A textbook example of how very different musicians can work together — and sometimes can’t — Moonshake (named after a Can song) was built on a tension that briefly made it one of the most exciting bands in England before causing it to splinter. Of the band’s two frontpeople, American expatriate Margaret Fiedler favored tranced-out grooves, odd sampled timbres and mystical, sensual incantations, while Dave Callahan (ex-Wolfhounds) demonically enunciated tales of moral disintegration and urban squalor. Both built their songs on crashing, atonal samples; that’s about all they had in common. Add a gifted dub bassist (John Frenett), a rock drummer (Mig) deft enough to get around the bizarre rhythms constructed by Fiedler and Callahan and, as an unofficial fifth member, engineer Guy Fixsen (who’d done the same for My Bloody Valentine, among others) and you have one spicy, confusing gumbo.
On the First EP, it’s clear that the band had been impressed by MBV’s Glider-all four songs are focused on wobbling, warping keyboard-and-guitar textures. Their songwriting is better, though, especially Fiedler’s “Coward,” whose form suggests an old English ballad and which she delivers with murderous calm. Fiedler also sings some of Callahan’s songs here-the only time she ever did. (The CD appends a remix of “Coward.”)
The three-song Secondhand Clothes also includes some front-and-center guitar (including an actual big riff in the title track), but the focus is shifted to pitting disorienting keyboard sounds against the rock-steady rhythm section and the two singers’ distinctive vocal and lyrical approaches. The original lineup’s only album, Eva Luna (whose American release appends Secondhand Clothes), also includes the whomping single “Beautiful Pigeon.” The album kicks off with Callahan’s best song, a cancerous dub-rock slither called “City Poison,” and thereafter pretty much alternates between the two writers’ tracks. Callahan bellows and sneers through his songs, and Fiedler nearly whispers through hers, but the music is always big, weird and unnerving.
Callahan’s three songs on Big Good Angel are pretty excellent on their own, especially “Seance.” Unfortunately for him, they’re up against a bunch of killers from Fiedler — sexy, scary and rhythmically fascinating. “Two Trains” is an unstoppable, shimmery recasting of the idea of female hysteria; “Flow” explodes into two frenetic, clattering bridges; and “Girly Loop” features the brilliant hook “she knows what God gave her eyelashes for.”
It was clear, by this point, Moonshake was essentially two bands; shortly thereafter, that’s what they became. Fiedler and Frenett departed with Fixsen to form Laika (named after the first dog in space); Callahan and Mig stuck around as Moonshake and made the “guaranteed guitar-free” album The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow with a host of guest musicians, including a couple of Too Pure labelmates — Polly Harvey (who sings on half the album’s tracks) and Stereolab’s Katharine Gifford. Built mostly on creepy sampled loops, it’s Moonshake’s darkest record; highlights include the prostitute’s diary “Just a Working Girl” and the nihilistic one-two punch that closes the album, “The Grind” and “Into Deep Neutral.”
Laika’s splendid Silver Apples of the Moon was recorded almost entirely at home by Fiedler and Fixsen with some help from Frenett and percussionist Lou Ciccotelli (joined onstage by ex-PJ Harvey drummer Rob Ellis). Vocally, it’s Fiedler’s show, except for one number sung by Fixsen and a couple of cool instrumentals. The album’s light, shimmering surface belies the gorgeous density of its sound and the occasional menace of its lyrics, as on the hip-hop-flavored “44 Robbers” and the booth-dancer monologue “Coming Down Glass.” Silver Apples’ best track, the fluid, erotic groove (in 7/8 time!) “Marimba Song,” is previewed on Antenna in two versions, along with an adorable dueling-samplers instrumental, “Squeaky,” and one other song.