How to introduce a newcomer to the seminal 1994 full-length Souvlaki by English band Slowdive? Where do you begin? By telling the newcomer that Souvlaki is THE enduring standard for dreampop? Informing them that Slowdive were real pioneers in music, and that their vision for dreamy, hazy music was perfectly captured on Souvlaki? It seems even the grandest accolades (I have friends who swear that Souvlaki is the best CD ever made in any genre!) fail to fully describe what is so appealing about this CD. Yet, though the equally-lauded Loveless by Irish act My Bloody Valentine would have also been another great starting point in introducing new listeners to the classics of the shoegaze-dreampop subgenre, it seems that Souvlaki seems a little more fitting, mostly because there are so many current groups that are still trying to capture some of the magic that is found on it. Maybe Loveless is not able to be imitated; maybe the elements of Souvlaki are easier to discover and replicate. That may very well be the case. But, taken for what it is, Souvlaki is simply a sonic masterpiece, blending gorgeous harmonies and understated melodies with lush sonics that truly envelop the listener.
If one is having trouble finding a place to begin to describe Souvlaki, perhaps the best place to start is the first song on the CD. Souvlaki begins with what may be the most perfect dreampop single ever penned. At first listen, “Alison” simply seems to be a short, sweet, and druggy song about love, with a few swirling guitars and keyboards thrown into the mix to keep it from being played on the Top 40 radio stations. Yet, after repeated listens, the lazy melody implants itself in the listener’s mind, never to leave, while subtle sounds that were shrouded in the first listens of the song begin to appear. Distant guitars, quiet keys, a steady tambourine, and other noises float in and out of the song effortlessly, while Neil Halstead (Slowdive’s front-man and main songwriter) languidly breathes out his vocals. During the pristine chorus, the background vocals of Rachel Goswell meshes with Halstead’s vocals, while a soaring guitar line majestically swirls around them. “Alison”, with its perfect melody, stunning sounds, and slightly veiled lyrics, is worth the price of the whole CD by itself, and remains a true classic in the history of dreampop.
After the listener tears him or herself away from this captivating first track, they are treated to “Machine Gun”. Featuring a slower and more deliberate rhythm, and layered, floating vocals during the verses by Goswell, it’s appropriate to say that the song’s title does not describe what the listener hears. During the chorus, Halstead’s voice appears in the chorus, providing a grounded contrast to Goswell’s otherworldly vocals. With thick layers of wistful keyboard and guitars, “Machine Gun” is another sonic triumph that overtakes the listener in its many folds of sound. “40 Days” shifts the mood from the dreamy lilt to a more pop oriented sound, as it features a strong melody sung in a deep octave by Halstead. “40 Days” also features the trademark layers of keyboard and guitars, and while these sonics are mesmerizing and thick, Slowdivenever allows them to overtake the melody. “Sing” (co-written by ambient legend Brian Eno), an experiment in strange and alien sounds, follows, with its heavily echoed vocals, sparse arrangements, and strange sounds that bubble throughout the song. Though Slowdive rarely seem to build to huge crescendos, “Sing” features a slight build-up to an instrumental climax that sounds more like a Bark Psychosis outtake, rather than a “strict” dreampop offering (if there was ever such a thing). “Here She Comes”, a sumptuous ballad of muted guitars, sparse percussion, and delicate vocals by Halstead follows. The song is quiet, romantic, and restrained, showing Slowdive’s propensity to control their sonic explorations for the sake of an intimate song.
By contrast, “Souvlaki Space Station” is full of strange guitar and keyboard sounds, echoed drums, and layered vocals, and perfectly emotes a feeling of floating in space. The song overwhelms with so many sounds that they all seem to bleed into one noisy cacophony as the song develops. The noise gradually fades, and “When the Sun Hits” begins with its wistful guitar lines, and tender vocals. At its heart, “When the Sun Hits” is a beautiful pop song, yet the band pours a thick soup of guitars and keyboards over the chorus, gloriously burying the sung harmonies. “Altogether” is a more controlled effort, as Halstead sings over bending guitars and soft drums. At several points in the song, Halstead sings “Yeah, yeah, yeah”, hinting to “Altogether”’s potential as a pop song. Yet, clothed with the waves of guitar sounds and the generally bleeding production. “Melon Yellow” features back-tracked percussion and vocal effects, and slowly brings the listener to a brief climax of overwhelming walls of sound. Finally, “Dagger” ends Souvlaki on a novel note, as the band plays acoustic guitars while the reverb-drenched vocals of Halstead and Goswell hover prettily over the simple strumming. A sombre and fitting end to a monumental musical achievement.
(The import release I own features four more songs tacked onto the end of Souvlaki, from the dark and lush Lee Hazelwood cover “Some Velevet Morning”, to the electronic-influenced ambient instrumentals “Good Day Sunshine” and “Missing You”, finally ending the release with the majestic and serene “Country Rain”, sung angelically by Goswell).
But, even after saying all of this, this review falls ridiculously short. Indeed, any attempt to break down Souvlaki into different components will not be adequate, as the various aspects of this release combine to achieve something greater than the sum of the parts. Is it the melodies, so catchy yet paradoxically sublime, that holds the listener? Is it the wispy vocal performances of Halstead and Goswell that make Souvlaki so special? Is it the waves of rolling guitar and keyboard sounds, ahead of their time and often-imitated now, that causes this CD to be so widely adored? Is it the strange and hypnotic lyrics? It’s all of these, yet none of these at the same time, for Souvlaki contains within it an almost subconscious appeal that speaks deeply to the listener. You can’t quite your finger on it, but it’s there, rendering Souvlaki as one of those rare CD’s that never get old and always, always touches your soul somehow. Souvlaki IS the premiere dreampop release, the standard by which all other dreampop bands measure their art, and as such, it is absolutely essential for the dreampop-shoegaze fan. And, a full 11+ years (at the time of this writing) after the release of Slowdive‘s masterpiece, it sounds as fresh, relevant and revolutionary as it must have sounded to the fortunate souls who heard it first in the mid 1990’s. sic.