Issue #107: Against Perfection by Adorable
April 2, 2018
Released On March 1, 1993
Released By Creation Records
When I was in high school, there was no internet as we know it today. Therefore, I had to scrape and claw for any source of interesting new music I could find, as most of what was available in the rural town where I grew up was mainstream rock, R&B, and country radio. Not totally a wasteland, but also not a source for anything that might surprise me. As a teenager, I wanted to be surprised. I was waking up to a wider world, a wider understanding of myself, a wider sense of possibility than what I’d grown up hearing about. I wanted a wider musical landscape to explore, so I could find things that matched my slowly awakening understanding of myself. But that was much easier said than done back then.
Fortunately, I had some good friends in high school, and they helped me find some better sources than I’d discovered on my own. One was the college radio station, UVA’s own WTJU (it’s still around today), which played underground rock music of all sorts… from noon to 4:30 PM (when I was either in school or on the bus home), and from 11 PM til 6 AM (when I was supposed to be in bed asleep, according to my parents’ rules). Days off school were my only opportunities to catch the programs I wanted to hear on this station, and I learned to stockpile blank cassettes for those occasions.
Another was MTV’s late-night programming, especially on weekends, when along with Yo! MTV Raps on Friday and Headbangers’ Ball on Saturday, they played 120 Minutes on Sunday nights. I taught myself to set the VCR to record from midnight til 2 AM three nights a week, and when my parents weren’t home, I would hook up the living room VCR to the VCR in the basement and dub mixtapes of the best videos I captured.
1992-1993 was my senior year of high school, and by then I was already aware of the emerging guitar-driven rock scene growing in the UK. By now, most of this stuff has been codified as either shoegaze or Britpop (the rest has been forgotten completely), but back then, there was no one name for any of it. And while My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and Curve shared neither sound nor label nor hometown, they all seemed… of a piece, somehow. I was paying attention. And I was looking for more.
Adorable entered into my life thanks to contributions from both the college radio station and late-night MTV. Within a couple of months, a WTJU DJ played “Homeboy” sometime over Thanksgiving weekend and 120 Minutes played the video for “Sunshine Smile.” I taped them both, of course, and listened to them frequently. I couldn’t quite tell where Adorable fit into the whole UK loud-guitar thing, but I could tell they were part of it, and in my humble opinion, they were one of the best parts.
A few months later, a friend who went to a different high school bought the debut Adorable album, Against Perfection, right when it came out. A couple of weeks later, I went over to his house with a few blank tapes and dubbed that album (and probably half a dozen others) from him. I proceeded to wear the Adorable side of that tape out, frequently rewinding it to the start rather than flipping it over and listening to the album on the other side (was it an Auteurs album? I can’t even remember anymore). Since then, I’ve had burned CDs, downloaded mp3s, and links to streams, but come to think of it, I’ve never actually owned a physical copy.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one for sale. I was lucky to have a friend who also got into Adorable, and who bought the album when it was new — it seems to have mostly disappeared from the discussion within a couple of years of its release. Some of this is probably due to Adorable’s sound, which doesn’t easily slot into shoegaze or Britpop and therefore fell through the cracks where that whole early ’90s UK guitar thing is concerned.
The same has happened to the similar-sounding House Of Love, who are slightly better known than Adorable if only because of their early start date (1987) and their place in the early history of original shoegaze label Creation Records. Adorable has neither of those things going for them — though intriguingly enough, these days Adorable singer-guitarist Pete Fijalowski is playing in a band with original House Of Love guitarist Terry Bickers, which proves that there is real musical kinship there.
Adorable didn’t last too long — Against Perfection was their first LP, and by the time they released their second, Fake, a year later, they were basically done. No one was getting along, and what minor UK success they achieved wasn’t enough to compensate for intra-band personal conflicts. So if you didn’t hear of them during their brief period of activity (and a lot of people didn’t), you probably never heard of them at all.
My chief aim in nominating Against Perfection for a detailed Off Your Radar examination is to point out what a crime that is. The first two singles I ever heard by Adorable are a good place to amassing the evidence. The quiet opening moments of “Sunshine Smile” pairs a glittering guitar lead from Robert Dillam with Stephen Williams loping counterpoint bassline, as Pete Fijalowski sings the first verse in his distinctive low-tenor/high-baritone register. Once the chorus kicks in, with the band’s distorted dual-guitar attack and drummer Kevin Gritton’s energetic rhythmic propulsion pushing the entire band along, the snarling grit these early-90s UK bands all seemed to have learned from Dinosaur Jr is in full evidence here.
But it’s the melodic overlay that really makes Adorable distinctive, an overlay which comes from the combination of Fijalowski’s strong vocals — always forward in the mix, which is out of character for vocalists of this scene and era; it can’t be denied that Adorable knows their strengths — and Dillam’s perfectly crafted lead guitar lines. “Homeboy,” the other early single that won me over to the cause of Adorable, is driven by a more straightforward approach by the rhythm section; bass and drums dominate the verses of this track, with a grumbling, overdriven bassline and a rumbling floor-tom beat making up almost the only instrumental backing to Fijalowski’s soft yet slightly ominous croon on the verses.
When both Fijalowski and Dillam kick in with the distorted guitars on the chorus, things overbalance in the direction of heaviness, but Fijalowski’s vocals keep the melody at the forefront, as he repeats the chorus’s single lyric: “You’re so beautiful.” By the end of the song, the chorus vocals have become an outright scream, but by now the melody is well-established enough to remain audible if only in the harmonic resonances of the bassline and the distorted arpeggios Dillam throws in overtop Fijalowski’s still-snarling rhythm guitar.
Adorable are capable of quite a few different moods, and while the foundation is always the contrast between loud guitars and beautiful melodies, their trips farther from that center always work, regardless of the direction they take. “Sistine Chapel Ceiling,” another standout on an LP full of them, distinguishes itself with a quick tempo and a syncopated rhythm that draws influence from the house and techno beats that were making their way across the Atlantic around this time and having a huge impact on the UK music scene of the day.
Meanwhile, “Favourite Fallen Idol” features the loudest guitars of the album, and seems to draw its structure from the post-Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit” model of dynamic shifts between quiet verses and loud choruses, at least until you realize about a minute in that the loud chorus was really just a pre-chorus. At that point, Fijalowski and Dillam ambush you with an incredible melodic hook, laying a distorted guitar lead and a gorgeous vocal melody overtop of a still-raging rock n’ roll riff.
While the album’s only outright ballad, “Still Life,” is perhaps too quiet to completely work, the first slower tune on Against Perfection, “A To Fade In,” shows that Adorable can slow things down and get more introspective with the best of them. Fijalowski and Dillam do a bit of a Morrissey/Marr thing on the verses, but Williams and Gritton are just not capable of a very soft touch on their instruments — and thank god, because the powerful undercurrent they add to the entire song (one notably absent on the mostly rhythm-section-less “Still Life”) is what gives this tune its powerful emotional gutpunch.
I could do this with pretty much every song on here, and would feel neglectful if I didn’t mention the slow-burning downcast anthem “Breathless,” the subtle midtempo swagger of “Glorious,” and the absolutely incredible melodic bounce of “Crash Sight,” but rather than continue to dissect each song in detail, I’ll just point out that the overall impression this album leaves, at least on me, is unforgettable.
As a teenager, I was having a lot of complicated, emotionally fraught experiences, many of which I didn’t entirely understand at the time (some of which I’m still grappling with now). Music was what really helped me process the feelings I was having back then, and it’s still helping me with them today. Without pinning things down too concretely, the albums I love the most resonate with feelings I might not even be able to put into words, help me work through them, come to grips with them, and navigate the emotional landscape that remains in their wake. Often over the course of my life, music has been the primary emotional tool with which I was able to get through life.
Adorable’s Against Perfection is one of the pieces of music that has remained most emotionally relevant for me over the course of decades, and I think that speaks to its quality. The fact that a relatively small amount of people have discovered this hidden jewel over the years feels like a tragedy to me. Hopefully this newsletter can do a small amount to correct that.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
The prototype for the Creation Records sound, mixing shoegaze, jangle pop, Britpop, and Madchester into one irresistible sound.
Less than one minute into the opening of lead single, “Sunshine Smile,” off this less-than-explosively-known album by alternative/shoegaze band Adorable, and it’s hard to initially understand how the music wasn’t very well received. Read into the group’s non-performative history however, and notice mention of “the band’s cockiness” as described by All Music‘s Michael Sutton, and things make more sense. What makes for a great fundamental takeaway from a disparity like this, is that depending on which hits a listener first — the big picture of who a band is, what they think, and how they act or, more abstractly, just the music itself — can really impact a person’s understanding and-or ability to empathize with why a record may or may not do well in the eyes of the general public. Adorable’s sound alone is incredibly congruous with that of more well-known acts like The Verve (“Bittersweet Symphony” anyone?). In that regard, if you like the latter, it’s hard not to find some kind of musical pleasantry and alignment with the former throughout this reverb-laden, sonically expansive, and somewhat jangly record — all qualities epitomizing the 1990s. Against Perfection moves back and forth between the ethereally flowing sounds of its opener and a more hardened and instrumentally defined rock sound on tracks like “Sistine Chapel Ceiling.” Against Perfection is an easy trip down nostalgia lane and the best part, is remembering (or realizing if you’re a first time listener) Against Perfection lets you can get from one end of the album to the other without feeling overly saturated with too much time in one musical gear. There’s bite for when you want to rock out and there’s chill when you want to be on relaxing cruise control.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
“You’re my favorite granddaughter,” he would say at the end of every conversation, a smile pulling at his creased cheeks. My grandpa, a ruggedly tan Creek steel worker turned farmer, delivered this line without fail in lieu of a goodbye. In some early version of this conversation, during a time I don’t remember as a toddler possessed with the kind of simplistic self-righteous that comes from knowing the rules and what’s right and feeling proud to stick to it, I countered, “But I’m your only granddaughter!” His initial delight with that response spurned a lifetime of reiteration, outlasting my youth, superseding my first marriage, transcending my transformation into motherhood. No matter how grown I got, when speaking to my grandpa about politics or grad school or motherhood, he would end with that line, to which I inevitably replied. The familiarity of that simple exchange became a hallmark of our relationship, one that I miss since his passing, and strangely enough I felt him as I listened to Against Perfection. From my first listen, I felt at home. The album, a dreamy, shoegaze pop, was so familiar that I was certain I’d heard it before, though searches back through memory and my iTunes library proved that false. Rather, what hit with me is just an adherence to the form of genre, a quiet settling in of this album to emo, shoegaze, and dreampop that doesn’t feel affected or forced at all, but honest and open. A gorgeous, open-room feeling characterizes each track, the kind of roundness that you see in earlier Motown recordings where the room versus each instrument was miced, but this comes with the production value Alan Moulder brings that gives a richness to each track. Rather than reminding me of a particular band or album (although we all hear The Verve Pipe a little bit, yeah?), the album threw me back into an era of sound with new angles and perspective. In the same way I looked forward to the ritual of ending a conversation with my grandpa, every listen of this album gave me pleasure in the doing and listening, the process of experiencing what was both familiar and new.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Adorable’s Against Perfection sounds exactly like what I would expect an album called Against Perfection to sound like. Imagine, if you will, that R.E.M. had formed in the ’90s and been inspired by the grunge and college rock of the ’90s as opposed to being the inspiration for most of those bands. The music crosses back and forth between jangly pop verses and distorted noise. The vocals have a lackadaisical quality to them, but they’re in no way phoned in either. The lyrics jump around between apathetic (“I’m only falling now just to entertain you / I’m only failing here because there’s little else to do” from “Favourite Fallen Idol“), and down beaten (“This is not God, it’s just the way things are” from “Still Life“), and they will even occasionally drift into near-pathetic territory (“My shaking hands are all I own, and your star-struck lips they just remind me of what I’ve missed” from “Crash Sight” is a little too lovelorn, even for my tastes). It’s the type of music I would expect to hear in the background of a ’90s slacker film. In fact, the first time I listened through “Sistine Chapel Ceiling” I had to check to make sure I hadn’t previously heard the song on the Clerks soundtrack. Pardon the pun, but this album comes off as a nearly perfect representation of the Generation X attitude in the post-Nevermind era. I can only speculate how and why Adorable didn’t make a bigger splash in the states, but I imagine that releasing Against Perfection just a year before Kurt Cobain died as well as a year before Dookie and Weezer set American labels on the hunt for the next next big thing didn’t help. That sort of thing would definitely kill the momentum. One could call it bad timing, but, as Adorable might put it, “it’s not God, it’s just the way things are.”
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
This is the kind of album that I don’t find too much anymore. It’s the kind of album where each track is like opening up the door to a new room of a house I’ve never been in before. There are details to take in and it’s a pleasure to do so. There’s the normal details that go along with hearing something new: How long is the track? What’s the tempo? But then, with this kind of album, there’s a class of details that can often feel missing in other albums: How playful is the singer in this one? How serious is the subject matter? (The first question doesn’t necessarily have any influence on the second.) What kind of guitar solos are in this one? Clean ones? Messy ones? What is the texture of this track and how does it relate to the tracks before and after it? These are questions you could ask of any album you listen to, but with an album like Against Perfection, the answers are interesting and thought-provoking. Listening to this album makes me think of when I was getting to know my favorite album of all time: Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins. The music isn’t similar, even though they came out the same year (which would be a weird expectation to have, that albums from 1993 would sound alike, but it can happen.), but the experience of there being a lot of detail to sort through, and being excited to sort through it, is almost identical.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Drowning beneath the waves while angels crash above.
When it comes to music I’m compelled to play repeatedly in the car because of animated movies my daughter has watched, there’s a broad spectrum of listenability, from Oh God Please Not This Again on one end (“Can’t Stop The Feeling!“) to Hell Yeah I Might Listen Again After I Drop You Off at Daycare on the other (anything from Roger Miller’s Robin Hood soundtrack). A fairly recent addition closer to the Hell Yeah end is “Try Everything,” a Shakira-sung tune from the Zootopia soundtrack about resilience and the constructive nature of failure: “I’ll keep on making those new mistakes / I’ll keep on making them every day.” I love that message, in large part because I want my kids to be braver and less risk-averse than I am. I was excited to hear Adorable voice that same idea in “Favourite Fallen Idol,” which starts with a bold first line: “When I fail, I want to fail completely.” It’s a lyric that suits the album’s title nicely, and it seems to fit the broader cultural moment of the early 1990s, from Radiohead in 1992 (“I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo”) to Beck’s “Loser” in 1993 (second mention in three OYR weeks!) to Nirvana (pick a song, any song). And while you’ll often hear the word alienation used to describe this attitudinal trend, I’d like to think it also has something to do with a change in our collective capacity for honesty. By contrast, we’re currently experiencing a moment in which it’s easier than ever to construct an online version of yourself that’s free of flaws and in control all the time, and that’s just not how life works. I won’t claim to know the way out of this moment, but another song from Against Perfection, “A To Fade In,” contains one surefire antidote: “I don’t want to be a faded memory / All I want is to be me.”
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Ladies, let me give you a little inside information about guys — we like what we liked when we were nine years old for the rest of our lives. We like sports, fart/poop jokes, super heroes, maps, things that go fast, and pretty girls (that go fast). Three songs into Against Perfection, I thought “nine year old me would love this album.” And wouldn’t you know it, the album came out in 1993 — when I was nine. Do you know how southern rappers just sound so good rapping over hardcore east coast beats? It’s the same for blokes from the United Kingdom and rock music. Something about the vocal bends just sounds so right. This record has all the early ’90s downtrodden overtones, but with the Simple Minds-esque vocal charm you can only get from the UK. Songs like “I Know You Too Well” and “Sistine Chapel Ceiling” sound like the bridge between ’80s pop-rock and ’90s alt-rock. And then there’s the uber soulful ballad “Still Life.” With this record in particular as a backdrop, I can’t help but think Adorable had a tangible influence on the next generation of British bands like Coldplay. Can you not hear Chris Martin all over “Still Life”? Just add piano and water.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
I’m racking my mind, trying to time travel to 1993 and figure out how I completely missed this album by Adorable. I picture myself in the photo studio I shared with another photographer, racks and stacks of CD’s on the chrome-plated Metro shelving unit between our desks. Against Perfection would have easily fit in the five-disc changer alongside proximate records by Curve (the great “Doppelgänger” — still banging after all these years), Suede, The Auteurs, Ride, and the grandaddy of them all, the debut album by The Stone Roses, which had blown our minds just a few short years earlier. Adorable has all the big guitars (usually a combination of colorful lead lines combined with heavy chording), melodic bass lines, splashy drumming and attitude-filled vocals to more than hold their own in this company. “Sunshine Smile” is the perfect opening track with big, bright, chiming guitar on the intro quickly becoming huge, heavy and hypnotic. “Sistine Chapel Ceiling” is another standout, with the bass playing octaves, skittering guitar noise, baggy drums and another huge chorus. The only misstep I hear on Against Perfection is “Homeboy,” which seems to slightly pander to the singles chart with the repeated refrain of “You’re so beautiful,” which doesn’t grow less irritating when singer/guitarist Pete Fijalkowski starts shouting it at the top of his lungs. I can’t figure out what held them back from appearing on our playlist back then. Thanks to Drew, I now have 20/20 hindsight and will make sure to include Adorable in any rundown of ’90s rock, while continuing to listen to it now. If you’re a fan of anything I mentioned above, you would be wise to do the same.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Short-lived existence aside, Adorable provided a shimmering syllabus to understanding the wonders of British alt-rock.
There’s a lot to like about Adorable’s Against Perfection, and specifically there are two items that stick out to me. For starters, there’s the earnestness of it all: unabashedly lovey-dovey delivery of universal-isms like “You’re so beautiful” and “I love you”, subtly brilliant lines like “This is not love, it’s just the way things are”, and the perfectly, well, adorable song titles like “Sunshine Smile” and “I’ll Be Your Saint.” That level of self-awareness is commendable. Then there’s the game of “spot the influence” you can play as you listen. The band’s clearest influence is shoegaze, but Adorable pulls from sounds and bands that extend well beyond the genre itself. A close listen reveals bits and pieces of The Smiths, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., U2, Fugazi, and Elvis Costello. (I’m certain I’ve missed a few, and that’s also kinda my point — there’s practically a different influence on every track.) It makes the album a fun listen, especially on repeat spins. This is, of course, beside the excellent songwriting throughout. I grew up on ’90s alt-rock (and a little shoegaze), so this was an easy record to enjoy. It’s fitting, then, that the de rigueur nostalgia trend is the ’90s, which can be irritating at best for someone who grew up then. That said, if it includes albums like Against Perfection, maybe revisiting isn’t all bad.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were to blend Smashing Pumpkins with The Cure? Well, wonder no more friends, it’s Adorable… the band I mean. I guess they’re cute too, but I’m not here to ramble on about the aesthetics of baggy bands. Against Perfection made a slight impact on the UK charts when it was released in 1993. Although the band’s career would be short-lived, the group made their mark, peaking at number 70 in the UK Albums Chart. If you’re unlucky enough to have let this band pass you by, your luck is going to change today! Get yourself a copy of Against Perfection and let the effortless shoegazy riffs of Robert Dillam lull you into your happy place while you get over that post-Easter food coma. If you still need convincing check out my favorite track, “Homeboy.” The growly bassline with Dillam’s larger than life guitar work builds slowly into a breaking point that is simply perfection… I don’t care if you’re against it guys, it’s true. Another great track is “Sistine Chapel Ceiling.” Again, with this track Dillam’s creative guitar work takes the band’s sound to a whole new level. In my opinion, there is no better way to come down from the holiday high than to indulge in some messy, shoegazy, ’90s, alt-rock. So what are you waiting for?
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
I loved every second of this album. The sound is reminiscent of The Cure I find, and being that I am extremely partial to British music, that is probably why I love the sound so much. The lead vocals are great, the musicality is spot on, and the vibe I got overall is just exactly what I look for in a band to listen to. Alternative rock being one of my absolute favourite genres, I’m actually quite upset that I hadn’t found this album sooner! The guitar on the track “Cut #2” is just so great — it’s kind of psychedelic, but also has that ’90s grunge sound and it all blends so well together. A side note as well, the album art is great! It drew me in as much as the music did. Usually I can tell if I’m really going to enjoy something within the first few bars, and the first track on the album just really came out swinging, and I loved it! It’s a song that says “I’m here, whether you like it or not” and luckily for me, I quite enjoyed it. Honestly, I’m trying to pick a song that I can say is my favourite, but this is one of those albums where I just can’t do it. Each time the next track played, I loved it just as much as the one before. This band has a great sound, and I wish they had more than just two albums, but you can bet that I am adding this to my collection!
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
Going against its title, Against Perfection is a perfect microcosm of the British scene of the ’90s. All the different emerging sounds and styles, now well identified and scrutinized, are here, from the jangly bounce (“Crash Sight“) to the shoegaze haze (“I Know You Too Well“) to even Britpop postulating (“Glorious“). But what’s really fascinating is how Adorable strays from the conventions of those styles. Their jangly excursions don’t feel flighty at all, their Britpop experimenting seems to avoid wistful reflections, and their shoegaze romps are a lot more acerbic than the romantic haze normally permits. Of course, Adorable is not just a band trying to make one form of pop with the dream, jangle, and Brit. The Madchester style pops its head up from time to time, most brilliantly on “Sistine Chapel Ceiling” where the electronic-tinged guitar creates a crowded dance floor with its coded rhythms. All of this strengthens the lines you can draw from one style to the other, making bands like Oasis and The Chemical Brothers feel more like second cousins in a scene rather than strangers. There’s a great track-by-track analysis written by vocalist Pete Fijalkowski back in 2013 that touches down on this thought, and it also shines some light on the other aspects that made Adorable so alluring in their short time together: the lyrical depth, melodic force, distorted rhythms, and a well-defined sense of musical kinship that made them fit in nicely with any beloved British band from that time.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
These Semi Feelings, They Are Everywhere by dné
Chosen By Chelsea Kostrey