All right, so shoegaze wasn't a real genre. It was a preciously named, probably unnecessary subset of already too-fine categories like dream-pop or college rock. It was the witch house of the late-'80s and early-'90s. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not interesting to talk about, especially because when we talk about shoegaze, what we're usually talking about are bands that sound like My Bloody Valentine, which is occasionally accurate but often reductive. That dismisses or simplifies the sound of too many bands who offered variations on that noisy theme, in particular it short-sells other excellent acts in the field like Slowdive and Medicine.
Slowdive and Medicine existed on opposite poles on either side of the My Bloody Valentine sound. Slowdive was the most wistful of these bands, able to sweep you into subtly distorted dreamworlds on airy layers. Medicine, on the other hand, was another beast entirely. They may have been the most abrasive shoegaze band, but they were also the most tuneful. If My Bloody Valentine clobbered you with noise, Medicine worked you over, every inch of you, with razor sharp riffs. So if you thought Loveless was as far down the distorted rabbit hole as you could get, you need to dig into Medicine's first two albums: 1992's Shot Forth Self Living and 1993's The Buried Life.
Much, though not all, of the band's sound came from guitarist/frontman Brad Laner, who achieved his signature grind through a kind of reverse innovation. Instead of looking for state-of-the-art pedals and effects, Laner ran his guitar through a four-track, giving his already hyper-distorted guitar an extra layer of brittle tape-hiss shrieking. He hits you with it right off the bat on Shot Forth Self Living, with the nine-minute opener "One More." The guitar blares to life right away, with a tinnitus-inducing roll of noise grows out in every direction. It's a test -- to see how much you can take, to see if you can find something sweet in all that shrill static. It goes on for a minute before the band kicks in with an insistent trudge, with a rumbling, military-steady bass and sturdy drums. It's a song that takes it's time, that takes up space, even as it sings of leaving it behind. "One more kiss," Laner asks for at one point, "and then we're history."
It's an ambitious first impression, and one that now seems to encapsulate everything daring and great about the band. But, more importantly, the rest of Shot Forth Self Living measures up to that ambition. The barbed, industrial riffage of "Defective" tightens their big noise into concise pop, while on other songs like "A Short Happy Life" and "Christmas Song," the band blows it wide open again in wholly new ways. The former -- one of many songs in the band's catalog sung by vocalist Beth Thompson (more on her in a moment) -- brings a psych-rock weight to the party, casting a new shadow on the usually bright-white of these scuffed hooks. "Christmas Song," meanwhile, is the most unruly of the bunch, slogging along at a too-slow pace that eventually draws you into its dark, zombie trudge. It's a song that risks feeling too heavy, too slow, but in the end it's actually just waiting for you to catch up.
Shot Forth Self Living was a fully realized, brilliant debut, the kind of record that's damn near impossible to top. And yet The Buried Life gives it a hell of a run for its money. The riffs are as dessicated and destructive as ever right from jump on "The Pink," but here they also refine their pop sensibilities. The Buried Life picks up the pace and comes off as a more propulsive record than its predecessor. Like Laner's guitar sound -- compressed through cheap machinery -- the band condensed their sound into tighter pop structures, and produced some brilliantly catchy moments. If Shot Forth Self Living was about luring you into some sort of teeth-grinding hypnosis, The Buried Life is something far more immediate. Just check the titles -- the first, with Living, is continuous, all around us, while that Life, however buried it may be, is right now. It's got a beginning and an end.
And so you get pop gems like "Something Goes Wrong" and "Babydoll" and the wobbly, oddball riffage of "Never Click." The album may end in the seven-minute distortion experiment that is "The Earth is Soft and White," but up until then The Buried Life isn't hiding melody under all this piercing sound -- it's accentuating it. Medicine was so good because the band was, in the end, much more about that melody than they were about making your ears ring (even if they did that too). Much of that beautiful divergence between sharp noise and soft notes comes from the singing of Beth Thompson. She was the kind of bittersweet siren that could be seductive and heartbreaking all at the same time. The breathy snarl with which she sings "Slut" is both jarring and energizing, while she turns chanteuse later in the record on "Beneath the Sands." Thompson -- and sometimes Laner with his own hushed singing -- has a knack for not forcing a line, for letting her words seep through all that sheer volume. And, for all the restraint in her singing, she can floor you when, say, on Shot Forth Self Living's "A Short Happy Life" she asks, "Is it my turn to make you cry? I'm not keeping score."
Medicine's songs build to this kind of devastating moment -- on The Buried Life's "She Knows Everything," the song ends "She's a sad thing, she knows everything" -- but there's also a kind of freedom, a cutting loose that happens at the end of these songs. There's lots of heartache, but instead of wallowing in it, these last lines, like the guitars and bass, ripple out into space, into possibility. Shot Forth Self Living and The Buried Life are two fantastic records, albums that doesn't really confirm our limited definition of shoegaze so much as they make us question that limitation. Because, no matter what anyone tells you, this band sounds very little like My Bloody Valentine. Medicine's music wasn't much for gazing at shoes. This shit glared. It wore boots. This wasn't just noise. This wasn't just loud. These were loud, noisy (and damn good) songs. And if you're wondering what the difference is, the answer is in these albums.
Captured Tracks has reissued both these albums in excellent deluxe editions with bonus discs chock full of unreleased material. Both Shot Forth Self Living and The Buried Life are available now.