How unfairly hyped was My Bloody Valentine? Loveless is a great one, to be sure, but I found it at the top of far too many “Best of the 90s” lists, hovering around other essential but obscenely overrated albums like Nevermind and OK Computer. Everyone including Sigur Ros continues to salivate over the record that should have changed the world. But what was it, really, beyond exceptional guitar pop subjected to an intensive studio tweaking? Many flowery adjectives spring to mind: Ethereal. Dreamlike. Surreal. Rock. Soundscapes. You had never heard guitars like that because guitars just don’t sound that way, hence Kevin Shields’ true talent lay in his massive production efforts. But most everyone in the “indie” music world (wherever that magical land may lie) would love to know what he’s been up to for the last 12 years.
I make this point because every single press piece on Dan Snaith’s new album, Up in Flames, comes complete with a My Bloody Valentine comparison. Start Breaking My Heart, Snaith’s debut full-length as Manitoba, sounded much closer to Aphex Twin or tourmate Prefuse 73, and while this new one may be a major departure, the progression from laptop landmine to one-man psychedelic whirlwind isn’t entirely unusual. And yes, he does sport a bit of the guitar/keyboard/indecipherable whisper combination that made Kevin Shields great, but his origin in electronica flavors this album with much more energetic rhythms than contemporary work by any number of MBV’s loyally tedious devotees, from Mogwai to Mojave 3.
The elements that most distance Dan Snaith from Kevin Shields are his bubbly beats and comparably subdued guitars. Snare drums barely broke through the endless treble-heavy Fender line on much of Loveless, while Manitoba’s tracks often have no such six-strings, based instead around concise keyboard samples and hand-clap breakbeats. Single organ chords stretched over entire tracks resemble Yo La Tengo’s most drone-worthy work, and Snaith’s simple harmonic vocal style does sound very similar to the masters of British shoegazing and their countless progeny. But subtle nods toward the big B’s of the Beatles and the Beach Boys also color these songs. “Skunks” is a direct tribute to Lennon’s “Dear Prudence,” though it’s beautifully disguised by accidental free-jazz sax samples.
“Jacknuggeted” bears a slight resemblance to Loveless‘s “Sometimes,” with feedback tones over heavily reverberated acoustic strumming and an abstract “Again, Under, Over, Wonder” chorus, but it ends in a wonderful mess of cut-up vocal snippets and glitch clicks more like San Francisco fake disco lovers Matmos. Snaith uses all sorts of simulated sound sources to recall the wonders of the 60s, like the giddy electric bell riffs that constitute “Bijoux” before the song lights into “ba-ba-ba” Brian Wilson harmonies processed to the point of abstraction. Simple keyboard and sax lines also back up Snaith’s vocal beat-box samples as the number gains momentum.
“Crayon” is a beautifully wispy track full of wide-eyed mallet lines and major key vocal sighs, concluding on a dog bark sample that leans directly into the album’s spectacular swan song, “Every Time She Turns Round It’s Her Birthday.” This track’s initial guitar-organ line sounds very much like the main riff from MBV’s “I Only Said,” but the accompanying electro-funk breaks end the album in a mood that’s full of intense vigor rather than a druggy desire to stare at one’s feet.
Snaith has commented publicly on a perceived lack of vocal abilities, but his dreamy, uneven murmurs only add to the record’s intimate pleasures. I am not the first to call Up in Flames an album perfectly suited to the glowing warmth of summer, though such musical energy would ideally enhance any time or place. My only viable complaint regarding Manitoba’s abundance of electronic joy: it pervades the ear for only 39 brief and glorious minutes.