To The Happy Few, the new album from seminal So.Cal. shoegaze/noise pop act Medicine, is like being submerged in a lake of amniotic glycerine, and watching the sky. Guitars like outboard motors disturb the stillness, making waves, while chanteuse Beth Thompson lulls you towards the depths. Jim Goodall‘s drums go off like depth charges, and it suddenly occurs to you how badly you’ve missed rock ‘n roll.Medicine were best known for their inclusion on the iconic soundtrack for the film adaptation of James O’ Barr‘s The Crow. They even had a cameo in one of the club scenes, right before Eric Draven catches a million bullets. They just never quite got the following they deserved. Chalk it up to to an oversaturation of epic guitar bands inspired by My Bloody Valentine‘s Loveless. Dreamy but pummeling fuzz rock was in full effect, and Medicine got lost in the shuffle.
All of this changed when the influential indie label Captured Tracks started their Shoegaze Archives series, and gave Medicine’s first two albums the lavish vinyl reissue treatment. Excited by the remastering process and how good the material sounded, the original incarnation of Medicine decided to bury the hatchet, and give writing new material a go. To The Happy Few is the first new material from the original line-up in 18 years.And it comes on like a hit, with “Long As The Sun”‘s guitar skree and disco beat, and doesn’t let up. As is often the case with shoegaze records, To The Happy Few is mixed as a wall of sound with transitions occurring beneath the surface. It works best when you let it wash over you, to fill the room with its sunny ambiance. For an atmospheric record, it rocks surprisingly hard, bringing to mind a quote about Swervedriver from Upside Down: The Creation Records Story, “The only shoes those lads were staring at were the ones flying past their face.”
When you do dip your head beneath the surface, there are many wonders to behold. There are actual songs here; “Burn It”‘s powder keg disco sleaze is a contender for single of the year. They also switch up the beat and mood, mostly thanks to the powerhouse drumming of Goodall, ranging from the Swans-like pounding trance of “Long As The Sun” to the cavernous “When-The-Levee-Breaks” big beat of “Daylight”. You will also find about every guitar texture imaginable, courtesy of Brad Laner, from acoustic to burning fuzz and backwards to soaring lead.Arrangements have always been Medicine’s greatest strength. Pianos and electronic bleeps come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. Brad Laner used to get his distinctive distortion by playing through a cassette 4-track, and that archaic technology still shows its influence in surreal, stream-of-consciousness jumpcuts. There will sometimes be several styles in the same song. We need this kind of genre-bending and adventurous listening, to break out of stale clichés and bandwagon-hopping. When so much of the interesting music being made is electronic, it’s refreshing to hear a tight rock ‘n roll band that can turn on a dime. It reminds you what it is to be human.
Any time there is some reissue/reunion, one has to wonder if it is merely a nostalgia act, to cash in on people’s rosy-tinted memories of their adolescence, or if this music remains vital and fresh, with something to communicate. This is no nostalgia trip; every member has been busily making music this whole time. There was just something special in their chemistry, and wanted to make music together again. To The Happy Few, happily, sounds more timely than ever, with its sheets of white light guitars and the ethereal harmonies of Thompson and Laner. The band are in good shape to earn quite a few fresh ears with this release.The album, and the Shoegaze Archives, invites a reinterpretation of the lazy shoegaze tag, and a fresh appreciation of that genre. Medicine occupy a special interzone between the initial Creation bands, ‘the scene that celebrates itself’, and the more recent ‘gaze revivals of the 2000s, with bands like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and A Place To Bury Strangers providing a much doomier template. Medicine, along with Boston’s The Swirlies and Austin’s Ringo Deathstarr, had a much more home-made, lo-fi take on the genre, the sound of teenagers in their bedrooms yearning through cheap Boss pedals. This era was much more disorienting, woozy and colorful than the straight up Jesus And Mary Chain glower that much of the genre would succumb to.
Reviewing this record has gotten me back into good ol’ atmospheric dream pop, as well as exploring Medicine’s first couple records, and their subsequent activity. It’s broken the seal on a wide world of inspired music, and reminded me how much I love atmospheric guitar rock. There was a time in my early 20s when I listened to nothing else. It’s perfect for staring out the picture window at the autumnal pyrotechnics, as well as getting ready to go out for a wild night. Introspective, while still being adrenalized.
If yr not yet familiar, if you love trippy guitar music, if you miss the golden age of The Smashing Pumpkins, if you’ve burned out the grooves on Loveless and despair of ever hearing exciting dream pop ever again, here’s yr chance. Start here, move on to The Buried Life (or strike that, and reverse it), check out what else Captured Tracks’ shoegaze archives have on offer, and fall head over heels into a whole new style.