Rollerskate Skinny, formed in Dublin in 1992 and named for a line in Catcher in the Rye, recorded its first album as a quartet, with Jimi Shields (brother of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields) adding guitar, voice and drums to the manifold abilities of unrelated founders Ken Griffin (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Ger Griffin (guitar) and Stephen Murray (bass/guitar). A bit like Sloan’s Smeared in its derivative variety, Shoulder Voices is a fascinating and delightful debut that jumps easily from intimate indie tunefulness (the vocals sound like Pavement) to free-fire pop noise, with plenty of wild and wonderful textures along the continuum. The constant gear-shifting makes it nigh on impossible to get a handle on the group’s intentions, but the balance of strong, engaging songwriting (see especially “Bow Hitch-Hiker,” “Bella” and the Beach Boysish “Shallow Thunder”), alluring atmospheres (“Miss Leader,” “Violence to Violence”) and raw sensual abandon (just about every song has some liberating blast of distortion, but the Robyn Hitchcock-like “Some Give Birth” bears a resemblance to MBV) obviates the need for such concerns. A great, imaginative beginning.
Shields didn’t stick around (or get asked back; he instead formed a group called Lotus Crown) for the band’s follow-up/swan song, but Horsedrawn Wishes — recorded with a hired drummer and a major reliance on keyboards and “orchestration” — is no less impressive in its riot of excellent ideas supporting, not disguising, worthy songs. If anything, the madly ambitious production raises the band’s creative vision higher, making Rollerskate Skinny that much more considerable in its achievement. If the Beatles had reached psychedelic cruising altitude around 1995, this might be their kind of album: vivid, self-confident, innovative, too involuted to easily master and thoroughly entertaining. Very well done.
After Rollerskate Skinny called it quits, most of the alumni made good showings, artistically if not commercially. Best of the lot is Dead City Sunbeams, the only album issued by Ken Griffin’s Kid Silver, which is even more stellar than Horsedrawn Wishes. It’s an incredible album from start to finish, full of memorable tunes, eclectic and inventive arrangements and Griffin’s commanding, slightly cracked vocal presence. If Horsedrawn Wishes was a Beatles album for the ’90s, Dead City Sunbeams throws the next generation Liverpudlian Julian Cope into the mix for good measure. The title track, “Hey Trespasser” and especially the outstanding China-meets-the-Caribbean “Breadcrumbs” are as good as any psychedelic pop of the period, and the album should have vaulted Griffin to the same level of adulation as Cope and Wayne Coyne. Very possibly the most unfairly overlooked album of the late ’90s.
Shields can’t match Griffin’s pop hooks on Chokin’ on the Jokes, the sole longplayer from Lotus Crown, but he still writes a mean tune. Instead of Kid Silver’s toe-tapping melodies, Lotus Crown leans more towards the other Shields’ world of hypnotic shoegazer noise. Produced by thpse kings of latterday psychedelica, Dave Fridmann and Keith Cleversley, Chokin’ on the Jokes gets better with each listen as the buried melodies of Shields’ songs (notably “Swallow the Bee” and “Blue Arse Fly”) dig themselves out from under the layers of noise.
Rollerskate Skinny bassist Stevie M(urray) went on to start a project called Empire which morphed into the Radio, which released a debut album, Kindness, in 2004. With Caroline Lee Baker on vocals, the Radio creates a charming, sonically adventurous brand of ’90s-style dream pop not far removed from Lush, if that band had been more willing to toss the kitchen sink into the proceedings every so often.
In 2005, Ken Griffin formed a new band, Favourite Sons, with members of the Philadelphia psych-pop band Aspera.