure Thing” and “Long Day in the Universe” are bursts of (sometimes blistering) sunshine, ringing with great chord changes and Lewis’ lighthearted, inviting tone. On the single “Please Yourself” (itself powered by an Eastern-sounding lead guitar riff worthy of Echo and the Bunnymen), she’s playful and a little flirtatious—a perfect fit for the lyric, which turns the Divinyls’ recent hit “I Touch Myself” on its head with Lewis singing “I don’t mind, I don’t mind” as her lover bashfully pleasures himself. Her tartness prevents “Wave”, the closest thing Erotica has to a ballad from becoming too treacly. On closer “If”, her high-pitched wordless sighs provide an ethereal swoon over the music’s momentous, dancefloor-ready rush.

Predictably, the band split up shortly after Erotica failed to expand their audience any further. Perhaps that was wise, since for all their skillfulness and innovation, The Darling Buds sound strongly of their time, that post C-86, pre Britpop limbo that was the UK in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. As much as I would’ve liked to have heard more from Lewis and her bandmates, I know from experience that often, a band only really has two or three good (or even listenable) albums in them—at least with Erotica, artistically, they went out on top.

Up next: More redemption via compilation.

“Angels Fallen”:

 

“Please Yourself”:

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