Between the Smiths/Echo and the Bunnymen and the Britpop resurgence, this London quartet briefly caught England’s late-’80s imagination on the strength of stunning early singles, leader Guy Chadwick’s forceful, smart persona, lead guitarist Terry Bickers’ array of powerful, echoed sounds and the sustained promise of importance and (or) greatness. But the realities of building substantial popularity on the Creation label into full-fledged pop stardom proved disastrous, and nearly ended its career after one album.
Originally a quintet with three guitarists, House of Love caught England’s attention with its third single, the insidious Jesus & Mary Chain-meets-the-Left Banke three-chord pop of “Christine,” later the leadoff track of the quartet’s (typically) untitled debut album (the cover pictures two band members). While the self-produced music on this effectively uncomplicated LP explores some of the same stately and weird ’60s elevations as the psychedelic Rolling Stones and the Bunnymen, singer/guitarist Guy Chadwick’s reassuring deadpan also conjures up Velvet Underground tension and occasionally dips into a quixotic Robyn Hitchcock drone. “Road” accentuates a nifty up-and-down guitar line; the vacuous “Love in a Car” echoes away into oblivion with grace and beauty.
After The House of Love became a sizable UK hit, the band signed to PolyGram and spent the better part of two years making a follow-up. The second untitled album (with a butterfly on the cover, but generally known abroad as Fontana) was recorded, scrapped and redone, ultimately employing four different producers in four separate bouts of recording. Lead guitarist Terry Bickers quit (to form Levitation) amid the turmoil in early ’90, and wasn’t adequately replaced. Despite its painful creation, the album is surprisingly well crafted and consistently great, easily bettering the debut. With a sharp new version of “Shine On” (the band’s first single, from 1987), the album has a placid atmosphere that keeps the songs’ edgy mood from being immediately apparent. It has the crackling “Hannah” and “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” as well as the quiet tribute of “Beatles and the Stones.” “In a Room” and “32nd Floor” slither menacingly, little eruptions shimmering up from the depths.
Two collections of non-LP material also document this early period. The 1988 German compilation, also titled The House of Love, collects early singles, offering a primitive but more exciting view of the band’s beginnings than the debut album. If nothing else, it’s worth owning for two fantastic (and otherwise rare) B-sides: “Plastic” and the ebullient “Nothing to Me.” Far less compelling is A Spy in the House of Love, so known for the Anäis Nin novel prominently displayed on the cover. A fourteen-track patchwork of three unreleased leftovers from the abandoned second album and outtakes that were subsequently used as B-sides, it’s not hard to understand why these efforts were deemed inadequate or relegated to supporting roles. Nevertheless, it is an economical purchase for fans who may have missed some of the preceding year’s multi-format singles.
Despite the release of four strong singles from the album, House of Love mysteriously lost its longstanding UK popularity with Babe Rainbow. If not as dramatic or sweeping as its predecessors, Babe Rainbow is no less ambitious and even more lovely. Perhaps the quieter, more contemplative guitar tone of “Feel,” “Crush Me” and the outrageously pretty “Girl With the Loneliest Eyes” was out of fashion in the wake of shoegazing’s rise, but Chadwick’s continued ability to pen dripping choruses and tickling, lithe riffs make this graceful charmer an underrated masterwork.
The same cannot be said of the band’s (first) finale, Audience With the Mind. The decision to write, record and release an LP quickly seemed a refreshing approach after two epic recordings, but Chadwick’s songs have no bite. Sounding more like a collection of B-sides than A Spy in the House of Love, this is the sound of a band just getting by. The group still leaves behind some bright moments: the slimy, cold-hearted gravel dirge of “Erosion,” the moody “Corridors,” the wistful “Shining On,” the uncanny calm of “Hollow” and “Into the Tunnel.” Even half-baked and shoddily written, House of Love could routinely extract a tension, drama and resignation rarely found in modern pop.
The title of the album that followed Bickers’ reconciliation with Chadwick is ironic: “years” would be more appropriate, given that 15 of them had elapsed since the pair last recorded together and 12 since the band’s disappointing final album. Frankly, the odds were slim that Bickers and Chadwick could go back to the old house after so long and come up with anything worthwhile. Overall, however, they do just that — not by attempting something radically new but by picking up where they left off with their melodic, psychedelic-flavored guitar pop. Although the record shows scant evidence that over a decade of rock music has passed, the band doesn’t sound anachronistic or out of touch alongside its younger competition. (Granted, “Already Gone” crosses the line with its “Mother’s Little Helper”-meets-skiffle hybrid.) What distinguishes Days Run Away is what distinguished the House of Love’s best material the first time around: strong songs that aren’t exercises in pastiche but that weave retro nuances into distinctive, often irresistible tunes with a character that’s very much the band’s own. While the record doesn’t aim for the anthemic heights of, say, “Shine On,” it isn’t any less infectious or memorable. The lively “Gotta Be That Way,” which seamlessly fuses vocal harmonies, acoustic strumming and a fluid electric sheen, might be understated in comparison with some of the band’s older work, but the new songs get their hooks in fast. Many of these songs display a range that belies their relatively short durations. Shifting tempos and rhythms bring surprising twists to the eminently catchy “Love You Too Much” and “Kinda Love,” while Bickers’ playing expands the sound further with economical but expressive coloring. Although Bickers paints in often subdued strokes here, now and then he makes his presence felt more directly, punctuating “Kinda Love” with a brief, soaring solo and forcefully asserting himself on the driving “Kit Carter.” The slow-burning “Money and Time” is a standout, a tour de force of changing moods that evokes the lilting, expansive groove of Miles’ “All Blues,” as appropriated by Tim Buckley on “Strange Feelin’.” It’s hard not to interpret “Maybe You Know” as a long-overdue letter to Bickers from Chadwick, with the latter singing, “We had the world, we had it all in the palm of our hands…Maybe you know by now / Kinda got out of hand / There were times when I really thought it couldn’t end.” It did end once for the House of Love, but Days Run Away proves that you can go home again.