A Fine Hour with The Sundays


On a whim, I threw a CD I hadn’t listened to in ages into the car stereo, just before heading to Ann Arbor recently to hang with friends for the weekend and see Ornette Coleman (who, by the way, is one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet). After three wildly different CDs—Aztec Camera’s Dreamland, Ron Sexsmith’s Other Songs and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, this neglected recording’s turn in the rotation came. And when it did, I was astonished by how chillingly beautiful it was.

The item being discussed is Reading, Writing & Arithmetic, the debut CD from the Manchester band the Sundays. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic CD CoverI first heard them back in 1989, when I was still a fairly new employee at Discovery Discs, a place that for years was my haven on the Penn campus. When I got to work one day, one of the managers told me that he had a new CD that, given my love for the Cocteau Twins, he knew I’d adore. I borrowed the store copy that night and took it home for a listen.

I could immediately understand the comparison. Dave Gavurin’s fondness for chorused, delayed guitars washed in reverb alongside Harriet Wheeler’s high, liquid vocals would strike anyone as similar to what they might hear from the CTs. But, as you might suspect, I was less impressed by their similarities to one of my cherished favorites than I was by their differences. I admittedly didn’t immediately like Wheeler’s almost childish, pouty delivery, and I thought that the songs were too texturally sparse—even though they did use density to great effect at climactic moments. But tucking those two complaints away and trying to listen to the band without the comparison opened up something wonderful.

As a result, I spent the majority of 1990 (probably up until the release of the CT’s Heaven or Las Vegas in September) absolutely wearing out the CD. Back then, my favorites were probably “You’re not the Only One,” “A Certain Someone” and the tune that was apparently most popular Stateside “Here’s Where the Story Ends.” But picking favorites would have seemed silly to me even then, given how much I loved every song on the recording. The sequencing, too, was absolutely masterful, from the softly screeching guitar that starts things to the elegiac decay of the last chord.

Revisiting the recording, I’m struck by some of the more subtle elements that eluded me earlier. Among them, and this is true of Blind as well, the simultaneous softness and crispness of the hi-hat sounds draw me in a way that’s almost sensual. Probably from being weaned partially on funk and jazz records, I’m a sucker for clipped, rhythmically propulsive hi-hat playing. On this record, the function and articulation are the same, though deployed for different ends. And the warmness with which that normally sharp sound is processed—almost as though it were eq’d for maximum post-attack crash-like shimmer—is lushly inviting.

I could prattle on endlessly about the refreshing variety of song structures, the way in which the bass functions more as a dramatic element than as a foundation, Wheeler’s lyrical and melodic flourishes (especially in “My Finest Hour”—my new favorite), the tasteful use of twelve-string guitars, and, above all, the electric guitar sounds. And, without even being pressed, I could marvel at Wheeler’s way of delivering some of the most maudlin, reflective lyrics I’ve heard. You might catch a hint of sadness, but it would never emerge so clearly as to really take you down. But it’s much more than a hint. It’s there in nearly every song. Who’s being addressed and what exactly is being said in “A Certain Someone”? Or, in “You’re not the Only One,” how convinced is she the addressee isn’t really the only one? For that matter, give “My Finest Hour” a close listen. How better to describe how complicated it can be to keep loving someone who ultimately isn’t what you want?

But I keep hoping you are the same as me

And I’ll send you letters and come to your house for tea

We are who we are

What do the others know?

But poetry is not for me

So show me the way to go…

Just listening to the way she sings the words “you’re too young” around 3:15 is enough to make the tears come, if they aren’t already flowing.

I write all of this not to describe a depressing listen, but to highlight what is so alluring about this recording. It caresses you and draws you in, making you so comfortable that its reminders about the bleakness and absurdity of life and love don’t hit you as hard as they might. In my mind, that’s a pretty amazing thing for a recording to do.

And so, even though there were more goodies awaiting my ears on the drive, I opted to forego them. I had to give that CD another listen…

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