Ohio’s Elephant Stone Records has carved out for themselves a unique niche with its roster of modern shoegaze/psychedelic bands. The label has also fulfilled a great need in the music world by re-releasing formerly hard-to-find gems of the same subgenre as its current releases. Hot on the heels of Reverb’s Swirl, Elephant Stone now offers 1991, a retrospective of the legendary American shoegaze band Smashing Orange. It would not be a stretch to say that Smashing Orange was a pioneer of the shoegaze genre in North America, as the band perfected an intense and druggy blend of shoegaze at a time when the rest of their countrymen were endeared to MC Hammer and Milli Vanilli. Even just a cursory listen of 1991, which compiles songs from a variety of releases that were never widely available in USA, shows a visionary band whose intentional rawness is matched by the band’s ability to explode into impressive sonics that the early European pioneers of shoegaze would be proud to call their kin.
Smashing Orange’s success lies in a variety of elements that combine to give the listener a proper baptism into the waves of early shoegaze. All of the elements are here: gorgeous washes of droning guitars that overtake the simple and catchy melodies, echoing delay, layered vocals (male/female, of course!), fluid and unobtrusive basslines, and unintelligible lyrics. This is not to say that the songs on 1991 are a dime a dozen, though. Rather, the band is able to craft their own sound with their aggressive approach to guitar playing and singing, and the band frequently combines driving rock with the shoegaze ideal to spectacular effects. For instance, “Just Before I Come (Believe Me)” features lead singer (and principal songwriter) Rob Montejo belting his vocals over layers of distorted guitar, chunky drums, and overall rock mayhem (while retaining the slightly dissonant chord structures and feedback of shoegaze). Likewise, “Felt Like Nothing”, with its quick rock tempo, melody grounded in classic 60’s rock, passionate vocals, and wah-wah guitar solo, showcases Smashing Orange’s affinity for rock. In fact, the wah-wah guitar makes its appearance on a number of tracks, helping to give the music a distinctly early 90’s feel to it (which, for this almost 30 year old writer, offers a strong sense of high school nostalgia…this is not a bad thing). On the opener, “My Deranged Heart” (one of the great song titles in music), the wah-wah supports a slow burning pop jam that teeters on the edge of exploding into a full-on psychedelic freak-out. The mark of a truly great piece of music is found in how strongly the emotions in the song are felt long after the recording is first heard, and according to this criteria, 1991, and “My Deranged Heart”, pass the test with flying colours. Another highlight on 1991 is the slow, druggy, eerie “Strange Young Girls”, with its effected guitars, disjointed vocals by Sara Montejo, and inharmonious tunings. The song is a masterful blend of the hazy mood brought by fellow early 90’s visionaries Slowdive mixed with a melody that, on the choruses, sounds like it could be lifted from a Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine song. “Strange Young Girls” is beautiful and weird, and being perhaps the highlight of this impressive band’s catalogue, is worth the price of 1991 alone. However, with other songs like the slick “Cherry Rider”, with its pulsating drums and moaning guitars, the violent noise pop of “Collide”, which combines roaring and overwhelming sonics with a catchy song melody, and the dreampop of “Whenever”, with its Edge like guitar lines and My Bloody Valentine like whirring background sounds, 1991 wins the listener over with its consistent quality and shows Smashing Orange to be a talented and versatile group of musicians.
All in all, Elephant Stone has done it again, somehow finding an amazing band that up until now, no one has thought to revisit. With strong and catchy songs, and an approach to music making that is bold and innovative for its time, 1991 is sure to please listeners in 2005 just as much as these songs pleased European listeners in 1991. And, while the production values of many of the songs do sound somewhat dated, these only add to the charm of 1991 After all, Smashing Orange DID record in the early 1990’s, in a subgenre that was just beginning to feel its way into the music world…that the band would combine this new sound with older sounds of rock is interesting to listen to, and hints to some of the music that was to be made later on (most notably the Brit-Rock of bands like Oasis in the mid-90’s). And, the distinctly ‘90’s of 1991 sound takes nothing away from the passion that is still plainly evident in Smashing Orange’s music. Indeed, the songs still sound pure, fresh, and exciting. This freshness and even newness that characterizes 1991 may be the best thing that it has going for it! 1991 will please old and new shoegazers alike, as well as anyone interested in rock set to an innovative groove.