As the world's record-company giants consolidate into the mythical OmniVox Unicorp, pockets of independent-label resistance endure, even thrive, on the strength of artistic vision rather than unlimited capital. Since the mid-Eighties, London's Creation Records has wielded a mighty influence on the trend-mad taste of young Britons, successfully promoting its characteristic breed of noisy pop as the introvert's alternative to gregarious dance music.
Inspired by the Velvet Underground's heroin-cooled din, Creation has become the home of choice for wayward guitar bands addicted to feedback fuzz (Jesus and Mary Chain, the genre's patron saints), charming artlessness (the Times, Felt and Creation chief Alan McGee's own Biff Bang Pow), oddball eclecticism (Jazz Butcher) or, strangely enough, the Rolling Stones (Primal Scream). By now firmly established in its homeland, Creation has expanded its stylistic horizons and begun looking toward America, where its bands have yet to make an above-ground dent.
My Bloody Valentine arrived at Creation in midcareer, but the Anglo-Irish quartet has become its flagship on a roiling sea of melodic dysfunction. A challenging storm of bent pitch, undulating volume and fractured tempos, Loveless has a calm eye at its center, an intimate oasis from which guitarists Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields gently breathe pretty tunes into the thick, sweet waves of droning distortion. Despite the record's intense ability to disorient — this is real do-not-adjust-your-set stuff — the effect is strangely uplifting. Loveless oozes a sonic balm that first embraces and then softly pulverizes the frantic stress of life.
Shields's songs are strong and catchy enough to be stripped down without falling apart. Under his production guidance, the group washes them in layers of warped harmonic guitar noise and sampled orchestra, keeping the lush sound moving around an echoey cavern filled with fog. The surges of Loveless — in songs like "Only Shallow," "When You Sleep," "Come in Alone" and "Soon" — send the listener falling weightlessly through space, a fantastic journey of sudden perspective shifts and jagged audio asteroids. In My Bloody Valentine's magical kingdom, cacophony is the mind-altering path to beauty.
While headed in a similar direction, Slowdive hails from a quieter locale — somewhere between the Cocteau Twins' sensuous harmony obsessions and the Moody Blues' classical pretensions. Swathed in reverb and borne along on stately strains of guitar, vocals, piano and strings, Just for a Day floats a baroque folk-rock cloud, then rends the dreamy mood with an infusion of edgy discordance.
When Slowdive is on target — as in "Catch the Breeze," "Waves" and "The Sadman" — the music swells and subsides dramatically around unwaveringly placid vocals, imparting tension to the pastoral songs. Otherwise, the English quintet's music can be more handsome than involving, swaying folds of distressed gauze that conceal nothing but a soft breeze.
If My Bloody Valentine inhabits one end of the psychedelic art-noise pop spectrum, Velvet Crush — Creation's first all-American signing — stands at the other. The Providence, Rhode Island, trio plays and sings out loud and clear, incorporating overload distortion as an ingredient, not a religion. Coproduced to a raw luster by Matthew Sweet, In the Presence of Greatness is an exhilarating rush of brash guitar energy and hook-filled tunes (like "Ash and Earth," "Window to the World" and "White Soul") that slide easily and indelibly into the memory banks.
While the music harks back to the early days of American indie pop, a time when R.E.M. was an underground band, Velvet Crush's teen spirit is wholly current, an informal sense of pop tradition unpolluted by nostalgia. (If the recent crop of young U.K. pop bands addicted to Big Star — like Ride and Teenage Fanclub — could drop their accents and attitudes, they might generate a similar result.) The obvious highlight of an altogether wonderful record, "Drive Me Down" is a blast of robust melodic power that can't miss becoming a college-radio staple.
My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Velvet Crush define a wide creative continuum, from ambitiously avant-garde to defiantly unprepossessing, but at heart they all share an abiding respect for the well-formed song. As outwardly modern as their styles might be, their art is built on a venerable foundation.