Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Foxbase Alpha LP Review - Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

"Never let a rock critic near a guitar", I once decreed, convinced that the sheer knowingness intrinsic to the rockcrit sensibility was deleterious to intuition, instinct and the semi-conscious pursuit of the sublime. Now I could probably extricate myself on a technicality (Bob Stanley mostly grapples with synths and samplers, not guitars), butthe fact is "Foxbase Alpha" forces me to eat my own edict.

Saint Etienne show that a certain kind of learned eclecticism doesn't have to lead to weak-ass whimsicalpick'n'mix. For this pop-about-pop approach to transcend its inherent limitations, your record collection has to be pretty weird. Stanley & Wiggs' taste is as idiosyncratic as it gets. For the life of me I can't fathom what the thread is that connects Phil Spector, lover's rock, Northern Soul,psychedelia, Neil Young's courtly love side, Sixties girl-pop and A.R. Kanish dub-noise, as part of a single, seamless aesthetic continuum. It ought to be a mess, but for the duration of this album, it works like a dream.

Foxbase Alpha is never-never pop, the soundtrack to an alternative universe, swinging England where World Of Twist are Number One and pop stars still wear gold lame. It's a record that charms you into a gooey stupor, rather than burns your eye with visionary vastness. Saint Etienne offer delight instead of rapture; their love songs are about tenderness rather than desire, lingering gazes and holding hands rather than gonad-motion. Saint Etienne's soul is rooted in the anorak-clad innocence of 1986 (hence their cover of "Kiss and Make Up" by cutie fundamentalists The Field Mice).

Much of Foxbase Alpha is C86 'perfect pop' on a post- house footing. "Carn't Sleep" combines the prosaic purity of Sixties girl-pop with pseudo-orchestral muzak, heart-pang bass and prickly rhythm guitar. "Girl VII" cuts between nonchalant reverie, an upward-spiralling chorus of rapturous strings and heart-in-mouth vox, and a peculiar litany of London tube stations and cosmoplitan cities: Tufnell Park, San Paolo, Dollis Hill, Bratislava.... The best of this side of Saint Etienne remains "Nothing Can Stop Us Now". The love-as-fortitude lyrics turn my stomach ("you smooth out all the rough edges/with love and devotion... just the touch of your hand/and I know we're gonna make it" -yeuuch!), and Sarah Cracknell's voice is just a little too creamy, but the flute-piping euphoria is irresistible.

But if Foxbase Alpha was all in this vein, it would be merely an exceedingly pleasant record. (Indeed, "Spring" and "She's The One" edge dangerously close to Mari Wilson/white Sade blandness). What makes it so relentlessly listenable are the weird experimental touches: "Wilson", a sound-collage of ridiculously antiquated English voices from a late Sixties decimal currency training record, looped over a flanged and reverbed beat as psychedelic as Dudley Moore's "Bedazzled", or the creepy, 23 Skidoo-ish tribal mantra of "Etienne Gonna Die", complete with acrimonious poker player movie dialogue.

Foxbase Alpha really comes alive on side two. "Stoned To Say The Least" starts as a foreboding trance-dance pulse, over which backwards guitar uncoils as beautifully as Stone Roses' "Don't Stop" and angelic synths hover; then the track escalates into an astral turmoil of feedback refractions and amp-hum. "London Belongs To Me" is staggering. Imagine a collision between the aesthetics of Talulah Gosh and A.R. Kane, twee and torrential, camp and sublime. The song begins as one of those idyllic interludes in a Sixties movie, a light-headed, walking-on-air shimmer of harpsichords, vibes, flutes and mellotrons. But at the chorus, everything goes topsy-turvy: gravity absconds in a mist of dub-reverbed percussion; Wiggs & Stanley's arrangement cascades stardust and moonbeam, a downfall of precious gems. "Like The Swallow" is possibly even more stupendous and accomplished. Starting as a symphonic samplescape midway between Scott Walker and Brian Eno, dizzy with detail, it mutates into an Ennio Morricone-esque epic, gongs chiming portentously, then abruptly disappears beneath phalanxes of drones like harmonised sonic booms, and the massively amplified sound of a solitary acoustic guitar, plucking an eerie melody. One of the most pleasurably perplexing things I've heard this year.

I can't figure the Saint Etienne aesthetic out, and that's the fun of it. This the name of the game in 1991: constructing your own alternative pop universe, hallucinating the hybrid styles that should have but never did happen. As such, Foxbase Alpha is the perfect companion to Screamadelica: both albums are examples of pop scholars transcending their record collections. No single element on either album is "new", but the coagulated composite of all that warped taste sounds breathtakingly fresh and unforeseen.

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