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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Pale Saints' In Ribbons
Jonathan Thornton , October 6th, 2023 09:23

Pale Saints' In Ribbons was a tantalising snapshot what could have been but can be celebrated today for being a dream pop, psychedelic masterpiece, says Jonathan Thornton

“Our ambivalence towards pop music expresses itself in a kind of sinister whimsy.” So Peter Blegvad describes Slapp Happy in the 1993 CD reissue of Casablanca Moon / Desperate Straights. But he could just have easily been talking about Pale Saints, who would cover Slapp Happy’s song ‘Blue Flower’ on the CD version of their 1992 album In Ribbons. Pale Saints may have first heard ‘Blue Flower’ via the Mazzy Star cover version, but it’s fitting that they wound up referencing Slapp Happy’s deeply eccentric, gorgeous psychedelic chamber pop on their second album, an album where the Saints’ fuzzed-out psychedelic shoegaze sound exploded into eccentric, gorgeous psychedelic chamber pop. The first album Pale Saints recorded after Meriel Barham, Lush’s original vocalist, joined the band, In Ribbons boasts a warmer and fuller sound than the band’s debut The Comforts Of Madness, and displays greater musical confidence and complexity. It should have been the start of great things, but bassist and vocalist Ian Masters, Pale Saints’ brilliant but mercurial visionary, quit, leaving it as the only album recorded by this line up. Over thirty years later, 4AD are reissuing the album, and listened to today it reveals the brilliance of Pale Saints’ off kilter pop vision, even as it leaves the listener wondering what could have been.

“We were never prolific, so working on other people’s songs helped relieve those tensions and give us something constructive to do,” says Ian Masters in Facing The Other Way, Martin Aston’s history of 4AD. Pale Saints’ recorded output is punctuated by striking cover versions. On The Comforts Of Madness, their incendiary cover of Opal’s ‘Fell From The Sun’ highlighted the parallels between the shoegazing scene inhabited by Pale Saints and the Paisley Underground, emphasizing the importance of psychedelia both classic and current on their sound. The band’s last ever recording was a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Jersey Girl’ for the Waits tribute album Step Right Up. Their cover of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Kinky Love’, a demo of which makes an appearance amongst the bonus tracks here, showcased Barham’s deep-grained vocals, a textural contrast to Masters’ striking pure choirboy tone. In this reissue, ‘Blue Flower’ likewise appears as a demo bonus track rather than in the album proper, but it provides a roadmap to the album’s aesthetics and intentions, not only reinforcing the link between Pale Saints and the Paisley Underground by embellishing Mazzy Star’s arrangement but emphasizing the band’s alignment with a pre-punk tradition of psychedelic pop and whimsy.

In 1992, Pale Saints were dreampop royalty. The Comforts Of Madness was the album that 4AD chose to open the new decade of the 90s with. That album remains a classic of shoegaze, but with its scratchy bursts of Gang Of Four-esque guitar scree and the dulcimer arrangements on ‘Little Hammer’, it’s clear that the band were already straining at the boundaries of the genre. In Ribbons leaps further into inventively arranged chamber pop. This is immediately apparent in tracks like ‘Ordeal’, where twinkling glockenspiels accentuate the song’s breezy melody. Opener and lead single ‘Throwing Back The Apple’ benefits greatly from Barham’s guitar and backing vocals, fizzing along to a pulsing beat like Stereolab, who would release their debut album Peng! mere months after. ‘Shell’ is a delicate acoustic ballad quite unlike anything on the debut, with Masters’ mournful vocals bolstered by a rich cello arrangement. And closer ‘A Thousand Stars Burst Open’ is an elegiac combination of shoegaze noise and delicate string arrangement reminiscent of Kitchens Of Distinction’s Strange Free World, which came out the year before.

Pale Saints’ compositional complexity reaches its peak with album centrepiece ‘Hunted’, a six-and-a-half minute prog rock workout in 5/4 time with driving guitars and paranoid lyrics. Here Pale Saints channel not just Slapp Happy, but it’s possible to hear echoes of Canterbury scene prog eccentrics like Caravan. Instrumental interludes link the songs, a trick the band keep from The Comforts Of Madness, but on In Ribbons it seems less a gimmick and more a compositional choice of recapitulation and variation, especially when the galloping guitar riff from ‘Hunted’ makes a minor key reappearance towards the end of side two.

For Blegvad’s approach to pop, there must be the sinister to counterbalance the whimsical. This manifests throughout the record in Masters’ cryptic lyrics, which are always hinting at depths of madness and despair even when married to the Saints’ prettiest melodies. However it is with ‘Hair Shoes’, the dark heart of the album, that shoegaze’s ecstasy finally brims over into outright nausea. “Never knew that I could be so ill,” moans Masters, over woozy guitars which only burst into clarity to deliver a siren-like wail. The song is deeply disconcerting, revealing the nightmare hidden at the heart of shoegaze’s blissed-out dream, previously only explored in My Bloody Valentine’s ‘No More Sorry’ from Isn’t Anything. Opening side two, it forms a sinister pivot around which the entire album revolves. Similarly, ‘Neverending Night’ buckles and weaves on oceanic drifts of sound, over which delicate mournful guitars shimmer whilst Masters laments, “But now I look, you’re disappearing,” sounding resigned to the inevitability of loss.

The album also benefits from three songs sung by Barham, providing a counterpoint to Masters’ creative vision. Barham also balances the whimsical with the sinister, but brings a sharper anger to her songs, recalling the feminist concerns of her old bandmates in Lush, with lyrics taking to task disappointing boyfriends, albeit more obliquely. ‘Thread Of Light’ sets her vocals singing regretful lyrics against shimmering guitar and a gorgeous melody interspersed with bursts of muscular dissonant guitar. ‘Liquid’ distorted buzz and cryptic lyrics again recall early Stereolab, whilst ‘Featherframe’ is built around a catchy guitar hook that bursts into angry distortion. Her songs would have been highlights on Lush’s Spooky, which had come out earlier that year, and anticipate the heights her old band would reach on Split, their finest album.

In Ribbons reached number 10 in the independent album charts and number 61 in the UK albums charts, and should have been the start of the Saints’ golden period. Unfortunately Masters had a strong dislike of touring and, despite the brilliance of In Ribbons, had effectively left the band by the time of its release, citing ‘musical boredom’. Pale Saints would go on to record only one more album, 1994’s Slow Buildings. With Barham taking over lead songwriting duties and the rest of the band keen to prove themselves in the wake of Masters’ absence, the album is a perfectly decent collection of expansive shoegaze songs that inevitably suffers in comparison to the chaotic brilliance of the Masters era. Masters himself would go on to form Spoonfed Hybrid with Chris Trout from A.C. Temple, who released a single self-titled album in 1993, beating the new line up of Pale Saints to the punch. It’s much more of a sequel and development of the ideas on In Ribbons than Slow Buildings. The Spoonfed Hybrid album is a gloriously bizarre record, with Masters and Trout further exploring electronic and orchestral arrangements for their eccentric dreampop songs. By expanding out from the edge of shoegaze, it approaches the abstraction of Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk, and like Slowdive’s similarly underrated Pygmalion, released two years later, it hints at an alternate future where shoegaze evolved into post rock.

Listened to today, In Ribbons stands as one of the high watermarks of 4AD’s dreampop aesthetic, a psychedelic pop album that draws on both pre and post punk psychedelic traditions to synthesise something entirely new. The album’s lush mixture of delicate guitar, churning feedback and chamber pop inventiveness paved the way for later 4AD groups like Blonde Redhead, whose 2004 album Misery Is A Butterfly, which similarly mixes the whimsical with the sinister to great effect, is almost a post-millennial reflection of In Ribbons. And in its attempts to stretch the boundaries of shoegaze, one can hear Masters reaching out towards a next big thing that never quite arrived. Even as it sounds like the beginning of something that was never quite delivered, the album’s melodic invention and playful approach to the sinister continue to charm and inspire. If the Pale Saints themselves were never able to reap their just rewards from In Ribbons, at least we as listeners can.

In Ribbons is out today via 4AD