Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Raincoats: The Raincoats

Although The Raincoats don't exactly qualify as an entirely unheralded post-punk band, in many ways they were never afforded the broad critical acclaim their music warranted. Relying on an odd mixture of sometimes-shouted, sometimes-spoken vocals, intricate vocals and harmonies that floated above and underneath each other, as well as arrangements that fell somewhere between abrasive and bouncy, the band quietly released a series of remarkable albums that were met with little commercial fanfare and polite, but modest critical reception. The group seemed destined for little more than a cult following until Kurt Cobain, in the type of patronage that did wonders for other bands, offered his endorsement in the Insecticide liner notes. It's no coincidence that the band's albums were soon thereafter reissued by Rough Trade in 1993, with Cobain and Sonic Youth screecher/killer of songs Kim Gordon offering their fan boy-like thoughts on the band as part of these reissues.

Kill Rock Stars' vinyl-only reissue of The Raincoats' self-titled 1979 debut confirms that the record deserves a spot among the most essential post-punk releases. The Raincoats has aged remarkably well and shows none of the musical shortcomings and idiotic posturing that have made numerous albums that arose from punk's ashes unlistenable and downright laughable. While time has a way of cruelly exposing an album's flaws, there is very little to quibble about with The Raincoats, even 30 years after its original release.

Though the band's members - Ana DaSilva, Gina Birch, Vicky Aspinall and one-time Joe Strummer girlfriend/Slits drummer Palmolive - were clearly products of the British punk scene, a second glance at the album reveals that the band had more in common with groups like Pere Ubu and the Pop Group than the myopic and musically-stunted British punk rockers with whom they are usually associated. The album still defies easy categorization. With its chanted vocals and searing guitars, the band's first single, "Fairytale in the Supermarket," - added as the leading track on this reissue, though it wasn't included on the original LP - is reminiscent of the Clash circa 1977, but the remaining songs are far more diverse. Though some past reviews never got much further than gushing about the novelty of an all-female group covering Ray Davies' "Lola," the album's best moments occur in the band's original material. Songs like "No Side To Fall In," "Off Duty Trip" and "Adventures Close to Home" juxtapose rough vocals with hypnotic harmonies and repeated phrases with layers of instrumentation that incorporate elements of punk, folk and 1960 garage rock. Though the lyrics aren't incidental, the band was clearly equally interested in how words and phrases could be manipulated to create unique sounds.

In retrospect, the album sounds far less harsh and severe than it likely did in 1979. Even the record's most experimental moments - the tempo shifts and shouted vocals of "Life on the Line," Lara Logic's squealing saxophone on "Black and White," Aspinall's piercing violin squawks on "The Void," "You're a Million" and "In Love" - are tempered by a range of musical styles and textures that relieve some of the songs' fairly desperate sentiments and avant-garde tendencies. While a vinyl-only reissue will likely find only a limited audience, it nevertheless allows listeners to place The Raincoats and their addictive debut within a broader context of both its influences and later bands that would claim it as inspiration. The Raincoats is now, quite simply, a classic album and one of the most thrilling debuts to emerge from the post-punk era.

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