Gene Loves Jezebel may not be high on 80s playlists these days, but there has always been something special about them. Formed by brothers Michael and Jay Aston, Porthcawl’s finest came writhing out of the cellar in 1980 with [literally and figuratively] shrieking abandon. Borne of Siouxsie and the burgeoning post-punk movement, they took scything guitar and abrasive rhythms into colourful new places. They fast became minor stars, in the US particularly, and their increasingly broad sound made them favourites for alternative radio pluggers everywhere. Despite being born the year ‘Kiss of Life’ came out, GLJ (now minus one Aston) have always been held highly in my household. ‘Kiss of Life’ felt safe, but they hit a new high with follow-up ‘Heavenly Bodies’. Boasting the popular single ‘Josephina’ and European smash ‘Break the Chain’ the future looked bright, but the amorphous state of the music industry and a few poor deals conspired to send GLJ into the void. Returning in 1997 with ‘VII’, the line-up of Aston, guitarist James Stevenson, bass player Peter Rizzo and drummer Chris Bell took their writing in a new direction. Save from a pair of dirty rockers (check out ‘Welcome to LA’) it was very much a songwriter’s album, showing a band aging gracefully.
It’s been 20 years, and to quote singer Jay: There are “new experiences we can bring to the table”. Problems too, but you can read about those elsewhere. Aided by a successful crowd-funding campaign, Jay and GLJ have delivered album number eight. As a fan I gladly handed over my pennies in exchange for posters, press clippings and even a special thank you in the liner notes. PledgeMusic is a dangerous thing!
With a title nodding to a line from ‘Sweet Sweet Rain’ [found on 1992s ‘Heavenly Bodies’], and predecessor ‘VII’s pastel hues, ‘Dance Underwater’ conjures the same wistful air as both of those records, and while it lacks the muscularity of the former, it has lost none of its sweeping atmosphere. At around three quarters of an hour, ‘Dance Underwater’ is short and punchy; in and out like a modern pop record. Where ‘VII’ felt at times lumbering, ‘Dance Underwater’ glides along with the cool detachment of overhearing a bunch of friends jamming on their days off. Comparisons to other bands are hard to make, because GLJ have always managed to keep one foot in their own door. While I’m sure you’re all enjoying me wax lyrical here, I won’t prevaricate anymore – so down to business.
Days of the twins’ edgy weirdness have long gone for GLJ; choosing, perhaps wisely, to indulge this side of the band’s personality as alter-egos the Ugly BuggsØ. These days Jay’s line-up is less a rock band than it is alternative pop. In a way the mellowed approach suits them as they mature – ensuring any embarrassing, youth-worshipping board-treading is avoided – and what’s more, they are good at it. Fans of the band’s harder-hitting 80s sound may struggle to adjust, but when you listen back to its predecessor, it seems less of a surprise. Touches of psychedelia and cleverly deployed synth stabs make much of ‘Dance Underwater’ sound playful and fresh: Shamelessly filching ‘Break the Chain’s signature guitar riff, opener ‘Charmed Life (Never Give In)’ barrels along on electro pads and a loose groove like a grown-up MGMT or Empire of the Sun.* Aston’s lyrics reflect the same idealism as a ‘Time to Pretend’, albeit from a less satirical stance; ‘you’ve got the future in the palm of your hand’. It’s infectious but not immediately memorable – the vocal melody sounds more like a guide track, though is notable for its phased auto-tune – its saving grace the [admittedly fantastic] synth reimagining of ‘Break of the Chain’s riff. It’s an inauspicious way to start their first album in 20 years.
In an interview with the Smells Like Infinite Sadness blog last year, Aston was keen to push the ‘organic’ sound the record was taking, and ‘Dance Underwater’ certainly delivers. Walsh’s production is crisp with each instrument purposeful and clear: Having produced one of my favourite albums of the 1980s [The Church’s lavish psych-rocker ‘Heyday’], I’ve always appreciated his attention to detail. Nothing ever sounds gratuitous, and whether he’s working with strings [as he did on ‘Heyday’] or keeping embellishments to a minimum, cluttered he is not! Indeed, much of this record sounds like the kind of 80s ‘retro-future’ releases bands half their age have been peddling over the last few years. The smoothed-over ruminations of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tango in the Night’ have left a heavy footprint on pop’s landscape (in part due to their massive resurgence in popularity) as droves of contemporary artists continue to cite its influence; breezy-paced gloss befitting coastal spins with the top down in designer sunglasses.
GLJ hold much of that language to task here: ‘Chase the Sun’ comes close to chill-wave, and it’s unusual for a band closing out its third decade to sound so relevant. Though it’s unlikely anyone outside of the bands existing fan base will hear it, the track wouldn’t be amiss on FM radio as the catchiest of the bunch. The quintet’s strength lies in its malleability, with members playing additional instruments and adding harmonies to the songs’ vernacular. Take a bow Peter Rizzo who dominates the organ-led ‘Flying’ – a gorgeous piece of music sitting beneath one of Aston’s more plaintive and affecting vocals.
The rockier strains of ‘World Gone Crazy’ and ‘Cry For You’ are the exceptions, propelled by skittering Bell/Rizzo backlines and stoking guitar work from Stevenson. ‘World…’, with Aston’s vivacious vocal about what seems to be one-night stand party culture [AKA my generation, sigh], could easily be tucked away on the band’s 5-album box set as an unreleased ‘House of Dolls’ demo and no one would be any the wiser. Similarly ‘Summertime’ – particularly when placed in the context of the album – takes things up a gear and shoots forward.
‘Dance Underwater’ will satisfy a fan of the band’s post-‘Dolls’ work, but is unlikely to rekindle affection from people craving another ‘Motion of Love’. What the album lacks is the immediacy of its predecessors. Based on footage of the band in the studio, the album looked effortless to make, and the overall sonic makeup reflects that. On occasion, when things gain momentum, the song finishes before the idea has developed, as on ‘IZITME’; my least favourite piece.
The music stays within itself: It doesn’t attract attention so much as make itself available to the listener, a trait one might expect of a Donovan or Nick Drake album. It means ‘Dance Underwater’ hangs precariously over an easy-listening precipice. But I’m pleased to say this is not the case, particularly when listening at great volume. In the car it plays out like a warm August drive, its grooves smooth as the country lanes I find myself passing through these days. Through headphones it makes the most sense: Immersing oneself in Walsh’s production, the record’s sonic intricacies reveal themselves, crisp lines interwoven to form a subtle and varied palette. I keep mentioning evenings and drives and late sun because it’s hard to think of the record on other terms. It’s delicate pastel: Purples, reds and salmon pinks befitting its artwork.
There’s nothing as catchy as ‘Josephina’ or ‘Gorgeous’ here, but for the work of a band of Gene Loves Jezebel’s vintage, ‘Dance Underwater’ manages to hold its own on repeated listens as a solid and above all contemporary pop-rock album. It won’t move mountains, but it’ll stand and take them in and paint them. It sounds, ahem, gorgeous baby…
In the interest of objectivity, as in all my reviews, I try to set my personal views aside to give each topic a fair analysis. The truth is however that I really like this album, and though it might not scale the heights of the big hits, the depths are even deeper.
ØFor the record, the debut Ugly Buggs album featuring Jay Aston and Peter Rizzo, is worth tracking down. Fans of early GLJ will get a lot out of it, in particular lead single ‘Serpent Queen’.
*Both bands’ singers, Luke Steele and Andrew VanWyngarden, employ vocal stylings similar to Aston’s signature yelp.