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The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium

Rhino resurrects the days of Britpop and shoegaze

Fans of deafening reverb and swirling guitars rejoiced when enigmatic My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields announced two weeks ago that his band, dormant since 1995, was reactivating to release a new album and play a handful of gigs. This announcement came only a few weeks after another noisy, distortion-drenched band, Swervedriver, announced its own 2008 reunion tour plans, and spaced-out psych-rockers the Verve played their first concert since breaking up in 1999.

Each of these bands plays a variation on the type of rock known as shoegaze, a genre Rhino Records highlights on its latest boxed set, The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium. Spanning roughly 1985 to 2000, the four-CD collection documents the countless number of musical fads and styles that sprang up in the UK during those years.

If this seems like an impossible task, or one destined to be woefully incomplete or rife with contradictions, well, that's completely correct.

Rhino's Brit Box: The songs of Pulp, Lush, Ride and many more hold up surprisingly well.
Rhino's Brit Box: The songs of Pulp, Lush, Ride and many more hold up surprisingly well.

However, Brit Box is still a gold mine of brilliant songs. Gems from the country's patron saints (Cure, Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order) anchor the first disc. The rest of the collection builds on that foundation, incorporating everyone from "baggy" indie-dance acts like Charlatans, Happy Mondays and Stone Roses to bands that never really fit in anywhere (Placebo, Super Furry Animals, Saint ­Etienne).

Songs from lesser-knowns are hit-or-miss; for every stroke of genius (the 1960s-inspired psych-rock of Eugenius, Nico-like majesty of the Shop Assistants, Dodgy's sunny Beatle-isms) the box has plenty of things best left forgotten (Mega City Four's derivative jangle, Moose's interminable slo-core drone).

Nevertheless, the subpar tunes lend Brit Box an air of authenticity, and give listeners a better idea of how quickly musical fads became watered down in the UK. And as the set is arranged roughly chronologically, it's much easier to see how easily these genres blurred together, and how difficult it really was to classify many bands.

What mainly stands out on Brit Box, even after taking the unavoidable feelings of nostalgia into account, is how enjoyable most of the music still is. While production tricks and other flourishes sometimes date songs, overall they remain remarkably well-constructed. Miki Berenyi, vocalist of ethereal pop-goths Lush, thinks this contributes to their enduring popularity.

"I'm going to sound like a real old fart here, but people actually used to write songs back then," she says via e-mail. "I find a lot of music now relies on cover versions, shameless rip-offs, samples or a retro feel that so replicates the original, it's often hard to even recognise an original song when it is one!"

But to Mighty Lemon Drops guitarist/singer David Newton, the attention to tradition that anchored the music of Brit Box has helped it endure. "The majority of the music is based around the electric guitar, drums and bass," he says, "as opposed to production and studio trickery — beats and loops and synthesizers. It's pretty much timeless. If you're listening to a Smiths track from 1985, bands are making records today that still sound like that."

Unsurprisingly, the box's third disc, which covers the Smiths/Kinks/Bowie-influenced Britpop movement, is by far the best, most consistent volume. Stars such as Blur, Supergrass, Pulp, Suede and Elastica are still staples of any Anglophile-friendly night in the States, while even minor players like Gene, Catatonia and Echobelly have aged well.

Curiously, Brit Box's otherwise smart, exhaustive liner notes only circumspectly reference one crucial part of English culture: its ingrained class system, where money, education and regionalism carry great meaning. "Part of [Britpop's] aim, after all, was to restore the links between British rock and its social context; to soundtrack its time," notes John Harris in his book Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock.

Harris further observes that some in the scene viewed Britpop as a reaction against the prevailing American sludge-rock. In that sense, this goal unified bands; it was where scruffy, working-class Oasis and art-school-educated Pulp found common ground. (Unlike their peers, Oasis was hell-bent on breaking big in the U.S. and remains arguably the biggest Britpop band here.)

But Americans interpreted this rec­la­mation of cultural heritage very dif­fer­ently both then and now. Beyond the singles that caught on with wider U.S. audiences (Brit Box offers James's "Laid," Pulp's "Common People" and Oasis's "Live Forever"), Britpop was almost fetishized and viewed as a novelty, with iconography like the Union Jack flag seen as a fashion choice instead of a political statement. And while one can appreciate and enjoy Britpop on its own merits, it almost seems like revisionist history to address the music apart from its political and cultural ­implications.

"I think the American audience has a romantic, rose-tinted view of that era," observes Simon White of short-lived Britpop band Menswear. "You get drawn to the imagery surrounding it and form your own picture of what the time must have been like."

Similar misconceptions surround shoegaze, at least in terms of gauging its actual popularity. Shoegaze's presence on Brit Box is relatively small, highlighted by cuts from My Bloody Valentine, Catherine Wheel, Chapterhouse, Boo Radleys and Swervedriver. But judging by the large number of current American bands taking cues from the genre — Asobi Seksu, Blonde Redhead and Airiel, among others — it's easy to overstate the genre's ­popularity.

"There's a disarming amateurishness in a lot of 'shoegazing' music, which conveys a vulnerability sorely lacking in much of today's big-business, packaged, marketed, super-knowing commerciality," Berenyi says. "Much of the so-called 'shoegazing' music is more fragile, less manipulative, and trusts the listener to find their own path."

Despite the rash of recent re-­formations, no one interviewed here has a desire to reunite their bands. Even Mark Gardener, vocalist/guitarist of Ride — one of the bands most sought after to reunite, if not the group whose dreamy pop-psych and reverb storms remain the most vital — prefers to let the eras covered by Brit Box remain firmly in the past.

"We kept some sort of level of integrity about what we were doing and we stopped at the right time and all that sort of thing," he says. "It seems to have sort of have paid off, because the whole myth seems to be growing now." Gardener laughs. "Of course, the money would be appreciated; we'd get stupid offers to re-form and play certain festivals and stuff.

"But at the same time, it's kind of done, really," he says. "We're all busy with our own projects. You can re-form, but you can't re-form that time and what's going on."

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