Miki Berenyi, the lead singer of England's Lush, would like to light a fire beneath the rather placid audiences she's encountered of late. "A lot of people who've been coming to see us in America are 4AD fans," she says, referring to Lush's label, an imprint known for the ethereal nature of its acts. "And to be honest, I can't fucking stand them. There's a lot of just standing around, a lot of respectful adulation. I think we're going to have to start getting out some cattle prods."
These are strong words, especially considering that most stateside observers see Lush as a typical 4AD band. Moreover, this reputation is not entirely unfounded. On the combo's 1990 debut, a collection of EPs and singles dubbed Gala, and 1992's Spooky, Berenyi, co-vocalist/guitarist Emma Anderson, drummer Chris Acland and bassist Steve Rippon (since replaced by Phil King) created melodic pop that was nearly lost in a sea of swirling guitars and dreamy vocals. The result was a beautiful morass that helped define England's "shoegazer" movement. Lush rocked a bit harder than the Cocteau Twins (4AD's signature outfit), but there remained a connection between the two groups: Robin Guthrie, the Twins' guitarist, produced both Gala and Spooky.
Things have changed since then. On 1994's Split and last year's Lovelife, Berenyi and her crew ditched much of the hypnoticism of their past and upped the rock ante, producing Brit-pop with a bite. Witness Lovelife's first single, the infectious "Ladykiller." On that track, Berenyi spits out the lines "When it comes to men like you/I know the score/I've heard it all before" against a backdrop of tight, thoroughly undistorted guitars and sassy hand-clapping. Other highlights include "Ciao!," a spaghetti-Western-style duet with Pulp's Jarvis Cocker ("It's been a year since I flew the coop/I can't believe I fell for such a loser like you") and the rollicking "500," distinguished by its memorable "Swing, baby, swing" chorus.
For Berenyi, the change in direction was a necessity. "I kind of look back at Spooky and say there was stuff on it that was really very good, but it was a flawed album," she concedes. "And Split--the people who say that record wasn't up to it, that's bollocks. I'm very proud of that record. It just didn't get a lot of backing.
"I don't really want to slag off everything we did before," she continues, "but what was lacking was a certain energy we had live. So it was a conscious decision" to toughen up the Lush approach. "Although," she notes, "it's still not really a live sound. It's not like playing with Steve Albini and that's the end of it."
Instead, the band chose Pete Bartlett, its live sound engineer, to oversee Lovelife--and he succeeded in motivating the players to show off muscles they'd never previously displayed. Meanwhile, Berenyi and Anderson looked inward for lyrical inspiration. Most observers feel that rants against arrogant men dominate the results, although Berenyi disputes this viewpoint. "Writers tend to focus on that, but that's just tabloid journalism: bloody simplistic headline-grabbing," she grouses. "I was having a conversation with a woman from Warner's who works with Alanis Morissette, and she said writers were always asking Alanis, 'Do you hate men?' And that's ridiculous. Of course you have your mates and your blokes you go around with. It's just sort of a couple of experiences that we've all had."
Just as disturbing to the musicians was the royal blowoff they received in their native U.K. a couple of years ago. Split, for example, was ignored almost entirely; despite an excellent lead single, the bouncy "Hyprocrite," it failed to chart in Britain and was roundly dismissed by critics there. In the United States, meanwhile, the platter sold only 50,000 copies. "We weren't very fashionable at that time," Berenyi notes. "I think maybe these things go around in cycles. There was a point where people really just wanted to put the knife in us and be done with us."
That time has passed. "Single Girl," Lovelife's first British single, has become the collective's first Top 30 hit. The band is now rubbing shoulders with such English superstars as Oasis, Blur and Elastica--a radical departure from the dream-poppers (like My Bloody Valentine, Curve and Ride) with whom Lush was once lumped. "In Britain, the attitude right now is, 'Finally, there are some good bands'--that Pulp and Blur and Oasis have revolutionized the scene," Berenyi points out. "And that's not true. But after the last few years, it is good to see some proper working bands doing good work. What you usually get on the charts in Britain is sort of mindless, faceless European dance music. It's really an amalgam of rubbish. So when you get someone with some bloody personality, it's refreshing."
Someone like herself, perhaps? Berenyi laughs as she answers, "Maybe."
Lush, with Mojave 3 and Scheer. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $14.70, 830-2525 or 800-444-
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