‘…The four biggest British bands of the mid-nineties – Radiohead, Oasis, Blur and the Verve – had yet to release their iconic albums which would shape the course of the UK scene for the rest of the decade … Had this album been released as planned, it would have had a major impact on UK guitar music, standing shoulder to shoulder with the breakthrough albums by the bands mentioned above…’
…So reads the blurb on the Bandcamp website, thru which – in collaboration with Flashback Records – was realised the two decades-delayed release of Levitation’s ‘difficult second’. Like dead rock stars, ‘lost’ albums have a propensity for coalescing about them an impenetrable miasma of hyperbole and partial affection, fueled by a generally small but disproportionately loud and loquacious clique of devotees. Levitation attracted such a crowd back in the early ’90s, and deservedly so, in this writer’s opinion. Their early singles and EPs showed great promise, and debut album, Need For Not stands as one of the finest 45 minutes of rock music of that decade.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine Meanwhile Gardens impressing the pop crowd in quite the same way as Definitely Maybe‘s meat-and-potatoes rock. Blur and Verve both played something of a long game, by contrast; taking their time to hone their sound for the masses (though not as long as Pulp!) as did Radiohead later. King Of Mice as Christmas #1? Nah.
It would be a shame, then, to allow such overbaked pontifications to obscure the fact that, yes, MG is a very good album and one which, like another unlikely group of one-time pop superstars, Marillion, deserves a fair hearing.
It’s a very different record to NFN. In some ways, it’s almost a backwards step: live favourites/single material such as Bedlam, Rosemary Jones and Purgatory had a looseness borne of the jam: not a million miles from early Verve, albeit angrier, more brooding. NFN by contrast, was a much tighter affair, albeit retaining that otherworldly feel which fans of ’60s/’70s psych/prog instantly latched onto. As an album it feels very complete; exploding out of the starting gates with Against Nature, World Around, Hangnail and Resist before settling into the ebbs and swells of a more melancholy second set. Closer, Coterie actually reminds me of nothing as much as Fields Of The Neph circa Elizium: all cascading drums and layered atmospheres, and a couple tracks aside, MG adopts that (latter) as an album-length blueprint. It has both sprawl and purpose in good measure.
When it falls down it’s not for the most obvious reasons: Food For Powder begins the album but feels like an ending; Even When Your Eyes Are Open is the sole concession to verse-chorus-verse-middle eight-chorus… ‘pop’ songwriting and so sticks out like a sore thumb. I would have relegated those tracks along with Never Odd Or Even/ Greymouth/Going Faster to the EP for a more harmonious feel acrosss both discs.
Those gripes aside, all the qualities a fan would expect and want to hear are present and correct: Dave Francolini and Laurence o’Keefe are/were the best rhythm section in indie rock, and their instinctive interplay underpins and propels this album much as it did NFN (and Dark Star‘s 20-20 Sound all the more seven years after). Bodiless, King Of Mice and Imagine The Sharks are brilliant examples of ‘songs’ that hang on questing, dynamic rhythms augmented by atmospheric touches from guitar and keys; not to mention some characteristic orchestration courtesy of Cardiacs‘ Tim Smith during Magnifying Glass and Burrows.
And over all hangs Terry Bickers’ calculated anguish: background noise in his House Of Love days, now swimming gloriously to the fore.
MG is both recogniseably NFN‘s sequel but so much more, though ironically, it’s the judicial layering and sequencing of sound that takes it into – ethereal – new territory: like Talk Talk before them, and Radiohead a few years later.
Coolly sidestep nostalgia but make a point of (re)discovering this band before interest wanes. They need to regroup and get some gigs together.