All Ears

Nick Cave: Not goth, just kind of morose.

I never knew I'd been a goth kid back in high school. Sure, I was pale, but I never wore black lipstick; my clothes were trendy, but they didn't look like bondage gear. I smiled at strangers. Then I got a peek at the track listing for Rhino's A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box, a three-CD, one-DVD affair due in stores next month, and realized that, as far as record-company marketers are concerned, I might as well have slept in a coffin from sophomore year through graduation. The set revolves around artists I loved then and in many cases still do love - Nick Cave, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Joy Division ... man, I can't wait to hear this comp.

If you read the fine print, though, the evidence is a bit less damning. "... many of the genre's progenitors reject the Goth label ... " the press release admits, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe I wasn't such a freak after all. Maybe "goth" is, as I always had thought, less a musical genre than a lifestyle choice. Goth or no, Rhino is currently giving a lot of attention to two of the stars of A Life Less Lived. The Jesus and Mary Chain's first five albums, for instance, (the only ones that count, some would say) have just been given the reissue spruceup, with Dolby "advanced resolution" remastering and MTV videos thrown in for good measure. In this case, remastering means that the Velvet Underground inspired band's amplifier-generated white noise washes over you with enough texture to exfoliate your face. The records, from landmark debut Psychocandy to more-acoustic comeback Stoned & Dethroned, are presented in the annoying DualDisc format, the incompatibility issues of which have been noted plenty of times before.

No such tech problems with the label's other batch of reissues, three (or four, if you count Blue Sunshine, by Cure/Banshees bastard son The Glove) mid-career titles by The Cure. Yes, dear reader, this is the batch that gives us The Head on the Door, maybe the most enduring entry in the group's very fine back catalog, as well as their glossier American breakthrough, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. Each is packaged with a second disc full of demos and live tracks that reveal the surprising fact that Robert Smith's homemade sketches of songs often had fully-drawn melodies and structure before they had words. (Either that or he just didn't feel like singing when he plunked out chords for "Inbetween Days" and its cousins.)

Uninvited, Like the Clouds, by The Church.

All of this wandering in the past is a tie-in to two discs recorded in our very own right-now century. The first, nineteeneighties (Zoë), offers celebrated songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips (formerly of Grant Lee Buffalo) paying homage to the aforementioned bands, in addition to R.E.M., the Pixies, and the Smiths (who, incidentally, were just featured in that great Under Review documentary series put out by Sexy Intellectual). The songs covered here are some real highlights of the '80s alternative-before-it-was-called that scene, and Phillips manages to pull them into the millieu of the contemporary Americana songwriter while preserving their basic personalities: There's the toy piano and broad vowels that bring out the sweet sadness of "Boys Don't Cry"; the Hawaiian-sounding steel guitar reminding us that "Wave of Mutilation" was once released in a 12- inch "U.K. Surf" remix; and the quavering vocal that finds middle ground between Morrissey and Jeff Buckley on "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me."

One song Phillips adds little to is "Under the Milky Way," by The Church. That group has rather unexpectedly lasted for almost three decades. Their new Uninvited, Like the Clouds (Cooking Vinyl) makes me grateful for that fact. The opening track, a darkly enigmatic sprawler called "Block," is of-a-piece with their best old work without pandering to nostalgia; songs like "Real Toggle Action" tug in the direction of cut-up abstraction, but the songwriters are too melody happy to wander too far in that direction.

Just in case you're wondering: Although the All Music Guide lists The Church's "moods" as "gloomy, eerie, druggy," and "brooding," and despite the invocation of religion in the band's name, they are not yet, according to Rhino's upcoming box set, a Goth band.


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