Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Rise Of A Bunch Of Tone Benders: A Look At The Fine New Reissue Of The First Great Album From Lilys

In 1992, it was clear that with In The Presence of Nothing, reissued now from Frontier Records, Lilys were planting a flag in the land of shoegaze. Listened to now, the album seems like, if not the Evervest of the genre, a pretty darn tall mountain, and Lilys, rather than a bunch of Yank upstarts, a crew of brave pioneers, venturing into territories previously best left to Brits with long(er) hair and louder guitars.

How's that for a florid opening, one keeping with the beauty of the original album cover art for In The Presence of Nothing?

What matters now, and what shines through when you play this record, is the amount of success these kids achieved. I can remember hearing this not too long after it was released and thinking "Who the heck do these guys think they are?" I thought that 'cause, yeah, the shadow of My Bloody Valentine looms damn large here and these cats are really chasing it with intent at times. There is just no escaping the idea that a bunch of D.C. area indie upstarts had heard Loveless and were brazenly attempting to make something similar. That so much of this worked then and works now is what is remarkable in 2017. And that so much of this is not simply routine shoegaze posturing surprises still. Is it any wonder that these tracks succeed because, unlike a lot of what was in the shoegaze genre at the time, so much of the material here is shot through with flashes of Sixties guitar-pop (the revving "Claire Hates Me"), a vaguely Joy Division-style sense of rhythm (the throbbing "Periscope"), or a near-punk kind of riffage (the post-rock lunge of "Collider")? The members of Lilys in 1992 were smart enough to see outside the boundaries of their preferred genre.

And, it must be noted for those outside this area, In The Presence of Nothing is the product of the D.C. scene. If Dischord had had a few peaks by 1992, the label was -- for a time, surely -- being supplanted by the D.C. area's other important labels: Teenbeat and Slumberland Records. Originally released on Mike Schulman's label, later offered up by SpinArt, and now reissued by Frontier Records, the album featured a veritable all-star team of D.C. indie: Archie Moore (Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl), Harry Evans (Poole), and Mike Hammel (The Ropers). And that's not to mention the guys and gals from Pennsylvania's Suddenly, Tammy! who appear on this record. Sure, Kurt Heasley was the power hitter here, to continue that metaphor, but it was the folks next in the line-up who were insuring that this was a set of home runs. This album remains a highlight from that first big wave of non-harDCore D.C. area bands hitting it big, crossing over to the college rock crowds, and getting taken seriously outside of the Beltway.

And all the attention this release got back in 1992 or so is due to the fact that In The Presence of Nothing is, in hindsight, clearly very nearly an equal of the all-mighty Loveless. And yet, to say such a thing is to perhaps relegate this debut long-player from Lilys to that bucket of MBV clones that both sides of the Atlantic produced after 1991. To label this simply a shoegaze release is to miss the little bits in "Elizabeth Colour Wheel" that recall an amped-up Galaxie 500, or to deny the New Order-ish rhythmic moments in "It Does Nothing For Me", or "Snowblinder" and its whole loud-quiet-loud, slight-grunge dynamic.

What all of that means for astute listeners is that In The Presence of Nothing might seem to be a perfect recreation of Loveless-style shoegaze from an East Coast indie super-group -- and, frankly, sometimes I recall it that way -- but it is, upon the fresh assessment provided by this fine reissue, something else too, something more mature and subtle, and harsh and darker (the Mogwai-foreshadowing epic "The Way Snowflakes Fall").

If the first 9 tracks that make up the original In The Presence of Nothing release were not enough, this Frontier Records reissue of the album adds 3 bonus cuts, including the seminal Slumberland Records single from the band, "February Fourteenth", all pummeling riffs ridden into the void; only a bunch of American kids could have taken the template of MBV's "Drive It All Over Me" and added an almost Nirvana-like sense of abandon to the material. Pop that very nearly goes spectacularly off the rails, the single is joined by by the flip "Threw A Day" with its rhythmic attack that's pure Hook and Morris. Finally, we get the spacious "Eskimo" from the Tone Bender EP.

In 1992 or so, shoegaze seemed to be purely British territory to a lot of people but not for very long. With the rise of bands from the Slumberland Records stable, the genre got a much-needed shot in the arm from the influx of a bunch of Yanks. And, remarkably, after sort of mastering the form here, most of these players went in new directions after this: Kurt Heasley used the Lilys vehicle to explore a kind of Sixties-style indie-pop; Archie Moore continued on with the more C86-inspired Velocity Girl whose full-length debut dropped the year after In The Presence of Nothing was released; Harry Evans eventually crafted a bunch of fab power-pop albums with the bright Poole; Mike Hammel pursued the kind of melodic alt-rock favored by Ride with his band The Ropers; and Beth and Jay Sorrentino offered up superb piano-driven indie with a clutch of releases from their band Suddenly, Tammy! Still, in 1992, Lilys were -- more or less -- an American shoegaze band and never more so than on this release.

And the measure of the success of In The Presence of Nothing is not only what a great shoegaze album it remains, but what a fantastic indie record it is too. Fans of the genres here, or the other bands these players came from, are going to love this reissue of In The Presence of Nothing. And if you're relatively new to the touchstones of shoegaze, it makes sense to spin this next to Loveless as it's that good and so much more than simply an American riff on the MBV classic. Students of the D.C. scene, and the rise of American indie, will also be thrilled with this reissue.

In The Presence of Nothing by Lilys is out now via Frontier Records.

[Photos of Lilys from the era courtesy of Archie Moore but original photographer unknown.]