With endorsements from Kim Gordon and Kurt Cobain, the UK art punk legends landed on Geffen Records for their underrrated fourth LP
British post-punk in the late seventies and early eighties. Such a descriptor conjures many sensory impressions and trace memories, even for those of us who missed it the first time around, those who’ve had to learn it all secondhand.
Dreary, gray UK skies over uncleared Blitz rubble and belching brick smokestacks, weary row houses where ambivalent blue-collar lifers glimpsed the future through the tasteful contemporary furnishings and dry wit of the BBC’s culture programs. Between harrowing public safety films awash in early electronic tones and beeps, the citizenry watched bands of gangly and awkward young people wrench new and intimidating sounds from their instruments, sometimes invoking a spectral air of minimalism and space between the gated snares and chorused guitars, the bass lines driving the melody as much as the guitars, the lyrics paranoid and gloomy.
This was not punk fury but bookish dread and apprehension. The Fall were untethered by social niceties, Joy Division were built to self-combust from the jump, and Wire didn’t much care what you or anyone else thought of them. Gang of Four were too busy having a laugh, or maybe a scoff, at your expense. The margins of the recorded works were populated with phantasmic machine churns captured by doomed innovators like Martin Hannett, the lyrics dense with unhappy rail travelers, embarrassing Mancunian hipsters, censored news programs, and night-bound freeways like some dystopian JG Ballard rendered in sonics. The Factory Records logo was omnipresent. Madchester, C86, Brit-Pop, shoegaze, Oasis, Thatcher and The Falklands, H-block hunger strikes and Princess Di, all in the near or slightly less-near offing. Even ex-Pistol John Lydon was spellbound by the possibilities. It didn’t last long; it lasted forever. Little of today’s underground music culture would’ve been possible without it.
Quintessential art school brats The Raincoats slipped neatly into these voluminous milk-crates of vinyl while somehow remaining singular. Inspired by The Slits (featuring eventual Raincoats drummer Palmolive), Londoners Gina Birch and Ana da Silva took up arms against the still-prevailing notion that ‘girls didn’t play in bands’. Silva and Birch’s ever-revolving lineup of cohorts once featured a violinist, and in their initial run they trawled the outskirts of free jazz, dub, and ‘exotic’ instruments, pushing the post-punk envelope before the sticky flap had even begun to dry. Members of The Soft Machine and This Heat even pitched in.
They disbanded in 1984, burned out by touring and conflicting musical directions, having forged a beloved if not wholly-remarkable path in the crowded field of the era. In the years between, Kim Gordon and Kurt Cobain became passionate fans, and a reunion seemed inevitable, written into the stars themselves. So it went that in 1996, the obligatory reunion album appeared. But Looking In The Shadows is the platonic ideal of what every reunion album offered by a treasured but obscure cult band should be, drawing on past strengths while informed by all that’s been learned in the intervening days. And though they haven’t released another full-length since, they’ve never disbanded, either, still occasionally playing out with all the self-effacing good cheer of two old friends getting older together. This is a fair country mile removed from the UK’s bleak post-punk era.
As with many of the younger bands The Raincoats surely inspired, such as The Field Mice, the reunited de Silva and Birch peppered these fresh experiments with shards of electronic sound and shimmering hi-fi production, a gentle nudge forward while respecting what made their initial run so endearing. The songs themselves stand as beguiling and as fascinating as anything the first version of the band released. Opener “Only Tonight” surges forward, menacing through the verses but soaring in the sky-scraping choruses, while “Pretty” bears more than a little of the snide swagger that Elastica gaily swiped and subverted (sorry, Wire), each coy line aimed somewhere between disturbing and alluring, in classic Raincoats fashion. “You Ask Why” dips past with a leading edge of billowing shoegaze guitar flange and sprightly drum work, and it’s fantastic stuff. But it’s only in the album’s closing moments when the bravely-bratty act crumbles just a bit and the Raincoats surrender to unmitigated beauty, as the title track unfurls magically, buoyed along by perhaps the most beautiful synth melody ever put to tape. Here the band’s inherent sweetness, lurking just beneath their poses and wink-nudge strut, is revealed: they’re having a blast donning all these old clothes together, and they’re shocked to discover that most of them still fit just fine. There’s no “Fairytale In The Supermarket” to be unearthed here, but there’s also no stakes, and the album is much better for it.
VIDEO: The Raincoats “Don’t Be Mean”
There’s a shrewd grace to this band’s relentless kinetic energy and fetching come-ons, a playfulness that never curdles into anything precious or saccharine. On standout “57 Ways To End It All”, gleeful summer-camp whistles nestle in under the covers beside a fuzz dragged out of a Soho gutter, the track climbing and sailing away on Phil Spector tambourine-smacks and glistening feedback. There’s not a second on Looking In The Shadows that doesn’t pay utmost respect to The Raincoats’ modest legacy, but perhaps “57 Ways” best embodies what made them special, even as they struggled to gain notice and a following in an unusually-legendary musical era. Where so much post-punk seemed claustrophobically surrounded by abandonment and diminishing opportunities, The Raincoats dared to let loose and enjoy themselves, never sacrificing their wit or intelligence. It’s impossible to imagine many seminal bands since, from Teenage Fanclub to The Wedding Present to Primal Scream, gaining much traction without their early influence, but The Raincoats remain much more than all the halcyon acts they influenced, a pioneering indie powerhouse that more than lives up to all the scene hype.
A fan can’t help but wonder if Birch and de Silva might yet have more pop gems such as these lurking within them, though it seems less and less likely we’ll ever hear them released if so. Still, it’s easy to forgive them, to allow them the simple joy of occasionally coming together to bash out all the old favorites again. These days, it’s to a growing audience now realizing the simple thrill of their songcraft, new and old.
If Looking In The Shadows must console us for another twenty-five years or longer, there’s far worse fates to be endured. Mark E. Smith, Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett, Ari Up, Ian Curtis, and so many other post-punk luminaries are mere memories now, but The Raincoats insisted on a happy ending for their story; this is the epilogue they left behind. And it’s a perfect epilogue, at that.
AUDIO: The Raincoats Looking in the Shadows (full album)