Along with London’s Lush, this Leeds trio was the closest thing to a “normal” British guitar pop group on 4AD. Pale Saints had the label’s familiar etherealism (some songs on The Comforts of Madness—like “A Deep Sleep for Steven”—even approximate the Cocteau Twins’ trancescapes), and each track features long, languid instrumental passages. But the hooks keep coming, amid an alternation of slower pop numbers (“Sea of Sound,” “Little Hammer” and “Sight of You,” which first appeared as the A-side of the Barging into the Presence of God 12-inch) and rapid, powerful clankers, an odd mix of piston power and floating vocals. The faster selections (“Language of Flowers,” “True Coming Dream” and the closing “Time Thief”) offer strongly contrasting emotions and undeniably catchy tunes. Using triple-time tempo for the chorus, a cover of Opal’s “Fell From the Sun” completely bowls over the original, taking off in directions the original’s foggy murk never intimated. A remarkable, ear-catching debut.
After Gil Norton and John Fryer’s inspired work on the first album, Pale Saints chose Wedding Present producer Chris Allison to record the four-song Half-Life EP, with less impressive results. Although Allison leaves them sounding like a less scratchy Wedding Present, the record is not without merit: “Baby Maker” features little slugs of psychedelic guitar and more swooning vocals, while “A Revelation” applies the group’s curious penchant for gear-switching. As a particularly unsettling bonus, the 12- inch EP contains an untitled and unlisted horror-scream track that only plays if you pick up the needle and reposition it.
Thus, it’s remarkable how much better In Ribbons is. Credit likely belongs to the newfound guitar interplay brought on by the addition of second guitarist (and original Lush singer) Meriel Barham, who also takes over a third of the vocal duties, and much-improved production by the venerable Hugh Jones, but In Ribbons works on many higher planes. Jones’ sonic beauty is particularly scintillating. Fierce tunes (“Throwing Back the Apple,” “Baby Maker”) offset the LP’s more sinewy moods, keeping it cogent and convincing. The lush, haunting “Hunted” and the closing “A Thousand Stars Burst Open” are lovely and deeply felt; even the most hardened listener would have to acknowledge their appeal. In Ribbons is alluring and attractive, rich in complexity and raw emotion.
Slow Buildings‘ complete failure to rescale those heights is the direct result of the 1993 departure of the experiment-prone bassist and singer Ian Masters. Rather than call it a day, the remaining three regrouped with new bassist Colleen Browne (late of the Heart Throbs), letting Barham assume complete control of the vocals. Not only is Masters’ sweet voice missed, but the band lacks capable songwriting. Hugh Jones’ glistening production sound can’t make up for the shortage of hooks, especially on the album’s weak second half. If not held up against the infinitely superior Masters era, however, the new Pale Saints still have much to offer: “Fine Friend” is almost as entrancing and pretty as Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” which it resembles, as does “One Blue Hill.” Best of all is the opening instrumental “King Fade,” proof that the ensemble can still whip up a dazzlingly disjointed and off-kilter sea of sound.
Masters’ Spoonfed Hybrid, a collaboration with Chris Trout (ex-A.C. Temple), seems like a more worthy heir to the Pale Saints’ legacy. The band’s self-titled debut (which, incidentally, appeared before and completely betters Slow Buildings) — electronic backing and weirder, more stripped-down construction — is a slight departure for Masters, but his voice provides the familiar eerie/pretty element. The opening “Heaven’s Knot” is particularly juicy. From there, Masters keeps things quieter, mixing intriguing bits of piano, organ, light strings and long fragments of brooding silence on “1936” and other tracks. A splendid and refreshing odd little album.
Masters completed another gem before 1994 ended, this time in a Michigan basement with His Name Is Alive maestro Warren Defever as ESP-Summer. The even-simpler acoustic approach makes Masters’ boyish singing all the more pronounced and striking.