Pale Saints – In Ribbons (4AD) album review

Pale Saints combine the best of dream pop and shoegaze on In Ribbons, a true lost classic of both genres.

When you think of classic shoegaze albums, you’re likely to think My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Slowdive’s Souvlaki, maybe A Place To Bury Stranger’s self-titled debut if you discovered the genre during the Shoegaze Revival. As for dream pop, there’s less of an established canon, but Cocteau Twins are sure to be in there – maybe Treasure or Heaven or Las Vegas – as is Beach House, most likely Galaxie 500, maybe even Mazzy Star, depending on who you ask. Even in their earliest and purest states, both genres have their problems, though. Early shoegaze can be a little too washed out, with too much focus on texture and playing with technology.

Dream pop can feel like a roomful of 6-year olds, hopped up on Slurpees and Pixie Sticks, solar radiation and cosmic visions. A lot of shoegaze loses focus on songwriting and accessibility, content to simply drift, succumbing to the self-indulgence the music press were accusing them of in 1992. As for dream pop, it can just feel a little junior once you’re over 21. Both provide a fascinating, artful, imaginative alternative to traditional psychedelic music. Both can also provide a slightly unsatisfying listening experience – especially in their early days.

There’s nothing unsatisfying about In Ribbons, though. The second full-length from the Leeds shoegaze/dream pop quartet is full of memorable melodies and exceptional performances as well as incredible atmosphere and production. Album opener “Throwing Back the Apple” has some scorching guitar work – some of the best of the original wave of shoegaze bands, blending the amorphous, experimental beauty of Kevin Shields with the afterburner force of Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin. “Hunted” is addictive, pairing its meticulous rapid-fire rhythms with dreamy early ’90s chorus rhythm guitar, before setting everything on fire and walking out the back door. “Babymaker” almost sounds like early Pavement, as heard from down the block.

There’s plenty of artsiness and experimentation to go around, though. “Ordeal” pairs infectious jangle pop guitar with an off-kilter rhythm and a throbbing post-punk bassline to create a thing of glorious, unobvious beauty, like Mark Hollis jamming with This Heat, yet somehow even better still. “Thread of Light” is a great, lost Lush single, thanks to the Meriel Barham’s vocals – Lush’s original vocalist – who had just joined the Saints. “Shell” radiates warmth, with a simple acoustic guitar chop, cello, ebow and ethereal vocal. “Hair Shoes” is nearly classical, with its twinkling lead guitar sparkling over cello, darkly brooding like a moonlit bay. With In Ribbons, you get it all – art, romance, beauty, experimentation, actual hooks, and thoughtful lyrics, when you can make them out.

Pale Saints were one of the more interesting bands from the early 4AD roster. It seemed like they were primed for actual crossover appeal, even going so far as to crack the Top 100 UK Charts, ranking as high as #61 on the official UK Charts and an impressive #10 on the UK Independent charts. In spite of this, they never took off as much as they should, stalling out after In Ribbons and then breaking up officially after their critically-dismissed follow-up Slow Buildings. It’s really a shame, as they were truly doing something interesting with the early dream pop/shoegaze templates.

Dream pop and shoegaze suffered a tragic loss earlier this month with the passing of Graeme Naysmith on April 4. Let’s take this opportunity to remember the man and his incredible music, restoring Pale Saints to the shoegaze/dream pop pantheon, where they’ve belonged all along.

In Ribbons is available via 4AD Records.

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