SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES

OVERVIEW:
A very creative and forward thinking group. They are masters of atmosphere, and while their music isn’t always catchy or entertaining, it’s always intelligent and unique (save for some duffers at the very end of their career). I bow my head in respect to them – though they’ll never be one of my favorite bands.

THE ALBUMS:

The Scream *
Join Hands
Kaleidoscope
Juju *
A Kiss In The Dreamhouse
Hyaena
Nocturne
Tinderbox
Through The Looking Glass
Peepshow *
Superstition
The Rapture
Downside Up (Disc One)

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THE SCREAM   (1978)

A-

This band surprised the hell out of me. They aren’t a tuneless, “attitude-only” sorta group at all. Their debut happens to be a lean mean evil punk album with real vocal hooks and TONS of energy. Since Siouxsie is so routinely labeled the Godmother of Goth, I was expecting a lot more drone and a lot less fun than this album delivers. I was imagining an emphasis on atmosphere over songwriting. And yes, there’s some of that for sure. But this album is also very playful and it rocks pretty hard much of the time. Repetition is a big feature in this band, but with performances this intense, things never get boring. Siouxsie herself is like an even more vicious Patti Smith, and the guitar playing on here is so ugly and metallic! It works great. Every track is worthwhile, but my favorites are the menacing “Jigsaw Feeling,” the super fun and glam-punky “Carcass,” and “Metal Postcard,” with its herky jerky riff that manages to sound both goofy and evil at the same time. There’s also a slow punk version of “Helter Skelter!” This album falters for me mainly in the emotional stickiness department – it’s great while it’s playing, and it’s got a lot of sloppy enthusiasm, but it’s not the kind of thing I’m going to be thinking about too much when it’s over. But it’s a really REALLY solid debut record.

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JOIN HANDS  (1979)

B+

Siouxsie’s second album is quite underrated. There is one utterly gigantic flaw here, and that’s the 14 minute closer “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s a child of “Sister Ray” – a punk-jam without structure or melody. It’s basically just Siouxsie manically reciting a bunch of paranoid poetry and quotes and classic song lyrics while the band chunks away in a garage-Krautrock fashion. The sustaining of intensity is impressive – and I’m sure it was a crazy live number – but it’s really 14 minutes of dead time on a pop record (unless of course you find pop structures inherently lame – I know you assholes are out there). But the rest of this album (the first 7 songs) is just as good as the debut, and maybe even a bit BETTER. Certainly more unique. The sound is similar, but they’ve moved in a more post-punk direction. Things can get super abrasive and even atonal (the guitar tones are still piercing metallic shards), but the atmosphere and intensity is just awesome. “Regal Zone” is a weirdly entrancing song, with Siouxie singing what could be pop melodies if the band weren’t supporting her with a seriously nasty sounding arrangement. “Icon” is a powerful anthemic tune with a memorable chorus hook. “Placebo Effect” has a GREAT gothy punk guitar hook that just oozes with attitude and menace. “Playground Twist” was the single, and it’s probably the simplest rocker – though I find it a bit indistinct. And then there’s the eerie music-box experiment “Mother Oh Mein Pa Pa,” which sounds like a horror movie score and is appropriately creepy-as-fuck. So while some folks trash this album mercilessly – I wouldn’t trust them. It’s a got a lot of great performances and ideas.

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KALEIDOSCOPE  (1980)

B+

This was a VERY transitional album for the group. They brought in new guitarists (including awesome ex-MAGAZINE player John McGeoch), and changed their sound considerably. The playing is suddenly way tighter, and the production a lot more careful and artsy. Each side of this album opens with an AMAZING pop song. “Happy House,” is the catchiest Sioxsie song yet – it manages to sound fun and poppy, but also scary and unsettling – no small feat. The bass-line kills. The other one is “Christine,” which is just a great 60s sounding hook-filled little pop gem. Now, the placement of those two tracks was clearly intentional – the rest of the album is devoted mostly to atmospherics and experiments. But MAN did the other tracks grow on me! At first listen I found everything unformed and forgettable…but then I started realizing how dense and claustrophobic was the atmosphere on here. These guys are REALLY excellent mood-creators. And while none of the songs really do much for me as isolated compositions, the recordings and performances are quite impressive throughout. I’m a big fan of “Hybrid,” and “Desert Kisses,” and closer “Skin,” is intense as hell. This is the kind of album that creeps up on you – I wouldn’t be surprised if further listens revealed even more goodies in its creepy grooves.

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JUJU  (1981)

A

This is what I’d call an “apotheosis” record. On this platter, everything good about this band comes together with some of their best material, and it’s presented with a creative and poppy but still raw enough production that doesn’t betray their roots. This is easily their peak for me (and I think it’s generally agreed upon as such). Side A of this album just DESTROYS – that run of tunes alone makes this an 80s classic. The opener and single “Spellbound” employs all sorts of neat guitar and percussion tricks, and it creates a tightly wound atmosphere that never lets up. It’s also very catchy. ‘Into the Light” is a beautiful song with an AMAZING lead guitar line. John McGeoch shines all over this album. Then comes one of the band’s best ever singles: “Arabian Knights.” That’s one heavenly chorus there, kids. “Halloween”  has another great refrain, punky intensity, and some awesome guitar parts. “Monitor” is a bad-ass punk-funk beast with a heavy guitar groove and a bizarre but entrancing vocal hook (“Monitor…OUUUTside”). That’s an awesome 5 song sequence!!! Side B is a step down, but not a big one. “Sin in My Heart” is a chugging powerful paranoid rocker, and the scary “Head Cut,” has an incredible weirdo arrangement. That leaves the two most “atmospheric” numbers  – “Night Shift” and “Voodoo Dolly.” The former is a bit more of a real composition based around a fractured riff, while the latter (and album closer) is a slightly more controlled version of a “Lord’s Prayer” type jam (based on around one simple chromatic chord change). They’re both solid and interesting mood pieces, but a bit overlong and TOO repetitive (though repetition is a big part of all this band’s material). Anyway, this is a great album and the best thing this band would ever do – and also the place to start with them. AND it’s an argument for their being one of the best groups of the early 80s. And certainly the best “goth” band, whatever that means.

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A KISS IN THE DREAMHOUSE  (1982)

B+

See, this is why I like this band. They aren’t exactly fulfilling all of my personal “taste” requirements, but they are also totally forward-thinking – always challenging themselves and people’s perception of them. This is NOT a repeat of the previous peak (which I imagine they could have ATTEMPTED), but rather a move sideways into some weirder abstract territory. The arrangements on this album are suddenly much more intricate and “art-rocky,” and even reference some psychedelic elements at times (though those are fleeting moments, and this shouldn’t really be considered the “psychedelic” album it’s often described as). The album works well as a whole, and nothing grates at all, but it also doesn’t really have any particularly stand-out songs. The band has moved into a dreamier, almost Kate Bush-like territory here, and there’s little of their punk roots left in the sound. The opener “Cascade” is one of the best songs here – Siouxsie sings a yearning and passionate melody atop a chugging straight-head rhythm, and the chorus hook is very memorable. Her voice is also a lot of more professional sounding on this record. I can see how a band like Arcade Fire would be incredibly influenced by this song – The Banshees definitely forged an influential style (for better or worse, considering I don’t really like most of their offspring). “Green Fingers” has the most overt psych reference with its repeated flute refrain. ‘She’s a Carnival” is the most energetic song here, and VERY poppy. My other favorite is the guitar-driven “Painted Bird” – the vocal melody and memorable guitar line merge incredibly well, and the song rocks with majesty. “Melt!” is pretty, but didn’t leave a huge impression on me. This album sounds great while it’s playing, but it doesn’t stick with me the way “Juju” does, and it’s probably even a little step down from “Kaleidoscope” since it feels less innovative. But it’s also incredibly solid and should certainly be considered part of this band’s peak period.

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NOCTURNE    (1983)

(no grade)

This is a double live album recorded at Royal Albert Hall. John McGeoch had already left the band at this point, so Bobby Smith is the guitarist. As a live album, this is respectable but a bit problematic. Everything sounds incredibly close to the studio versions…but without the ability to control the dynamics and tension through production tricks, the band renders many of these songs very one-dimensional. This actually sounds more like the version of the band I was initially expecting – at times hookless and often very drone-y. Everybody plays great, and there are some wonderfully energetic moments (“Painted Bird” is excellent on here), but I would call this a “fans only” release.

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HYAENA  (1984)

C-

OUCH!!! 7 albums in and the band hits a giant roadblock. Guitarist John McGeoch is out, and Goth-King and Cure-man Robert Smith takes over. I don’t know how much influence Smith had on this record, but this is a giant quality drop. I understand this was considered a sell-out by fans at the time of its release – they were probably just equating “suddenly not so good” with “selling out.” Because this is still a very avant-garde sorta record, and even MORE hookless than before! But the SOUND has gotten so much more reverb heavy and dreamy and less appealing to me. All the menace is gone. And the songs are just NOT there. The album opens with an orchestral figure (played on strings) which introduces “Dazzle,” a boring “romantic”-sounding tune that I can barely remember. “We Hunger” is a total mess – an ugly atonal piece of crap. “Take Me Back” has a jazzy groove and an organ hook, and it’s OK. But a bit corny. “Belladonna” is very 80s and girly and has a memorable hook, but the production is so murky and Siouxsie’s vocal seems strained (not strained in its tone, but rather as if she’s trying too hard). The single “Swimming Horses” has a nice piano hook, but I can’t remember anything else about the song. Side B is a bit better – “Running Town” is the most rocking and probably strongest song on the album. And the closer “Blow the House Down” has a truly epic arrangement and a lot of intensity – it’s one of the band’s better long-form songs. The other two traks do nothing for me at all, and as a whole, this is NOT worth hearing for casual fans of the band. It’s easily one of their worst albums (they don’t have many bad ones though).

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TINDERBOX  (1986)

B

Robert Smith is gone, and I guess he was a bad influence because the band actually sounds good again! This time out, they go for a very focused heavy hitting rock sound – and half of this record is as good as anything they’d ever done! It’s a giant step up from the unacceptable “Hyaena,” and an essential part of the band’s discography, but it’s not quite up to par with the classics. It’s hard to put a finger on, but there’s something “missing” from this album – it seems a bit too brief and singular minded in it’s pummeling live sound (and this is indeed a far more organic sounding record than some of the previous ones). But anyway, my rating could probably go up another half grade if that matters to you. The album opens with the awesome single “Candyman,” which has one of the most memorable refrains in the band’s history and a KILLER Siouxsie vocal (she’s turned into quite the stylist – I think this record may have her best vocals ever!). Budgie the drummer also destroys on this album – the energy level is “in-your-face” throughout the entire thing, and that’s particularly nice to experience after sitting through yawners like “Dazzle” and “Belladonna.” The album houses the band’s most famous single, “Cities in the Dust,” which I find less appealing than “Candyman,” but still very well-crafted and intense. My other favorite is “Party’s Fall,” which is one of the most melodic songs in the catalog. It’s got a great arrangement, some genuine hooks, a solid pop structure — a winner! The band brings genuine dynamics and rocking power to tracks like “This Unrest” and “The Sweetest Chill.” Like I said before, this is never going to be my favorite band, but I have a great amount of respect for them –  and it’s skillful album tracks like those that ingrain that respect. The album lets me down in it’s last 12 minutes – closers “92” and “Land’s End” are nice enough, but I can’t remember anything about them after I get some distance from the record. Regardless, I wouldn’t let anyone tell you that this band jumps the shark after “Dreamhouse”  – this is a totally solid release, and worth hearing for anyone interested in the band (and the next proper album is even BETTER!)

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THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS    (1987)

(no grade)

This is the “covers” record – Siouxsie’s version of Bowie’s “Pin-Ups.” And it’s a very fun project – particularly because of the great choice of material. As a matter of fact, this may be the coolest selection of covers any major band has ever chosen for such a record. We get Sparks, John Cale, Television, Kraftwerk, The Band/Dylan, The Doors, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, Billie Holiday, and Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK cartoon movie. ALL AWESOME CHOICES! And granted – many of the chosen artists are obviously “cool” punk-era touchstones, but nonetheless – there are no obvious song picks at all. The album opens with a fairly straight-forward cover of Sparks’ classic “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” Siouxsie does a great job with the vocal, but the arrangement is too similar to the original to make a huge impression. However, that’s one of the best  (and WAY too under-appreciated) pop songs ever written, and I’m guessing The Banshees just wanted to alert their fans listen to a great underrated band (Sparks). The two best covers, for me, are the takes on The Doors “You’re Lost Little Girl” and Roxy Music’s “Sea Breezes.” As a matter of fact, the Siouxsie versions may even IMPROVE on those two originals (particular in the case of The Doors song). The arrangements are close, but The Banshees just sound COOLER on The Doors song, and they emphasize the pop hooks of the Ferry song (which was an avant-garde minimalist production on Roxy’s debut). The other covers are affectionate and fun, but I can’t say I’m a fan of the single (!) – “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Perhaps it’s due to my loving The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” version SO MUCH  – but Siouxsie sucks the life out of the song for me, and it really drags towards the end. But in any case, this is a very fun little album and well worth at least a listen..

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PEEPSHOW  (1988)

A-

YES! I was not expecting these guys to pull off another record that approached their peak period, but my expectations were totally thwarted with this album. This is easily one of their best records – and if it weren’t for the opening track (more on that in a second), it would be nearly perfect. The band goes for lush pop, in a Kate Bush vein, throughout nearly the entire record – it’s a total 180 from the intensity of “Tinderbox.” This is dreamy and romantic music, but it sounds nothing like “Dreamhouse” –  it’s so much more melodic and “giving” than anything else in the catalog. Every song is excellent (expect that first one) – particularly the weird and entrancing “Carousel,” and the gorgeously epic and melodic “Scarecrow.” But really they’re all great and unique from each other, and this definitely the band’s most professionally crafted album. I guess you might say it’s their “pop” album, but that makes it sound weaker than the others – I’d prefer to say it’s their most accessible and varied. The music is still utterly creative and as dynamic as any of their earlier records – it’s not all that dated either, which is impressive considering its 1988 release date. The NEXT record would be the “bad pop” one. OK, so now that I’ve professed my enthusiasm for this record, allow me to say that the most famous track off here, the opening single “Peek-A-Boo,” is one of the most annoying songs I’ve ever heard. I FUCKING HATE IT – IT’S DATED PROTO-BJORK (BUT NOT GOOD BJORK) CRAPPY ELECTRONIC BULLSHIT. And it opens this fantastic record with a giant stain that disallows this from ever being a true classic. Oh well. No fan should be without this record, even though it’ll probably appeal less to strict goths or punkers and more to general music lovers who appreciate melody and craft mixed with their attitude.

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SUPERSTITION  (1991)

D

The Invasion of The Body Snatchers is a famous story about an alien species coming to Earth and stealing human bodies after destroying the minds in those bodies. This album, then, was recorded after the Body Snatchers took over this band and decided to hire the Pet Shop Boys producer and make an album that would sound corny and lame by ANYONE’S standard, not just the punks. I don’t really understand how these guys ended up with a record this atrocious, but Siouxsie has expressed her distaste for the album in various interviews, so I’m GUESSING the band gave up a lot of control here and trusted their label and producer to net them some hits. Only natural, considering the band had been around so long and were probably thinking about their “pensions.” But where “Peepshow” was creative commercial pop, this is DOA generic crap commercial pop, with all the bad taste in keyboard sounds and drum programming such a label would imply in 1991. There isn’t one good song on this album – not even CLOSE. I would say that the hit single “Kiss Them For Me” has the only memorable hook (though its insufferably corny). The verse of “Shadowtime” has a sort of interesting melodic idea. Also, “Silver Waterfalls” might have been brought to mediocre level with better production. The rest is simply dire – not worthy of the band’s legacy, not worth anyone’s time, and I’d prefer to just write it out of their history. You can’t hear Budgie or Severin in the swampy pop production, and they don’t seem to contribute any ideas along the lines of the old records. Siouxsie sounds like a faceless pop singer. As far as the rest of the material…among other crimes: “Softly” is 6 minutes of new age crap, the keyboard tone on “The Ghost Is You” screams “cheesy schmaltz rock,” “Fear” is a grating obnoxious dance number, “Got To Get Up” is just generally miserable and makes me wish I were listening to Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” instead. I HATE THIS RECORD and it’s without question their worst release.

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THE RAPTURE  (1995)

C+

Nobody seems to care all that much about Siouxsie’s poor little final album, half of which was produced by John Cale. You’d think the pairing of Cale and The Banshees would result in some serious post-punk weirdness, but this is 1995 and both artists were past their youthful experimental primes. So this is still “commercial” Siouxsie, albeit a gigantic step up from the previous record. There are actually some interesting tracks on this one, and while it’s sonically a bit lame and sometimes crosses into the radio-schlock of the previous album, this is not a terrible way to go out. The album picks up as it plays – the first two songs are pretty dire – they sound like a tiny bit more successful “Superstition” tracks (“O Baby,” “Tearing Apart”). Then comes “Stargazer,” which is nowhere near the heights of “Peepshow,” but at least sounds like it was written and recorded by a smart pop band – it has some hooks and energy and a nice arrangement. There are some other forgettable tracks on here, but let’s talk about the GOOD ones! Because there are definitely some good ones. “Sick Child” is a melodic and creative Beatles-esque song with a bouncy chorus – it’s unique in the catalog. “The Lonely One” is probably the catchiest song on the album, with a great groove and hook and a fun Siouxsie vocal. The title track is over 11 minutes long, but it’s almost certainly the key standout track on the record – it’s essentially two songs in one, with a slower more atmospheric A section that leads into the “title” section. That second section in particular sounds like most like old-Banshees than anything they’d done in years, and the track as a whole reminds me that these guys WERE once weirdo art-punks as opposed to lame mainstream pop-hacks. OK — one more gripe about this album — it has a TERRIBLE track order. Why is the epic title track number 10, followed by two more wimpier songs? And, yes, I know WHY it’s front-loaded with the two corniest pop songs ($), but that certainly doesn’t satisfy my listening needs and renders the entire record a lot slighter than it actually is. OH WELL. I wouldn’t worry about this one until you’ve digested all the early stuff, but it isn’t as bad as people will tell you.

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DOWNSIDE UP (DISC ONE)   (2004)

(no grade)

I’ve been told that Siouxsie is a great B-sides and outtakes band, so I took a listen to the first disc of their outtakes box set. Well, I’m not going to listen to the other 3 discs. This is NOT very engaging material. There are very little hooks, and everything sounds very B-side-y (underwritten, overly experimental, unmemorable). The best track BY FAR was the 2 minute T.Rex cover. “Follow The Sun” is  pretty, “Drop Dead” has a lot of energy and anger (though it’s not much of a song per se)…. almost all the songs have melodramatic and fully committed Siouxsie vocals. BUT….while there may some buried nuggets in this 4 disc box-set….I can’t say I’m a big enough fan to go digging for ’em.

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