By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
England's Pale Saints believe that much of today's music is the aural equivalent of junk food: simple, predictable and with little nutritional value. By comparison, the Saints' body of work is subtle yet sublime, artsy yet unpretentious--and all but impossible to categorize. "It gives me headaches to try to analyze the band," drummer Chris Cooper admits. "But I hope it's evocative. We do try to cover a range of moods. Music should make you dance or cry or whatever...We like to explore all the possibilities."
On their latest release, Slow Buildings, they do: This eleven-track compendium of feelings lends credence to the theory that some things, such as sentiment, are not so easily defined. For example, "King Fade," the album's first song, kicks off with an interesting percussive rhythm marked by slow plunks and echoes that may remind listeners of Dead Can Dance--an act that, like the Saints, records for the 4AD label. But rather than building on this tribal beat throughout the song, the Saints (Cooper, guitarist Graeme Naysmith, guitarist/vocalist Meriel Barham and bassist Colleen Browne) generate an intense collage of sounds ranging from blaring trumpets to whispers that chirp maddeningly in the background. The resulting four minutes and seventeen seconds can be read as either pure exaltation or the deepest despair. Other tracks on the album, including the melancholy, downright folksy "One Blue Hill" and the languid, harsh "Under Your Nose," seem like soundtrack selections for a manic day. The only constant is a disinterest in formulas. "We're a rock band with a bit of a twist," Cooper says. "I hate guitar solos."
The group was formed in 1988 by Cooper, Naysmith and bassist/ vocalist Ian Masters. The trio's early work was reminiscent of the music made by what were then the members' favorite bands--most notably Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But the threesome soon began experimenting with song structures (according to Cooper, "We got weirder") in a manner that caught the attention of 4AD. After a couple of critically acclaimed releases, including their full-length debut, The Comforts of Madness, the Saints added Barham as a second guitarist and co-vocalist. When Masters left the band following the 1992 release In Ribbons, Browne came aboard, and Barham, a onetime English literature major who'd been the lead singer of Lush, became the band's main vocalist.
Barham confirms that Masters's departure marked something of a turning point for the Saints. "The whole atmosphere in the band is a lot more positive and constructive now," she notes. "Toward the end of the last record and tour, it became obvious that Ian was going off in a different direction. He wanted to slow the songs down and make them more atmospheric. We're still interested in doing that ourselves, but he was becoming less tolerant of working with other people's ideas."
Fortunately, Barham's elevation to lead vocalist has proven to be a plus; her vulnerability is matched by an inner strength that makes her work quite moving. That she writes the Saints' lyrics adds to the individualized nature of her delivery. A case in point is Buildings' wrenching, eleven-minute opus "Henry," which features a chorus that Barham transforms with her shrill, inarticulate wail. Her emotion is obvious, but the content of the composition is a mystery. "`Henry' is intensely personal," Barham says, "and I feel very emotional performing it. But for the most part, people can't understand what I'm saying. In a way, you want audiences to hear what you're singing, but also you don't. It's a very bizarre setup, doing something so private in the most public way you can. That really appeals to me."
Appropriately, the Saints' repertoire of covers contains some memorable contradictions. The performers have mastered a pleasantly chilling rendition of Slap Happy's "Blue Flower," a song introduced to them by Mazzy Star, but their latest tour also finds them performing an ethereal version of Nancy Sinatra's gaudy classic "Kinky Love," a tune they originally recorded for the import-only EP Flesh Balloon. "That song is really different for us," Barham concedes. "It's so kitsch--it's not what people expect."
But upending fans' expectations is only one of the Saints' goals. "I think that when you go see a band live or you listen to them on record and they really exhilarate you to some sort of emotion, that's a really good achievement," Barham says. "It would be a great compliment if we encouraged someone to write their own stuff or start a band or whatever. I want the music to make a difference in their lives."