Though the central cast of characters has been the same all along, it seems as if there’s been three Boo Radleys. From nutty noise merchants to schizophrenic dreampoppers to classic pop thoroughbreds gone Top 40 in the UK, it’s been a long and strange path to European stardom for this Liverpool group that has never managed to crack the US.
Few people seem aware of Ichabod and I. Almost every writeup calls Everything’s Alright Forever “the first album,” and the band apparently wishes it were, having more or less disowned this primitive effort. A shambolic, untogether, unrealized work of a band that has just formed and is thrashing around in the dark, Ichabod isn’t a complete bust: a decent melody threatens to peek its way out of “Kaleidoscope,” and there are other such moments that portend the better things to come. But little here justifies the effort and expense required to procure a copy on the collector’s market.
In contrast, Everything’s Alright Forever finds the quartet diving headlong into the burgeoning shoegazer movement. Between the discordant tendencies, sheets of harsh sound and buried vocals as a (tuneful) afterthought, “Losing It (Song for Abigail),” “Skyscraper” and “Memory Babe” could be mistaken for My Bloody Valentine. Though the album is woefully inconsistent, its magnificent half throws the spectral, refracted guitar of songwriter Martin Carr into a melodic framework, thus approaching the spatial luster of the Pale Saints. It takes a while to get used to the album’s excursion into the sea of sound, but at its best it’s an aural paradise.
Giant Steps‘ advancement is Carr’s maturing fascination with ’60s sensibilities, not only with the decade’s structure and sounds but also with its variety. Named for a John Coltrane LP, the album aspires to the multi-influenced repertoire that distinguished the mid-’60s Beatles, Kinks, Zombies, Hollies and especially the Beach Boys, whose specter looms large here. The Boo Radleys somehow pull it off, weaving seventeen incongruous songs into a fascinating tapestry rather than sounding like seventeen different tribute bands. Singer Sice croons impressively on such enigmatic, tense tunes as “Upon 9th and Fairchild” and the colossal “Lazarus” (dig those trumpets!) and such baroque ditties as “Best Lose the Fear.” A far-reaching album as challenging as it is enjoyable, loud and pretty.
Learning to Walk, a compilation of the first three EPs released between Ichabod and I and Everything’s Alright Forever, might as well be the band’s true second album, since “Kaleidoscope” is the only one of the dozen songs that appeared on either adjacent longplayer. Had it been released as such, it would have been the Boos’ best ever. Although beset by Ride comparisons for similar shoegaze antics (the overdriven float-guitars), Carr goes on a hot streak on the last eight selections from Every Heaven and Boo Up, with his best tunes and lyrics meeting jumpy basslines and stabbing guitars. With its dripping, lonely melody and haunting lyrics, “Everybird” is the pinnacle of the band’s career. “Sometime Soon She Said” is equally exciting at double the tempo, and “The Finest Kiss” and the hypnotic “Naomi” are almost as spectacular. Any best-of-dream-pop compilation would need to include these. Learning to Walk also includes two otherwise unreleased John Peel session covers of songs by Love and New Order.
If Learning to Walk is track-for-track the band’s best collection, Wake Up! is its most consistent start-to-finish proper LP. Alternately masterful and wonderfully strange, the album fits disparate parts together into an even flow, in much the same way the band’s Liverpool ancestors could let George Harrison’s Indian raga be followed by Paul McCartney pretending he was a dance-hall smoothie. In fact, the Boos save their finest work for midway through the album, where the near-perfect trio of “Reaching out From Here,” “Martin, Doom! It’s Seven O’Clock” and “Stuck on Amber” appear. The horn sections and busy strings on these tracks are especially deft; most bands attempting this would likely produce a pitiable nostalgia pastiche. Wake Up! takes a long time to develop and to convey its impact, but it truly does reward patience.
In 1996, Sice released a solo album as the Eggman.