Issue #41: Unisex by Blueboy
November 7, 2016
Released On January 5, 1994
Released By Sarah Records
There’s plenty of skepticism that creeps in as you get older. The echoing “Haven’t you already heard enough music to care about?” reverberating about your skull. So I’m relieved when an unfamiliar album (and in this case an entire label) crosses my path that elicits the same delight as my favorite records. This story begins with The Field Mice about three years ago. Compelled to habitual digging and internet rambling, I ran across this little band from London and uncovered my gateway into the world of Sarah Records. Being enamoured with groups like Belle And Sebastian, The Smiths, Papas Fritas, Stereolab, and The Delgados, what I heard floored me. Back when Alternative was quickly devouring the airwaves and media, this burgeoning, yet mostly under the radar enclave of artists was carving out its own path in Twee, Indie Pop, Indie Rock, and Shoegaze. It’s a refreshing alternate timeline of how music unfolded in the late ’80s into the ’90s against the mainstream media. Having purchased Popkiss: The Life And Afterlife Of Sarah Records, I began unraveling the mystery of this unassuming label, discovering musical gem after gem. That’s when I arrived at Unisex and stopped in my tracks.
It’s clear that Blueboy occupies a special place in their roster given the book’s title is taken from their 1992 single, a track embodying the cornerstone Indie Pop of Sarah. After making my way through a wonderfully diverse collection of singles and the intimately sparse album If Wishes Were Horses, Unisex presents itself as a work wholly confident in its conception. “So Catch Him” is one of the most elegant openings I’ve ever encountered, a gorgeous chamber pop set up for the jangle of “Cosmopolitan.” What follows is a decisive journey, shirking trend while focusing on introspection and musicality — unequivocally well-crafted songs. Several tracks employ little more than guitar and vocals with complimenting strings, piano, or percussion. Of course there’s perfectly chorus-affected guitar on “The Joy Of Living” and superb grit and light dissonance on “Self Portrait,” a reminder that this is still rock music. The vocals of Keith Girdler and Gemma Townley weave together and around the instrumentation effortlessly as they deliver lilting lines as heartfelt as they are soft-spoken. You really get a sense that there is a dialogue between every track rather than each one barking the same sentiment. The flow always feels natural. Every moment feels careful but never overwrought. “Lazy Thunderstorms” explores reverb as pure vocal texture as the most mellow but sonically progressive track that you can just melt into. Surely songs like “Finistere” made an impression on Stuart Murdoch with a little bit of loungey bossa nova and melodic verse. Pulling in ideas from classical music and guitar, Blueboy creates their own rich palette of fusion and contrast. The transition between “Always There” and “Imipramine” is a dramatic leap between old and new modes that is dazzling. I would wager most would be surprised to find out that both tracks came from the same band. What a glorious pop-burner “Imipramine” is! To me it’s very much like how “Cherry Chapstick” works on Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out — an overt rock song punctuating a bed of mellowness. Jangle, drive, feedback, and hook, it’s all there. The way it unfurls and builds provides a satisfying apex to the album — especially for a noisy guitar junkie like myself. It then rightly gives way to a lovely and smart coda, a bookend reprise of “So Catch Him.” The more time you spend, the more these shifts makes sense as part of the whole picture. Unisex is beautifully composed of different facets and angles, but all sit harmoniously together. Great albums are a full course, not just spoon after spoon of the same thing. What a feast this is! Of course there is more to be found among the various other Sarah bands and releases, but alas we’ve not the time to tout them all. So I’ll leave the gate open for you.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
Extremist pop music by gentle & careful composers who bore the weight of society in their music.
I’m sure to some, Blueboy’s mannered orchestral pop could seem effete, overly precious, perhaps even boring. For me, though, it has the opposite effect. The minimal arrangements revolve around beautifully sung vocal melodies and one or two clearly defined counterpoints — usually delicately-plucked guitars and/or classical strings. The space provided by the production — which seems more a matter of excellent mic placement and well-captured room sounds than anything else, not that it deserves any less credit as a result — allows for perfect clarity of tone. The arrangements become studies in songcraft, hypnotic in not only their beauty but their precision. Even on the more conventional indie-pop tunes, such as “Cosmopolitan” and “Imipramine,” the clarity of the vocal arrangements retains the overall mood even as the rhythm section propels the songs into a more energetic jangle. These songs are more of a rarity on this mostly-quiet album, however. Both the more frequent quiet moments and the occasional energy bursts are of a piece with the overall aesthetic cultivated by Sarah Records in the early ’90s. In fact, without having any idea of this band’s geographic or temporal origin, I guessed upon one listen to this album that it was a Sarah Records release. The quieter moments made me think of St. Christopher, while the louder ones approached the tenor of early Boyracer singles. If none of these reference points mean anything to you, don’t let that confound you. Instead, I recommend that you dive into the Sarah back catalog — you’re in for a real treat. This Blueboy album is a great place to start.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
In the realm of the twee, there is unassailable Castle Smith, ruled over by King Morrissey with the aid of his band of knights of the guitar, bass, and drums. In his crown of gladioli, the king can just espy the church of Belle & Sebastian down the road, overshadowing the gorgeous Orange Juice rectory, where Bishop Collins dips his pen in partially poisoned ink to scribe another bittersweet sermon in song. In between the church and the castle is a picturesque village, all thatched roofs and melancholy maidens. Down an alley next to the Field Mouse furniture shop is the Blueboy toy store. Though sadly shuttered now due to the death of Keith Girdler (singer, songwriter), at one time they made very fine toys indeed. Girdler and guitarist Paul Stewart used cunning craftsmanship and layers of shiny lacquer to create elegant but sturdy toys that told stories of love when you wound them up. There was the one called So Catch Him, which incorporated some designs from the 18th century, like a miniature minuet, and then exploded into brightly colored Warhol flowers as it went on. A few toys have a feminine touch thanks to singer/cellist Gemma Townley, who makes The Joy Of Living all about being in… like: “I know it’s not love, but I’m not choosy.” Charming stuff. Some were shaped like places, like gloomy Marble Arch, a neighborhood in London filled with boys who are “young and quite pretty,” or Finistere, the rocky vacation spot you’ve only visited in travel agency posters, where you hope your girl “will hold me close and suck my honey thorough the night.” These are not children’s toys, I should mention. There’s even one called Imipramine that looks like a capsule of an outdated and very powerful antidepressant. But even when they touch on the darkness, Blueboy’s toys always have a candy coated sweetness that makes you want to play with them again and again.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
I suppose it was only a matter of time before one of us picked a band related to the C86/Sarah Records movement of the ’80s and ’90s. I’m actually surprised Matt picked one of these bands before I did! The strengths of Blueboy’s Unisex are plenty: jangle-y guitars which bring to mind so many bands I love, sweet vocals, great hooks and lyrics which capture the ennui of being young and beautiful and in love with all the wrong people. In “Self Portrait” Keith Girdler sings, “Oh I am very very sad / I like kissing my own lips.” What I found most surprising (and wonderful) was how open the band was about sex and exploring one’s sexuality. That’s almost revolutionary coming from a country that values privacy and being proper (I just started watching The Crown, so clearly I know all about this). Sometimes it’s ok to just enjoy being with someone for a moment. “Of course it’s not love but I’m not choosy / I just want to kiss you in new places / to savor the joy of living liking you,” Gemma Townley sings in “The Joy Of Living.” In “Boys Don’t Matter,” Girder discusses his openness to other experiences, “You say boys don’t matter oh yes you say boys don’t matter / It’s a view I’ve held for years all those evening running home in tears / I guess I’m kinda shy but I’ll give anything a try.” It’s also refreshing that the band has a sense of a humor, and Girder could poke fun at himself. From “Self Portrait,” which quickly became my favorite track: “I like sex at my own pace / I, this nation’s narcissus laureate / I like mirrors in bedrooms.” It’s doubtful that Girder, who passed away from cancer almost ten years ago, could ever be the most narcissistic person in England (uhhhh… Morrissey??), but it can certainly feel like that when you’re “young and quite pretty” and obsessed with being love. That’s just what it’s like to be in your 20s, and Unisex captures it perfectly.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
For the second week in a row, we have an album that goes the extra mile, incorporating live strings to bring out every last drop of emotion. Unisex is nothing if it’s not a highly emotional record. What is it about strings and harmonies that make us feel so much? Whatever it is, Blueboy have it in spades. On “So Catch Him,” “The Joy Of Living,” and “Always There,” they masterfully weave a warm blanket of emotion: 50% strings, 50% harmony. Remember in elementary school when we’d have to sing for a chorus recital, and there would be a song or two with staggered vocals? What was that called? I can’t remember, and I’m too lazy to Google it right now. I’m a bad person. Anyway, Blueboy employ a similar technique on “Fleetway,” except unlike my grade school recital, the voices here are quite angelic. I have to say that my favorite song is definitely “Finistere.” It’s a very relaxing number, featuring an almost bossa nova rhythm reminiscent of the 1960s. I could see this being the go-to record for James Bond, scratch that, Austin Powers as he’s about to set the stage for the evening’s shag-fest. Overall, I think Unisex is just that — all inclusive. It’s equal opportunity male/female perspective. At times there are opposing views, and in others there’s complete harmony.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
A look at the pensive fragility of their live shows, in the midst of their extraordinary interplay of female and male vocals.
Fans of Blueboy are probably into them for their sensitive and mopey feels. If someone gave me Unisex while I was between girlfriends, I might have really connected. I dig the Versus-esk “The Joy Of Living” and the atmospheric drone of “Lazy Thunderstorms,” but it’s the rocking outlier “Imipramine” (a drug used to treat depression) that I can’t stop spinning. I explored their catalog in search of more, and while there’s definitely some other interesting territory to go back and checkout, I guess I’m just hung up on being a pessimistic angel right now.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
When a student of mine is struggling to understand the concept of rhetorical situations, how who you want to read your work and what you want that reader to feel can transcend genre and topic, I stop lecture to ask for any topic at all, whether or not it sounds academic. Most recently they gave me the Dallas Cowboys. Offshooting from that name on the board, I wrote down examples of narratives (when my dad and I watched this one game), game reviews, argument (running the ball during this play would have won the game), persuasion (the Cowboys rock or suck, take your pick), spinning off as many as I could think of and adding theirs to our growing web. Pick any offshoot, and it’s still the Cowboys, even if tone and genre change; similarly, pick any track off Unisex and it’s Blueboy despite a range of type. Underlying every track is a prettiness of sound housed firmly in the style of Belle & Sebastian, The Smiths, Tsunami, The Promise Ring, but rather than sounding cohesive in presentation, this album reads more like an anthology. Some bands have albums that get cast as their slow one, their angry one, their country-inspired one; here Blueboy covers their range, giving us their version of emo upbeat, their version of instrumental, of jazz, all the while distinctly owned inside the band’s sound.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Iconic picture of the late Blueboy mastermind, Keith Girdler, whose work extended to acts like Lovejoy, Arabesque, Beaumont, and more.
The more I listened to this album, the more things I found to appreciate about it. At first, I was really into the opening track, “So Catch Him” because of its big production and heart-on-its-sleeve lyrics (“And did you care when I cut my hair? / Cause I wanted you to”) which I found all too relatable. Then I moved into enjoying songs like “Marble Arch,” “Also Ran,” and “Always There” for the sheer, concentrated melancholy they brought into my life, but when I was giving it a final listen with headphones, I found myself captivated by “Fleetway,” a song that I had previously written off. What a brilliant song. Dueling, boy-girl lyrics culminating in a message about how sadness affects both sexes while also delivering the title of the album? Just mind-boggling. “A girl alone is just like a boy alone / Sadness is unisex” I know that my appreciation for this album will continue to evolve with repeated listens and that prospect is so exciting that I can almost get over the fact that you didn’t comment on my new haircut…
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
My perception of time, if plotted on a scale, would land somewhere between “terrible” and “Dude, are you OK?” I tend to be the last one to know that we’ve moved from one season into another (yes, I am still wearing my white Converses regularly these days), so I tend to rely on outside cues. The leaves falling means it’s fall — I know that one — and Blueboy and I just had a genuine “Holy crap, it really is fall!” moment together. I’d listened to Unisex a few times through already, but when I pressed play and stepped outside for an early evening run, feeling the cool air surround me like I’d jumped into a chilly pool, footsteps slipping slightly on layers of dead leaves, the words and sounds I was hearing started to come into sharper focus. “Life’s about dying,” says opening track “So Catch Him,” echoing the sentiments of every leaf ever. There’s talk of raining on parades and cutting hair — more precipitation in support of a chorus about falling in love. “Falling down,” even. The “dry lips” in “Cosmopolitan” felt seasonally appropriate as well, though “Marble Arch” may qualify as the most autumnal song the album. The strings and guitar work together to paint a portrait that’s drenched in Earth tones; I see a park — a sad scene set amid fall’s bittersweet explosion of color. Forgive me for citing the first three songs, but that was my seasonal moment with Blueboy, and it was truly beautiful.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Blueboy were one of those bands who came along at simply the wrong time in history. I’ve spoken before about how the early ’90s felt like a musical wild west, with different genres and styles all vying and clashing for the wider music public’s attention. Dance was on the rise as was hip hop, and the pop boy/girl band explosion was about to begin. When Unisex was released in 1994, Britain was on the cusp of the Britpop boom brought about by the likes of Oasis, Blur, and Pulp. Blueboy never really found their footing in that time, and it’s a real shame as they offered a completely different type of indie-pop. It’s difficult to really find a way of describing Unisex. To tag it as easy listening almost sounds like an insult these days, but it’s really not, as this is a well-written, well performed and pleasant record. I’m a sucker for using strings and piano to add an extra element to songs, and Blueboy use those to their advantage. Nowhere is that more apparent than in “The Joy Of Living,” which will across as schmaltzy to some, but I found it endearing. Unisex is most definitely a product of its time. But what Blueboy did was veer away from the styles of their contemporaries to carve out their own little niche style. This is a record that highlights the talent Blueboy had, and the shame that they never really could escape the looming Britpop shadow. It’s a hidden gem that’s the perfect accompaniment to a fall walk.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
I could use my section here to extol the wonders of twee music with this album as the paintbrush, making sure to mention the wonders of past bands like Talulah Gosh and The Pastels and current favorites like Alvvays and The Sun Days. This would feel cheap though, despite C86 being worthy of pure adulation like I expressed here two months ago. I could also use my space here to detail the tricks and techniques that make Keith Girlder’s songwriting so incredibly brilliant, and why the genre and label wars of the ’90s rendered it forgotten collateral damage. This would be a better use of my time, especially considering the phrase “incredibly brilliant” doesn’t begin to describe the superior skill Girlder yields on this record. Instead, I want to highlight how tender and beautiful this record is and highlight two specific moments. The first comes early in the record, on the fourth track aptly titled “The Joy Of Living.” By this point, the listener’s sonic compass must be spinning wild after the chamber sound of album opener “So Catch Him” was followed by the textbook jangle of “Cosmopolitan” and the affectingly bare “Marble Arch.” It’s the fourth song that ties all these elements together and gives you a taste of the charm and quality of Unisex. Lyrics mirror the vulnerability of “Marble Arch” while the music settles for a jangle and chamber mix that marries the opening two songs. It’s warm and inviting throughout, but it’s the “do-do-do” interlude moments that bridge the song and make for a beautifully indelible moment that reminds you of the eponymous joy of living, thanks to the joy of melody. This feeling sustains itself throughout the next track “Fleetway,” but it is the sixth track, “Also Ran,” an instrumental that’s much more overt in its evanescent musical compassion, that grows on that “do-do-do” charm and the marrying of minimalist chamber and jangle giving Unisex its true sonic identity. The composition is reminiscent of “Helical” off of John Frusciante’s The Will To Death and “Peaches And Diesel” from Eric Clapton’s Slowhand, but while “Also Ran” serves a similar purpose on Unisex as those two did on their respective records, the execution is much different here… and far stronger. It arrives earlier in the runtime than the others, but also doesn’t busy itself with pacifying lines and complacent charm. It’s not here to extend the mood or lead you to the next stop. No, this instrumental sets the tone of Unisex and what its sound truly is: Delicate music as beautifully fleeting as the ornate flowers on the album cover. It is music that expands and contracts with the voice of a song — even in the absence of one — while it slowly reveals its charm with each new run and sequence. In beauty, it’s stunning, while in design, it’s nearly legendary for any point in time.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Getback by Little Brother
Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford