Review: “The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze, And Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium”

Nov 28, 2007 11:45am

The archivists at Rhino are constantly isolating genres and musical movements to dissect and divvy up into four-disc boxed sets.  They’ve turned compilation into a delicate art.  Ever since it reissued and bulked up Lenny Kaye’s original garage-rock themed “Nuggets” compilation (and released two more four-disc volumes) Rhino has set the standard.

Rhino has documented the punk movement of the late ’70s and college radio rock of the ’80s and ’90s, and now gives us “The Brit Box,” a 78-song attempt to anthologize all that was cool in British rock from the mid-eighties through 1999.  Amazingly, in four discs it does an excellent job.  It isn’t an easy task, especially given the many subgenres involved.  The subtitle of the collection indicates that they are mainly focusing on indie rock, the shoegaze movement and Brit-pop.  Sure, that leaves out other monumental developments that the Brits have contributed heavily to, particularly trip-hop and electronica, but those genres deserve their own four-disc box down the line.  It wouldn’t be shocking to find out that that may be on someone’s to-do list at Rhino as we speak.

Some might ask why British pop music like let’s say All Saints, Take That or the Spice Girls aren’t on here. That’s because Brit-Pop is a form of British rock music, and not as the title would suggest simply pop music from the U.K.

What’s great about “The Brit Box” is that not only does it give us a lot of timeless classics, as we’d expect, but it also throws in some smaller bands who may have had fewer hits and may not be as immediately recognizable but have still earned their historical placement here.

Let’s start with the time-honored classics.  The box starts with The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?,” a song that sounds just as good today as it did when it came out.  It may be over six minutes, and Morrissey’s heavy-handed operatic vocal style may not be your cup of tea, but there’s no denying the track’s merits.

The Cure get represented with perhaps their best single, “Just Like Heaven,” taken from their moody 1987 classic double-album “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.”  In a brilliant sequencing turn, this song is followed by Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Lips Like Sugar.”  Both songs are as anthemic as they are beautiful and they also are great examples of their time!

“There She Goes” by the La’s not only is a heavily covered gem, but its retro-’60s feel reminds us that the music from this British invasion may prove to be no less important than the music from the original one.

The glorious sweetness in Harriett Wheeler’s voice as she sings on the Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends” shows this as an underrated, underplayed masterpiece.  The Sundays, like many of these other bands, should’ve gotten much more stateside love.

Ride is another one of those bands.  Their track “Vapour Trail” is a definite highlight, and yet too few people over here know who the Oxford-based band were.  It’s a shame.  Hopefully their inclusion here will boost the sales of their best-of collection.  Along with the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, they are among the highest profile bands representing the shoegaze movement, a mopey, often noisy, guitar-heavy style, usually accompanied by a hushed, low energy vocal-performance. My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” is often cited as an absolute benchmark, and from that record, “The Brit Box” gives us “Only Shallow.”  Interestingly, the Jesus and Mary Chain are represented by the relatively soft “April Skies” from their excellent “Darklands” album, and not higher profile singles like “Just Like Honey,” “Head On” or the ever so controversial “Reverence.”  Shoegaze fans should be delighted to know that this past week it was reported on Billboard’s Web site that both My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain are working on new records!  Both bands have long been dormant.

In perhaps a rather cheeky move, much publicized rivals Blur and Oasis are sequenced next to each other.  For a while in the mid-’90s, you couldn’t mention one without mentioning the other.  Oasis are represented with “Live Forever” and Blur have “Tracy Jacks,” an album track from their album “Parklife.”  It’s interesting that they chose that track considering they could’ve picked a higher profile song just as easily.  “There’s No Other Way,” “The Universal,” and the “Parklife” title-track all come to mind.  Perhaps “Tracy Jacks” was picked because of its bouncy bassline and its sing-along-ready lyrics.

Pulp’s “Common People” plays even better today than it did when it came out.  It remains a literate, almost insultingly biting reflection on relations between the economic classes.  Considering Jarvis Cocker’s recent triumph with his current solo album “Jarvis,” this is a great reminder of his former band’s greatness.

It doesn’t get any better, sweeter, more elegant, or even more woozy sounding for that matter than Spiritualized “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.”  It’s a glorious waltz meant to be blasted and echoed throughout ballroom rafters everywhere.  One listen evokes images of couples dressed in evening gowns and tuxes, dancing in unison.  There’s an unapologetic romanticism to the track.

Cornershop’s love-letter to Bollywood, “Brimful of Asha,” still catches the ear, as does Kula Shaker’s “Tattva.”

Elastica’s “Stutter” leaves the listener wanting more.  Why “Connection” was a bigger hit is still a mystery.  Justine Frischmann remains the unrivaled rock goddess of the Brit-pop set.

“The Brit Box” is a pretty solid collection of highpoints from U.K. bands big and small.  When Ash’s “Girl From Mars” picks up and threatens to blow your speakers, you’ll want to sing along even more.

Catatonia’s “Mulder and Scully” is given fuel by Cerys Matthews’ distinctive raspy warble.  Supergrass’ “Alright” is a uniquely British anthem of youth.  At a brief 2:39, James’ “Laid” is not only one of the best Brit-pop singles of all time, but perhaps one of the best (and most wonderfully inappropriate) singles of the ’90s as a whole.  New Order’s “Regret” is a dynamic alt-rock moment from techno-pop pioneers.  Suede’s “Metal Mickey” is an excellent reminder why the rock press was obsessed for a few moments with Brett Anderson not only for his soaring vocal range but also for his one-of-a-kind weirdness.   The Verve’s “Lucky Man” is proof of their lasting legacy, even though “Bittersweet Symphony” might have been a better inclusion.  The Happy Mondays’ “Step On” has a nicely bouncy piano line over a pseudo-hip-hop rhythm.

One of the great things about listening to “The Brit Box” from an American perspective is that you get to hear British bands you might have read about but might have never actually heard.  Great groups like Lush, Curve, The Mighty Lemon Drops, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Charlatans UK and the Divine Comedy are all bands your local rock station would’ve never gone near.  It’s a sad, angering statement that even 10 to 15 years ago radio wasn’t doing an adequate job at giving its audience an even remotely satisfactory perspective of the great musical landscape.  As time has gone on, the problem has just gotten worse.

The only track that is a difficult listen and a tad over the top is “Stay Beautiful” by Manic Street Preachers, but their steady popularity and their complicated and fascinating back-story (their guitarist Richey James disappeared off the face of the Earth!) warrants their inclusion.

You could nit-pick if you wanted to.  Stereolab may be based in the U.K., but they really are an international ensemble, so including them could be considered a stretch to some.

It would’ve been nice to have an early Radiohead track here, considering that they are one of the most important and innovative British bands of the last 20 years.  “Just,” “High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Creep” or “Stop Whispering” would’ve all been fine submissions.  My guess is the band would have said no to such a proposition given their steadfast, challenging, almost anti-commercial artistic vision.  The fact remains, they really should be here.

Overall, “The Brit Box” delivers on its nearly impossible promise.  This is essential listening.  It’s a time capsule for the ages, ripe for means of nostalgia.  Behold, the second wave of the British invasion in all its glory!

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