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How does one begin the arduous task of defining British music after punk and the splintering styles of post-punk dispersed and transmogrified into something completely different, something meant to rebuild the concept of rock and roll? The answer came in all forms during 1980s and 1990s Britain. The Brit Box, a boxed set compiled by Rhino Records, documents various transformations of Brit rock and Brit pop during that time, providing some 78 entries to that initial definitive question in the form of different artists at some of their most promising moments.
First off, The Brit Box is a smart concept. It was initially envisioned as a two-disc compilation, but the sales folks at Rhino didn't see a market for the product. Who would really go out in 2007 and buy a hastily sketched compilation with acts like The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Telescopes, Echobelly, and Dodgy? The most devout anglophile can sympathize with the suits in this case. The initial idea wasn't fully fleshed out, but John Hagelston and the folks at Rhino recognized its potential. They had an embarrassment of riches that sold once in England and could sell again Stateside - that is, if they had the right marketing approach.
As it turns out, they found the right package. First and foremost, the music covers a lot of ground. It works equally well as the perfect hit-thehigh-points companion for the Brit-fanatic's collection and as the perfect quick and dirty summary guide for first-timers approaching a genre as dauntingly broad as "UK Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems Of The Last Millennium."
Secondly, the packaging is downright charming. One of the UK's picturesque red phone booths stands on the cover, original stickers from the bands featured within tacked on the box. The top of the phone booth flashes, with an on/off switch on the back (no more dead batteries, right Pink Floyd fans?), and the cover art within the box features all things British. If that wasn't enough, the collection's booklet features photos of the bands, write-ups on the tracks, interviews with those parenthetical to the scenes, and a feature by journalist Andrew Perry: "Sea Changes And Snapshots From Indie Britain."
All bells and whistles (and pictures of tea-bags) aside, the music in The Brit Box exists on a continuum. It links the magnetizing force of the UK's late century movement to the British Invasion of the 1960s, and this is without acknowledging many of the artists who paid homage to that aesthete. The Brit Box captures an equally important "moment" in music where anyone with a band and a single could make a splash somewhere along the Atlantic, taking listeners through the particular trends that made up the era.
Disc 1 is when alternative became "indie." It begins with the Smiths' most popular and least likely tune, "How Soon Is Now?" Other artists appear who began to distance themselves from the melancholic trudge of post-punk, such as The Cure ("Just Like Heaven") and Echo & The Bunnymen ("Lips Like Sugar"). Further highlights include the shoegaze pioneers The Cocteau Twins ("Lorelei"), The Jesus & Mary Chain ("April Skies"), and the druggy, inward-looking mayhem of the Spacemen 3 ("Walkin' with Jesus [Sound of Confusion]"). The disc even reaches the heights of the rave movement with bands like Happy Mondays and Primal Scream.
Each collection groups similar artists, but it's the ones that find their place between each ensuing craze that makes this collection particularly appealing. The discs to follow chart, respectively, the rise of shoegaze, the reign of Brit-pop, and the comedown from that sweet height. And for every household name (My Bloody Valentine, Oasis, and The Verve), The Brit Box delivers a slew of lesser-knowns (Inspiral Carpets, Curve, and Hurricane #1).
What is particularly intriguing are the classics intermixed with the somewhat marginalized tracks that capture the British vibe. "Tracy Jacks" (Blur) and "Live Forever" (Oasis) couldn't be further apart, yet they rub shoulders on Disc 3. Both songs epitomize the moment and they speak volumes about the original impetus of each band. On the other hand are the indelible groupings that, if they were once inseparable, no longer are. Disc 2's opening trifecta of "Vapour Trail" (Ride), "Sight Of You" (Pale Saints), and "Only Shallow" (My Bloody Valentine) falls into this category.
None of the collection's choices follow a consistent, logical pattern, but they are nonetheless all right on. If nothing else, they say a whole hell of a lot over only four discs worth of material.
Another thing to point out would be the collection's humility - Hagelston and company willingly concede that there's a great bit of worthy Brit music left out of the collection, either due to choice or limitations that were beyond Rhino's control. Thankfully, they give us what they (rightfully) consider the "cool" Britannia, and only a few acts are really missed (Slowdive being a prime example). Maybe not a comprehensive guide so much as a jumping point for future purchases - finding that band you really should have known but didn't - The Brit Box will provide hours of entertainment, something long overdue from this underappreciated pool of charm and talent. SEE ALSO: www.rhino.com
In in a state of suspended adolescence, Patrick Gill can be found hiding away in northwest Ohio, where he spends most of his time rediscovering shoegaze, noise pop, britpop, slowcore, sadcore, lo-fi, neo-psychedelia, post-rock, trad rock, and trip-hop music. In his spare time he teaches college English.
See other articles by Patrick Gill.
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