Sunday, August 10, 2008

Curve, "Gift"

Curve's fourth album, "Gift", was largely ignored on arrival. You could say that about a lot of albums that were released in the second half of September 2001, but in this case even Curve's own fans passed on this one, partly because few of them knew of its existence thanks to nearly invisible promotion. After starting their career as meteoric indie darlings, they released two albums to lukewarm reviews and "not living up to the hype" derision, split up in 1994, reunited in 1997 and tried to hop on the late 90's electronica bandwagon, and finally ended up back where they started some ten years earlier, toiling away on an indie label and fawned over by a small cabal of post-shoegaze goth misfit fans, but otherwise largely unknown and uncared for by the mainstream music world. Even their sound had returned to its c.1991 roots -- after dabbling in grungy dynamics and near-ambient psychedelia on "Cuckoo", and electronica/DnB on "Come Clean", they returned to the less intricate style on which they formed their reputation, that of hip-hop inflected beats, aggro guitars, and dense shoegaze-y filling stuffed between the two. Swagger over complexity, if you will.

At the time, I had an advance promo EP that contained the songs "Hell Above Water", "Want More Need Less", and "Perish", and was disappointed to eventually discover, upon the release of the proper album, that it didn't come close to delivering on the sensational promise of the EP. Listening to it today, my first impressions (which remained my opinion on the album for years afterward) seem far too harsh. There's a lot of quality in the album's second half, which is a more low-key, less made-for-radio affair that shows that they weren't ready to completely leave their mid-to-late 90's selves behind. "Fly With the High" contains nods to "Come Clean"'s style of dirty electronica, and as such, it's the most skip-able track on the album, something that Republica could have cranked out in their sleep years earlier. Elsewhere, rock songs with tightly coiled moods punctuated by slashing guitars (i.e. "Cuckoo" redux) are precursors to nearly everything that Trent Reznor has recorded in the 00's (after he turned down the noise and turned up the guitars in his music), and Toni Halladay's brand of goth (part sex kitten, part angry young vixen with nails-a-slashing) pretty much invented anything Evanescence had to offer.

But any discussion about "Gift" always comes back to those three standout tracks that were featured on the promo EP. You may already know "Hell Above Water" without realizing it, because it's been featured as background music in a few TV shows and movies, including, most recently "Iron Man". It's easy to see why it's such an ideal piece of film and TV music:

1) fast, galloping beat with aggro guitars = ACTION
2) Toni Halladay's, smooth, sexy, yet caustic voice adds a touch of mystery and exotica (especially useful for opening shot, panorama scenes)
3) touch of electronica adds a hint of futurism, i.e. "this music is the next level shit, which should convince you that the same is true of this TV show/movie"
4) for kids: Curve are not mainstream but their music contains elements of the more mainstream music that they like (i.e.the qualities in points 1,2,3) = cool underground cred
5) for adults: they don't pick up on the specifics of #1-#4, but the music fits their preconception of what kids are listening to nowadays, ergo the song feels suitably appropriate for the movie/show

And finally, there are two songs featuring Kevin Shields, which are either the best songs on "Gift" because he plays on them, or Curve took their best two songs and asked Shields to play on them. There is no easy resolution to this chicken-egg game, but the end results have arguably been the highlight of Shields' non-MBV career, the quality of which were enough to curb any and all thoughts of an MBV reunion for a good year or two. But unlike his other collaborative works, such as Primal Scream's "Accelerator", he is unmistakably the guest artist with Curve, not the svengali whose characteristic style overwhelms the track while the group getting the bulk of the credit get to stand back and watch the magic happen. In simpler terms, "Accelerator", or J. Mascis and the Fog's "More Light" sound like MBV tracks, but "Want More Need Less" and "Perish" are instantly recognizable as Curve tracks.

"Want More Need Less" is one of the fiercest tracks in Curve's catalog -- a guitar-drenched update of their more gothic 90's sound. The nearly manic momentum barely lets up as the song gallops toward the chorus, with the volume growing ever louder thanks to Shields' string-slashing. "Perish" is more subdued but no less intense. Old school Curve were at their best when they added hip-hop-inflected beats into their usual stew (e.g. "Ten Little Girls", "The Coast Is Clear") and it's that sound that is not only resurrected here but is improved thanks to a more finely-tuned hard rock polish and Shields' blistering guitar playing. The heartbreaking lyric finds Toni Halladay expressing fear and anxiety in the face of a relationship that has lasted far longer than it should have -- the core is rotten, both parties are aware of it and yet they continue with the routine merely to put off the tears for yet another day (sounds a lot like "Love Will Tear Us Apart", doesn't it?). It's poignant both at face value but also because, amidst all the turmoil in the Toni/Dean partnership, it's hard to be sure if "Perish" is a just another love song or an encapsulation of Curve's then current state of existence. In fact, the group would release just one more (internet only) album the following year before splitting up one more time, apparently for good. The twisted irony of "Perish" is that they'd apparently exposed their own internal decay in the middle of their best ever song -- lamenting that the tank was empty and that there was nothing left to give, when in fact they had reached the peak of their powers.

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