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Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth & Collected Works

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Artist: Young Marble Giants

Album: Colossal Youth & Collected Works

Label: Domino

Review date: Sep. 11, 2007

When this three-disk set arrived, I had the good fortune of only slight familiarity with Young Marble Giants. My impression was built on mix tapes, comp tracks and references in interviews with other artists. My impression was that they were the most austere and pleasant end of post-punk, the chill-out band of early Rough Trade. In a class of artists defined by agitation, they were eerily mild, entrancing but easy to overlook. I'd been waiting for a chance to look deeper.

Having undergone a full-dunk baptism with these recordings, it's hard not to get evangelical about them. Austere, pleasant, entrancing – yes. But they were as manifesto-driven as their peers. It's just that their manifesto defined a sound that risked being overlooked. For one, they had no drummer. The two Moxham brothers, Philip and Stuart, switched between guitars, bass and organ; Stuart wrote most of the songs, while Philip's girlfriend Alison Statton provided vocals. A friend who tinkered in electronics provided primitive beat generators, but the general lack of percussion forced them to play very rhythmically. It should be no surprise then that here's a huge amount of space within these songs – trebled dots of guitar and electronic chirps scattered over warm bass and vocal purrs. There's a shyness to every element, but they all sound comfortable in their reticence (the home-recorded demos in this collection are as fully realized as the Rough Trade releases). In their own reserved way, they were as strident characters as anyone shaking things up in 1980.

The Giants were together for a little more than two years. In that time, they gathered about as much attention as their scene and sound would allow. The relationships that defined the band governed its short lifespan. In the decades since, their work has returned to its natural state as hidden treasure. The music that remains has clarity and completeness, documenting a rapport that was amazing while it lasted. Krautrock's pulsing, mechanical tempos and Brian Eno's miniatures were their most obvious precursors. But the twangy and airy sound that Joe Meek and Lee Hazlewood created in the 1960s figures just as large.

That's why Young Marble Giants still sound unique. The Meek and Hazelwood projects for Duane Eddie, the Shadows, Nancy Sinatra and Tom Jones had an undeniable squareness. It might have been unconscious, and might have been part of hailing from the hinterlands of Cardiff, but the Giants recognized something eccentric in that commercial sound long before (if well after) it was stylish. Instead of rethinking dub or disco, they deflated the huge echo of space race instrumentals and reduced torch songs to a single burning match.

Colossal Youth aches with longing, yet Statton never gives into histrionics. She knows the boundaries of her inexperienced voice, and works within them, as do the Moxhams' guitars. It mimics the disinterest of session musicians, the kind who filled out those walls of sound in '60s. But as cold and distant as the Young Marble Giant's music is on the surface, it still suggests emotion, bottled up, but ever present. "Wurlitzer Jukebox" keeps threatening to be funky, but seems to know its strength comes from reducing that funk bassline to two notes, to a metronome. Other motifs show up – a bottleneck slide, a carnival organ – but the Moxhams' pent-up precision keeps them from evoking the source, a testament to how fully the band had developed their aesthetic.

The band's coda was brief and haunting. They recorded a single, "Final Day," that overtly depicted nuclear fears, a turn away from the intimate themes of the album. It's every bit as strong, though, depicting a burning world through warm tones, a population reduced to the grainy blips of flutter in the background. There's also a Peel Session of reverb-soaked takes and an instrumental EP. Statton was ill for the Testcard EP sessions, but it's not hard to imagine internal tensions driving her away. She was breaking up with Philip, and Stuart Moxham started resenting her attention as the face of the band. The six songs are inspired by the filler tunes on British TV in the long gaps between programming. It's a ridiculous conceit, and the instrumentals are sugary and blank. The signal was on, but you weren't supposed to be listening.

Their situation has parallels to The Sun Sessions: a young and unusual singer meets clean and rhythmic players in a provincial city, striking out on a new beat without a percussionist. In Simon Reynolds' notes to this collection, he describes the reception for Colossal Youth as "instantly successful, as if people had been waiting for exactly this sound: music by introverts, for introverts." Like Elvis, Scottee and Bill, the Giants may not have been the only ones working the territory, but they remain the point of origin. They created the model for indie bands at ease playing on the end of the bed, working in a record shop, wearing clunky glasses or thrift store dresses.

Or for that matter, cardigans. Kurt Cobain was a fan. Listening to Colossal Youth post-1990s, especially the climactic songs "Credit in the Straight World" and "Brand-New-Life," it is obvious they were the melodic model for Nirvana. It's become a running gag to compare "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "More than a Feeling," but with the grunge anthem's four tightly-strummed chords and the two ringing notes for a verse, Cobain surely had "Brand-New-Life" in mind, not Boston. Stuart Moxham says in the notes, "A lot of those riffs would sound great on loud, distorted guitars in a conventional band. There's something repressed about the Young Marble Giants' music."

Cobain seemed to idealize that sort of repression. It's those hidden affections that make bands pioneering. Followers devolve into cutesy twee or dimwitted grunge because they can't see past the point of origin, the contradictory ambitions that birthed something new. Three decades later, Colossal Youth & Collected Works still feels like the start of a brand new life.

By Ben Donnelly

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