Carved in Stone
The single album legacy of Young Marble Giants
If the Ramones' biggest influence was Brian Eno's Another Green World, they might have made an album like Welsh trio Young Marble Giants' 1980 Colossal Youth. It doesn't exactly kick off with a bang. In fact, it starts with 15 seconds of silence, followed by a cheap drum machine fading in. Its metronome ticking is joined by rhythm guitar, Alison Statton's clear, sedate--defiantly pretty--vocals, and a bass line of spare two-note sequences. In less than a minute, Young Marble Giants lay out the parameters of their sound, letting you know that they're in no rush.
Stripped almost bare, their sound draws on the minimalist aesthetic of early punk bands. Even the mix is egalitarian, usually placing guitar, organ, and bass at the same volume. No song on Colossal Youth is longer than three and a half minutes, and several clock at less than two minutes. Yet Young Marble Giants also drew on less hip sources than punk, almost comically so. Their 1981 Testcard EP was inspired by BBC Muzak, described by the band as "instrumentals in praise and celebration of mid-morning television music."
As such, in some ways the band brought together punk and easy listening, deliberately courting kitsch in their use of keyboards and drum machine, which sounds more like a metronome than a call to the dance floor. Yet, their music is too anxious and Statton's vocals too prominent to find a place in the ambient canon.
In 1980, a time dominated by musical submission and catharsis, no one else managed this combination of stress and bliss. Despite the Young Marble Giants' influence--which stretches beyond the music world: Portuguese director Pedro Costa borrowed "colossal youth" for the English title of his 2006 movie Juventude Em Marcha--no one sounds much like them in 2007 either. In the history books, Young Marble Giants' sole brush with fame may have come with Hole's 1994 cover of "Credit in the Straight World," but Courtney Love's ham-fisted mangling suggests that she never understood the original, burying the delicate ironies of the lyrics' conflation of banking and drug dealing and abandoning the subtle alienation of Statton's voice in favor of crude anger.
This modest but ambitious music is now enshrined on a three-CD box set (Domino), though Colossal Youth has already been reissued several times, a testament to the record's footprint on music. The original album comprises the first CD here, while the second disc compiles the Testcard EP, their 1979 "Final Day" seven-inch single, a compilation track, and the Salad Days demo collection. The third disc offers up a five-song, 12-minute Peel session. Everything here has been previously released, but never before has it all been offered in one place. While the box set is full of great music, it's a shame that the bonus materials don't add much to the band or album's legacy.
With the benefit of 27 years of hindsight, you begin to hear elements of 1980's musical trends in Colossal Youth. Stuart Moxham's scratchy guitar rarely plays anything resembling a lead, and certainly nothing like a solo. He created this staccato style--almost entirely devoid of melody and sustain--by resting his hands on the strings as he strummed them. The prominence of Philip Moxham's bass owes something both to Joy Division and dub; it's no surprise that his then-girlfriend, Statton, later served up a memorable cover of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" with Ian Devine. Evoking singers like Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson, her voice suggests that she might have fronted a folk-rock band in 1970 if she were 10 years older. If the music draws subtly on funk and reggae, Statton's vocals sound thoroughly English and devoid of R&B-derived grit.
Although, for the most part, she sang lyrics written by Stuart Moxham, Colossal Youth stripped the machismo from rock. The band's minimalist framework could easily have worn thin over an entire album, but it's varied enough in mood and sound to sustain one's attention for 38 minutes. "Include Me Out," full of distorted guitar, comes closest to rocking out, while "Brand - New - Life" plays like the Young Marble Giants' answer to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," as Statton muses, "And so I make a brand-new life/ Fashioned out of brand-new strife." It's almost anthemic. The band's emotional palette, though, was generally muted. Moxham's lyrics challenge the conventions of the love song, twisting them toward the surreal or philosophical. "N.I.T.A." muses on a breakup then opines, "Nature intended the abstract for you and me."
Less impressive than Colossal Youth, the second disc of this box set offers an alternate take on the band. Testcard suggests how it might have developed had it made a second album. The six brief songs experiment with new instrumentation--piano, acoustic guitar--but suffer from the absence of Statton. "Final Day" is undoubtedly the prettiest song ever written about nuclear apocalypse. And Salad Days demonstrates just how crucial Dave Anderson's clear production was to Colossal Youth. Offering early versions of many album cuts, they sound far less powerful with murkier sound. Salad Days also serves up a number of songs not available elsewhere, but tracks such as "The Taxi" and "The Man Shares His Meal With His Beast" are organ- and drum machine-driven instrumentals that sound like rough drafts for abandoned songs. "Loop the Loop"--one of the few that feels complete--is the only song whose presence might have enhanced Colossal Youth.
At once, Colossal Youth seems to epitomize the freedoms offered by postpunk and transcend its period. The music still sounds like it came out of nowhere, even if its influences have become clearer.
Young Marble Giants achieved a small measure of commercial success while together--Colossal Youth was the second-biggest seller in original label Rough Trade's early years, behind Stiff Little Fingers' Inflammable Material--although it didn't make the same impact in the U.S. at the time. They broke up in 1981, in part due to the breakup of Statton and Philip Moxham, with Statton going on to form the Astrud Gilberto-inspired, anti-rockist Weekend. The bonus materials appended to this box set may not be mind-blowing--making you wonder if the band would have continued to be anything close to what they were in the beginning--but Colossal Youth and "Final Day" remain masterpieces.
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