The Boo Radleys - Giant Steps
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Proving that not all bands from Liverpool have influences that stop at The Beatles, The Boo Radleys’ third album is their undeniable classic, a wistful, exciting and perfectly-formed journey through a colourful musical universe. Formed in 1988 by school-friends Martin Carr and Sice as a vehicle for Carr’s songwriting and Sice’s angelic choirboy voice, the Boos meandered through Ichabod & I and Everything’s Alright Forever, two competent but uninspiring albums of My Bloody Valentine-derived guitar pop, before creating Giant Steps, their genre-bending and stellar zenith.
Stealing its name from John Coltrane and its melodies from the purest pop heaven can muster, Giant Steps saw The Boo Radleys taking hold of everything they loved about music, throwing it in a big box, shaking it around and then letting it back out again in weird and wonderful new forms that only they could have come up with. Weighing in at a bloated seventeen tracks and 64 minutes, the album ought to be a chore but isn’t, simply because there’s so much going on, so many ideas, so many hooks.
Essentially Giant Steps is an album of simple, well-crafted pop songs, but they are embellished and fleshed out in such marvellous, creative ways, and twist and turn in such weird and wonderful directions that they are transformed into something rather more absorbing and special. The Boo Radleys seem to throw almost everything at Martin Carr’s songs to see what sticks, from Beach Boys hooks to Loveless scree and back again via reggae, jazz and Dinosaur Jr., each song designed to be “a room with many doors”, or full of other, little songs. The epochal “Lazarus” both achieves and encompasses the band’s ambitions in spectacular style, phasing in on a gorgeous dub skank, drifting through acoustic reveries and exploding in a wordless chorus of technicolour guitar noise and heavenly brass, the sound of a life dumbstruck by glorious God-baiting noise.
The synergy between trumpet and guitar is a major key to the success of Giant Steps, both instruments veering between polar extremes. Steve Kitchen’s trumpet emits Motown-esque melodies at some points, and honks like Miles Davis’ most freeform jazz at others, while Martin Carr divides his guitar between simple pop riffs and exhilarating cacophonous squall. The two sides of Martin’s guitar are probably best illustrated by the sweet pop of “Wish I Was Skinny” with its simple melody and swirling fairground keyboards, and the post-MBV feedback of “Leaves And Sand”. The former is innocuous bubblegum pop, beguiling and sweet, while the latter lulls you with faint acoustic strumming before pummelling you senseless with gorgeous layered noise.
How many wonderful things are there about Giant Steps? Too many to mention. Hidden in the cover artwork are a couple of giraffes. Faye Dunaway is harmoniously mentioned in one song, and no one seems to know why. There are songs about love, about God and his tendency to not exist, about childhood dreams coming true. There are songs with handclaps. There are songs about the victims of infamous racial attacks, which are dedicated to dead comedians. There are songs about being afraid of flying. There are songs about being full of beer and songs about being full of drugs. There are songs with clarinets and songs with cellos and there are songs with guitars that sound like clouds. There are songs about listening to The Beatles. There are songs about so many things and not one of them is dull.
Few albums manage to be so expansive, so personal, so excitingly imaginative and so joyously pop all at the same time, but The Boo Radleys managed it here. This is a record about being a young man in a strange, sad and sometimes wonderful world, tired of injustice and fed-up of platitudes, a record about racing for the prize, catching dreams and smashing prejudices. This is a record about realising that what you were told was “normal” is actually abnormal and unnatural, a record about stepping outside and grabbing the world. “If you want it, take it all / there’s nothing cool about / having to go without...”
If you’re lucky, this is one of the most wonderful records you will ever hear.