To Here Knows When
Thrushes keeps the shoegaze flame burning all these years later
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Thrushes know they're about 15 years late to the shoegaze party. After all, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive, and other seminal loud-quiet-loud drone-pop groups were pioneering the sound while all four members of Thrushes were still in high school. Echoes of all of the above are in the local band's dreamy, feedback-drenched debut, Sun Come Undone, but more often than not Thrushes occupies a nebulous sonic space all its own: Think Mogwai fronted by Mary Timony, with Phil Spector at the mixing desk. It's also the kind of band that begins an interview with five minutes of genuine concern about the lead singer's pet goldfish, before offering you a plate of homemade brownies.
All old acquaintances and regulars at the long-defunct Small Intestine and recently departed Talking Head, Casey Harvey (guitar), Rachel Tracy (bass), Matt Davis (drums), and Anna Conner (vocals/guitar) have an affable, accomplished air about them as they lounge on Conner's sofa, and rightly so. Recorded in local label Morphius Records' basement studio less than a year after the band's Valentine's Day 2006 live debut, Sun Come Undone is an admirable attempt to amp up the levels of Thrushes' signature oceanic wall-of-sound. It also marks the first time that the band was able to actually hear itself play.
'We play pretty loud, and there's a lot going on, so we usually don't get to hear the whole song,' Harvey says somewhat sheepishly. An effects-pedal connoisseur, he's the band's only self-professed shoegaze fan. 'We sound a little bigger than I thought we would and a lot better. When you listen to a lot of the records from Phil Spector's era, that stuff always has a warm undercurrent to it, as opposed to that shiny, shiny Motown sound. So that's what we were going for, and I think we got it.'
'I think recording really made us learn how to play our own songs,' Conner adds. 'When you make a mistake live you just keep going, but in the studio that can be really time-consuming.'
Conner's distinctive little-girl-lost vocals and lyrics'often barely audible live'prove to be Sun Come Undone's most pleasant surprise. Standout track 'Heartbeats' comes on like a cross between David Bowie's 'Heroes' and the Jesus and Mary Chain's 'Just Like Honey.' Hearts are a recurring theme: 'Your heart is cold,' 'Oh, my heart is full.' And album closer 'The Hardest Part,' which features the simple, repeated refrain 'This is the hardest part/ You've gotta let it go,' provides listeners with ample room for personal identification. This is music to mope to, tailor-made for darkened bedrooms and lonely late-night drives.
'Some of them are about relationships, but then most songs are, aren't they?' Conner coyly offers. The band writes the music as a group, and the lyrics come after she's lived with that music for a while. 'Some of the songs remind me of fairy tales or something gory, like gothic fairy tales, and that evokes a mood. And sometimes it's really sad, and Matt cries a little bit.'
A few tracks, like 'New Year's Kiss' and 'Ghost Train,' are largely instrumental, showcasing lots of tension, release, and full-barreled three-guitar bluster. But despite the dark atmosphere of Thrushes' music, the band spends a considerable amount of time goofing around, usually at their drummer's expense. During late-night sessions in Morphius' 19th-century rowhouse headquarters'also Conner's home, shared with label head David Andler'the band conspired to convince Davis that the whole place was haunted.
'The servants lived up here,' Conner says, gesturing at her apartment. 'God knows how many people died in here! That door's over 100 years old.'
'And it has children's handprints on it, doesn't it?' Davis asks, laughing. 'I believed them for, like, five minutes, 100 percent.'
The recent demise of the Talking Head has hit Thrushes particularly hard. Along with bands like Squaaks, local backwoods rockers Baby Aspirin, and the Gold-Bug, Thrushes had found a niche at the Davis Street club. 'There aren't a lot of small rooms to play in Baltimore,' Conner says. 'The Lo-Fi Social Club is a really great place. Hopefully that does well.'
Still, as perhaps Baltimore's lone shoegaze band, they're often the odd group out on bills featuring postpunks, folk duos, or, oddly enough, gothy alt-rock band Rasputina. 'We get kind of a weird crowd,' Harvey admits. 'I think our demographic is people who don't go to shows anymore. I think we go over well out of town, better than we do here.'
'It's really hard to attract interest when you're playing with poppier bands,' Conner says. 'I love pop music, don't get me wrong. I mean, 'Hips Don't Lie.' But crowds are fickle. People show up for one band, then go home. I feel like when we play with Baby Aspirin it's more fun, because we're not playing pop music, and neither are they.'
Despite the absence of a local shoegaze scene'or any shoegaze scene, for that matter'Thrushes are eager to play more out-of-town shows, with the eventual pipe dream of playing in Japan or Europe. 'I guess we'll just keep playing until we don't feel like it,' Conner says. 'Unless anybody wants to move, or have a baby.'