The death of shoegaze was not a publicly mourned occasion. By the mid-’90s, the movement had begun to buckle under stereotype and pretension. Creatively, the glass ceiling had been kissed by Loveless, the record-buying public had been awed away by the thunder echoing from Seattle, and the artists within the shoegaze collective found themselves without a real goal or an audience. Some put up a fight, some disappeared amicably, but it was clear that teen angst had prevailed over kaleidoscopic bliss.
The Telescopes, the English band that formed in 1986, can be classified as a shoegaze group that did not retire their cause without first throwing out a few punches. #Untitled Second — here given its first American release, care of Bomp! Records — is the second and final album of their initial run, the group having broken up shortly after this record’s commercial failure. (The reissue comes at an interesting contextual time, given that the shoegaze movement has been reenergized in the present day by groups like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Asobi Seksu.) The album epitomizes the creative plight of the Telescopes kin and kind — artists searching for ways to invigorate the life force of their genre and coming away with sketches and outlines instead of realized dreams. In the present case, #Untitled Second attempts to de-amplify shoegaze by renouncing distortion pedals for jazzy percussion and acoustic guitars, and while it should be commended for its vision and audacity, the album falls short of tackling a genre re-visioning.
There’s a verse in the Tao Te Ching that reads, “When you handle the master carpenter’s tools, chances are that you’ll cut yourself.” Although the invention of an acoustic shoegaze credo is an interesting prospect, Stephen Lawrie, lead songwriter, vocalist, and the presumed headmaster behind the Untitled project, does not appear to be equipped sufficiently to undertake this endeavor, and the gashes are apparent all over #Untitled Second. The songwriting is not strong enough to carry the weight of Untitled ’s ambitions, and Lawrie often doddles in the same hazy vocal melody structures for almost the entirety of the album without achieving much intimacy with the listener.
Indeed, for as much as the album tries to assert itself as a subverter of genre stereotypes, it more often than not ends up accentuating shoegaze cliches. The wading, hazy vocals present on songs like “The Presence of Your Grace” or “Yeah” are not immediately arresting, nor are they particularly distinctive, evoking what someone today on an episode of I Love the 90’s would probably sing if he wanted to recall what shoegaze sounded like.
#Untitled Second ’s finest moments come when Lawrie and his bandmates stop being preoccupied with being seen as innovators and just play to their amped-out strengths. “Flying” is the pixie that ignites and stands out within seconds, broadcasting a giddy melody and begging to be cranked up after the previous half of the album’s reserved tone. It’s a brief, flickering flash of technicolor life on a record that in almost every other case pledges allegiance to the album’s stoic, cool cover art. The alternate versions of “High on Fire” and “The Sleepwalk,” presented here as bonus tracks, burst out with an adventurous spirit and excitement, testifying as further evidence that the Telescopes really should have just made another Telescopes record, as typical as that sounds, instead of trying to swim in the deep end of the pool before they were truly ready and becoming martyrs for a dying cause.
I’ve always thought of shoegaze as an attempt to channel the glow of falling in love through voice of an instrument. As a result, my favorite records of the period tend to be loud and excited, reverberating with each wire and guitar string connected to its own beating heart. #Untitled Second may be described by its press release as being moody, but that does not mean it’s personal or affecting. It’s a record that reaches for something beyond its grasp, something that Kevin Shields nailed once with “Sometimes,” and it’s one of a few relics from a doomed dream-pop crusade.