October 18, 2020
For the longest time, I assumed that MBV had only two albums; this, the punky, feedback-drenched ‘debut’, and the druggy, droning opus that was 1991’s Loveless. I was later informed, to my embarrassment (and theirs too, possibly) that their actual debut was a plodding goth-rock mini-album called This Is Your Bloody Valentine.
That 1985 release unfortunately drew its influences from the dullest aspects of popular alternative music during that time – the muffled drumming of Pornography-era Cure and the exaggerated drama of Bauhaus. If I’ve made it sound promising, I should warn you that it’s really not, as most of their hard work was undone by the comically tuneless holler of vocalist Dave Conway, with whom they parted ways by 1987-88.
Their subsequent work veered from the razor-blade feedback of the Jesus and Mary Chain (The New Record by My Bloody Valentine EP, Sunny Sundae Smile EP) to the lush harmonies of the Cocteau Twins and the jangly tweeness of the C86 rock scene (Strawberry Wine EP, Ecstasy EP). Isn’t Anything reflects this mishmash of disparate influences, leaving little indication of what direction the record would take.
Unsurprisingly then, the record is at times all over the place. Guitarists/vocalists Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s vocals mesh together over the haze of guitar noise as they do on Loveless, but the song structure is far more conventional and distinct. This creates interesting contrasts right off the bat, with Debbie Googe’s funk-driven bassline on ‘Soft as Snow (but Warm Inside)’ serving as a prelude to Shields’ soft-spoken vocals and seesawing tremolo notes. ’(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream’, is suggestive of the more ethereal tone of their later work in title only, as it’s mostly Shields and Butcher hammering away on their distortion pedals, with the ever-swelling reverb in constant competition with the levels of guitar fuzz.
The thudding stomp of ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ recalls an amalgam of Swans and The Birthday Party, if anything, while ‘Sueisfine’ and ‘You Never Should’ mixes rapid-fire riffs from Butcher with elongated drones from Shields, creating a wall of fuzz that threatens to fall apart at any moment. Both are highlights of the record, with the latter going so far as to feature a careening guitar solo from Shields himself. It’s exactly this loose, carefree style that makes the record essential to fans, as the spontaneity present here almost all but disappeared as a result of the perfectionist bent that dogged the production of Loveless and nearly bankrupted the label, Creation Records.
The record also makes it quite clear that the group had abandoned its twinkle-eyed twee-pop influences for a more nonchalant, druggy coolness nicked from the JAMC and Love and Rockets. ‘All I Need’ features crisscrossed sheets of guitar noise overdubbed at different pitches, with Shields adopting a laconic, vocal style similar to Jason Pierce of Spacemen 3. Similarly, Butcher’s vocals on ‘Several Girls Galore’ take on a smoky, detached air with Shields churning out a distended guitar drone in the background.
Taking a linear, top-down approach to MBV’s discography makes the sound of this record appear logical, even predictable; confused goth band ditches vocalist, goes twee, discovers Psychocandy, then goes noise-rock (i.e., this album), and finally concludes with a mature, sweeping feedback-laden chef d’oeuvre (Loveless), crystallizing all its various influence into one final, cohesive work. That, while somewhat accurate, unfairly overlooks the many nuances of their midway records, such as this.
While it’s true that this record took a great deal of its cues from the JAMC’s landmark debut, it would be nearly impossible to allege that they stole from Dinosaur Jr., Pixies and Sonic Youth, since they all released seminal records in the same 1986-1988 period. Yet, there are hints of all those groups in this record, which says a great deal about how versatile their sound was for its time. It’s that sort of forward-thinking guitar rock that makes Isn’t Anything a brilliant record in its own right, and given the group’s humble origins from not too long ago, makes it their most enjoyable effort.
Note: This review was first written for the now-defunct Epinions website back in March 2008.