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The Boston Phoenix, September, 1997
Making a Wish
Catherine Wheel's Adam and Eve is sonic-pop godhead
by Ted Drozdowski
There's a shortage of rock visionaries these days. Sure, we've still got Dylan and Neil Young flying their '60s flags. Seventies trailblazers Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, and Stevie Wonder occasionally resurface. And R.E.M. and U2 hum on as the powerhouses of the '80s. But the '90s? Well, if someone's taking nominations, make mine Catherine Wheel. (We'll see who emerges from the electronica camp after the shakeout.) For the past six years they've crept into the pop-music world like the fog that snuggles up to their hometown of Great Yarmouth, on England's Norfolk coast, winning fans -- albeit a handful at a time -- with a heady blend of fresh sounds and smartly written songs.
While Oasis and Blur have been leafing through the Beatles' handbook to mop up in the Brit-pop export market, Catherine Wheel have been defining their own architecture over four albums and an England-only EP. And now they've built an Emerald City with sparkling rainbow-colored fountains of guitar, arrangements that rise and fall with the resolute authority of urban bluffs and canyons, and lyrics that slash to the heart of our shaky-legged culture. And they've called it Adam and Eve (Mercury).
"I glow with pride over this record," says Catherine Wheel guitarist Brian Futter. "This is so complete." Indeed, Adam and Eve is such a fleshy, cohesive -- and trippy -- work that it merits comparison with one of the greatest albums of the '70s: Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. Adam and Eve is dappled with the same cynicism and hope, the same sonic exploration within the framework of pop, a similar devotion to simple song structures, and a mix of keyboards and acoustic and electric guitars that creates a sense of scope more generous than a mere electric-guitar album's.
Not that loud electric guitars haven't served Catherine Wheel well. In fact, it made their debut US album, Ferment, sound like nothing else on modern-rock radio in 1992. Catherine Wheel's firestorm of rich guitar harmonics -- the product of playing loud and bright and distorted enough to create a glorious spray of sound -- conjured visions of a sleek, cyber-rock future on the breakthrough "Black Metallic." It was the kind of radio song that made you want to pull your car to the side of the road and bliss out.
The next year, Chrome added more spaciousness and muscle to their trick bag. "Crank" crafted beauty from slowed tempos and added harmony to harmonics. The title track and "Show Me Mary" tapered their visions to the proper length and drive of classic pop. Happy Days bundled all their virtues into a tight package in '95. "Waydown" was the catchy little number with enough TNT to crack MTV's eroding walls. "Little Muscle" and "God Inside My Head" dropped the hammer on any questions about Catherine Wheel's ability to rock hard as American grungesters, without sacrificing the sonic fireworks of their guitars. "Judy Staring at the Sun," which teamed singer Rob Dickinson with Belly's Tanya Donelly, also punched at the Seattle-bred aesthetic with its addiction-bummer lyrics. Best of all was "Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck," which caught all their virtues -- huge dynamics, a psychedelic whirligig of sounds, Rob Dickinson's acutely expressive voice, drop-dead rhythmic precision -- in one honeyed tab of vitriol.
This time out, those qualities abound in every song, whether the tune is packing the prizefighter's muscularity of "Broken Nose," riding a wave of contemplative dignity like "Phantom of the American Mother," or again walking the wire between sweet and sour like the single "Delicious." "We all love this record so much more than anything else we've done," says drummer Neil Sims. His three mates nod their heads and grunt agreement as we talk about Adam and Eve and the band's future in a corporate-clean conference room at their label's New York City offices. "I think everything we tried to do we got 95-to-100 percent close to. I would gladly go in and make this record again exactly how we did it."
Indeed, Adam and Eve's perfection owes much to the year-plus process of its creation. The album's birth was well underway as Like Cats and Dogs, a compilation of unreleased tracks from earlier recording sessions (including a cover of "Wish You Were Here"), was released, in the summer of '96. It took place in their chilly warehouse practice space, a few blocks away from the worn boardwalk amusement parks that have survived Great Yarmouth's heyday as a center of British tourism.
"We made a record that's a little island," explains guitarist/singer Dickinson. "We spent months writing and rehearsing 50 or 60 songs, then whittling them down to the 10 we really liked, as opposed to writing the songs, rushing in, and slapping them down on record. Happy Days was more like that. It was just songs we liked; they didn't have a relationship to each other necessarily. So it was a radically disparate record. Although not a concept record by any means, Adam and Eve is more of a purposeful thing."
The album's cohesion -- not only in its sonics but in its lyric themes of duplicity and estrangement (again, shades of Wish You Were Here) -- is especially surprising since three producers were involved. But Dickinson stresses that Bob Ezrin, Tim Friese-Greene, and Garth Richardson followed the band's blueprints. "After six months rehearsing in the studio, we knew exactly what the record should be. It was a dream really to have Bob, Tim, and Garth around just when we needed them, and not imposing themselves when we didn't. But there's no way we could have planned making the record like we did.
"We'd been involved with Bob before we started recording, in a basic-arrangement sort of way with the songs. I went to Los Angles and spent a few days with him playing these songs on acoustic guitar and rehearsal tapes, looking for some clarity on what songs were working and how they could be simplified. Bob has a talent for determining where people might get lost. He thinks of songs in a very narrative way, looking for a thread that he wants to see constantly, no matter how complex a song might be. He can tell if a U-turn somewhere is going to fox too many people. He came over to England for a few rehearsals, and we modified a few ideas. Then we began to cut the record and didn't see him for two and a half months . . . until we were mixing."
Garth Richardson and Dickinson produced most of the sessions for Adam and Eve with Catherine Wheel. "I think Garth knew it was going to be a departure for him," Dickinson relates. "When people heard we were working with him, they thought we were going to turn up the amps and make a Rage Against the Machine-type record, which wasn't the case at all. Garth was recommended as someone who could keep the project on track. And as it turned out, Tim [the ex-Talk Talk leader, who produced Ferment] got involved with the keyboards and ended up staying on. Since the keyboards are so pivotal to many of the songs on the record, we did a lot of basic tracks with Tim around -- and suddenly his ideas were coming in. It was a perfect extension of how we rehearsed the songs for the record; everybody had an opinion but we always came to a consensus."
Dickinson allows that "because of Bob's involvement, someone who was a Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel fan might hear things and say, `Oh, that's Bob's touch.' But the truth is, we're the ones who wanted to search for sound effects and unusual instrument sounds to give the songs a sense of place, rather than just plowing away on guitar."
One course taken was to bring in a cellist and, later, a vibes player. Each was told to improvise along to the band's recorded tracks, without ever having heard them before. "We jettisoned 95 percent of it, because it was rubbish, but the remaining five percent was really good. We used that for little overdubs; their playing became brilliant little parts."
Another standout sound is the head-snapping blurt of guitar snort that blasts from nowhere into the verse of "Thunderbird." "It was an accident that became a part," Dickinson attests. "We were putting a demo of `Thunderbird' on ADAT, and Brian was dropping in my guitar part, which began on a beat. But he pushed the `record' button too early, then realized what he'd done and left off. And there was this blast of noise, which was brilliant."
"There was a lot of good karma things with this record," Futter offers.
"To me," asserts bassist Dave Hawes," the title Adam and Eve is almost a new genesis for the band. We haven't toured for nearly two years, and with a record this strong, it's like starting over again."
"Yeah, it makes the idea of going out and playing this record -- which we're doing song by song -- not as daunting as touring had become," Sims adds.
"If this one doesn't do it for us, I don't really know if there will be another one that can," Hawes concludes. "We really feel that strongly about it."