2.2.09

Morrissey and Harriet Wheeler

Some time ago, I was (as is my way) stalking Warren Ellis on his blog, and was delighted to see him upload a youtube link to the video of Can’t Be Sure by the Sundays. Clearly Mr. Ellis was on some wistful early-90s nostalgia trip (he uploaded Soon by My Bloody Valentine a little while earlier). Anyway, he remarked on how Can’t Be Sure ‘encapsulates and largely perfects’ a certain strand of ‘jangly breathy awkward sweet naive’ British indie pop, of which (to my mind) the Smiths were the most widely known for. Nowadays, the Smiths are accepted into the canon of rock and roll genius (a new greatest hits CD has recently been released), and the Sundays have largely fallen by the wayside. But I like the Sundays more. And here’s why.

There’s something about Morrissey’s voice that I find off-putting. The raw anger and loneliness in his lyrics seem filtered through layers of ironic detachment. His sighs and la-la-las have a theatrical, rather than genuine, air. I find it really difficult to take his ‘I’m so very lonely’ sentiment when it is delivered in his operatic baritone. For me, the lyrics and vocals don’t quite work when they are put together -- the whole thing sounds a bit weird.

The Sundays cannot boast of lyrics as brilliant as those of Morrissey, but they more than make up for it in Harriet Wheeler’s astonishing vocal performance. There is absolutely nothing affected in her delivery. There is no thought, only unrestrained, spur of the moment emotion. Her ohs, aahs, don’t you knows and repeated lines work to make it seem like her lyrics are made up on the spot. It’s as if singing is a kind of release: taken up by the music, she murmurs, croons and shouts whatever comes into her head, the words charged with the emotions she is going through. It’s quite incredible the range of feeling she can express with just the sound of her voice, from the ecstatic trilling that forms the coda to My Finest Hour, to the panic-y longing of ‘Don’t go!’ in I Won. Indeed, without the unbounded emotional energy of her voice, the Sunday’s lyrics appear pretty banal: ‘my finest hour that I’ve ever known / was finding a pound on the Underground’. But she is able to lift up such random rambling and make a something out of nothings -- when she sings, her rather unexciting lines feel profound and deeply moving. This is a really rare gift. In my opinion, she is one of the finest female vocalists of the 90s and 00s, along with people like Jenny Lewis, Beth Gibbons, PJ Harvey and Cat Power.

Now to commence plugging. The Sundays released three albums, of which the first -- Reading, Writing and Arithmetic --is the one to get. It has the best tunes, including Can’t Be Sure, My Finest Hour and the one everyone knows, Here’s Where The Story Ends. Although Mr. Ellis thinks the band should have disappeared after recording their debut (and it does pain me to go against his judgement) I think their third one -- Static and Silence -- is also pretty good. If you see any in a bargain bin somewhere, you won’t be disappointed.

(Also, for you crazy Buffy freaks, a Sundays cover of Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones played over Buffy’s dance with Angel at the prom. SO SAD!)

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