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Love and Rockets - Seventh Dream in Teenage Heaven/Express/Earth Sun Moon/s/t (Beggars Arkive)

28 April 2023

Pity the great bands that grow out of legends. Despite being more successful, particularly in the States, than their progenitor, the U.K.’s Love and Rockets seems to exist in the shadow of Bauhaus, the proto-goth/glam/postpunk act that defined a genre (even as it existed outside of that genre). Too bad – if anything, L&R could be more exciting, more imaginative, and more lasting than their forebear, casting an even wider and more eclectic net stylistically, and engaging in more consistent songwriting. Keeping the glam and postpunk stylings, but jettisoning the goth trappings in favor of an enthusiastic blend of psychedelia, folk, hard rock, and even a bit of soul, Daniel Ash (guitar, vox), Kevin Haskins (drums), and David J (bass, vox) outgrew their roots faster than grass after a rainfall. With their catalog now being reissued on collector nerds’ catnip (AKA vinyl), the time is ripe for both newcomers and longtime fans to discover, or rediscover, their distinctive genius.

Those of us of a certain age remember when L&R couldn’t escape the goth rock tag – a real puzzle, considering what their 1985 debut LP sounds like. Produced by John A. Rivers, Seventh Dream in Teenage Heaven comes right out the gate with the psych pop of “If There’s a Heaven Above,” dispelling gloom with an uplifting melody, airy harmonies, and a lush wash of guitar fuzz. Ash – one of alternative rock’s most unsung guitar heroes – layers the tunes with everything from shimmering acoustics (the lovely instrumental “Saudade”) and rackety blues licks (the open of “Haunted When the Minutes Drag”) to spaced-out slide (the grim dirge “The Game”) and glistening acid fills (“The Dog End of a Day Gone By”). Haskins keeps the beat like a clock, but adds shots of clanging industrial percussion (“Haunted”) and electro rhythms (the title track), while J keeps his bass almost subliminal, though you’d certainly notice if it was gone. Ash and J alternate lyrics (the former more straightforward in intent, the latter more enigmatic), but often alternate lines or sing in close harmonies so there’s always a clarity of purpose. The wry “Dog-End” comes closest to the LP’s signature song, but there’s truly not a clunker here. Focusing their varied interests with the skill of veterans and the enthusiasm of kids, Love and Rockets turn Seventh Dream in Teenage Heaven into an assured and consistent debut. (Note to U.S. fans: this and subsequent reissues follow the original U.K. track listings, which don’t include singles and B-sides added for the Stateside market. Hopefully songs like “God and Mrs. Smith” and “Inside the Outside” will reappear on a later compilation.)

Released in 1986, Express shows no signs of sophomore slump. Quite the opposite – the band is clearly firing on all cylinders here, focusing their many charms into one potent rush of hooks and talent. The point cut “It Could Be Sunshine” pretty much sets the stage: melodic, exciting, and beautiful, riding Ash’s guitaristics moving from acid folk arpeggios to heavy metal power chording, and he and J exhorting the audience to “give me songs of freedom/give me love in every sense.” The rest of the album follows suit, tossing out fuzz guitars, singalong hooks, variable rock rhythms, and a general sense that Love and Rockets are enjoying the hell out of their own creativity. It seems almost reductive to say it, but the trio simply knocks it out of the park over and over, with nearly every track vying for highlight status: the fuzz-encrusted “Kundalini Express,” the acidic “Life in Laralay,” the glammy and forthright “Love Me,” the sarcastically poppy “An American Dream,” the irresistibly enticing “All in My Mind” (which appears in two different versions, as if each was so good they couldn’t decide which one to use), the breathlessly rushing “Yin and Yang the Flower Pot Man.” With Rivers again producing and Ash, Haskins, and J in absolute sync, Express may well be Love and Rockets’ magnum opus.

Though the songwriting starts to feel a bit diffused, 1987’s Earth Sun Moon is generally another winner. Both released as singles, the rocking “Mirror People” and the moody but melodic “The Light” kick it off with a memorable one-two punch. After setting those expectations, the trio tries out different shades of their usual psych/pop/postpunk mix, as if surveying their own aesthetic. From acid-tinged folk rock (“Waiting For the Flood,” “Welcome Tomorrow”) and casual lite prog (“Rain Bird”) to synth-tinged drone (“The Telephone is Empty”) and cheeky glambilly (“Lazy”), L&R follow their instincts on a song by song basis. Occasionally tunes sound more like solo tracks – cf. “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” which sounds like it belongs on lyricist J’s Songs From Another Season. The clear highlight is the hit: “No New Tale to Tell,” parodic Jetro Tull flute solo and all, pokes gentle fun as the band’s own penchant for acid folk by setting one of their most engaging melodies in a brilliantly exciting arrangement. Though Earth Sun Moon starts to blur out of focus as it spins, the band’s talent and chemistry keeps it entertaining.

Having established themselves as college/alternative rock stars, it was time to make the move toward more mainstream success, and whattayaknow – they did it. For 1989’s fourth, and self-titled, Love and Rockets record, Ash, J, and Haskins found themselves in the top 5 on the charts thanks to “So Alive,” their international hit single. A slinky blend of Princely minimalism and Ash’s ongoing T. Rex fixation, “So Alive” sounds essentially nothing like anything they ever did before. While that could lead to cries of “sellouts” due to it sounding crafted for radio airplay, it’s difficult to make that case, given how all over the place the rest of the album is. The first three cuts alone encompass steely fuzz rock (“No Big Deal”), ambient electronica (“The Purest Blue”), and brash electro grunge (“**** [Jungle Law]”). Side two features the striking electro folker “Bound For Hell,” the rootsy nightclub ballad “The Teardrop Collector,” and the grand pop of “Rock and Roll Babylon” to recommend it. Kudos to the band for wanting to avoid getting pigeonholed into a single approach, but sometimes the songs sound like solo tracks with the other members as session players. The good outweighs the bad, but for a self-titled album, Love and Rockets sounds pretty ununified.

Unsurprisingly, Love and Rockets went on hiatus after that fourth album while Ash and J made their own records. But the band’s book hadn’t been closed yet, and they would reconvene in a few years to write a fresh chapter. But that, as the cliché says, is another story.