Thursday, November 19, 2009

Obscurity Knocks: Six by Seven, "The Things We Make"

Welcome back to Obscurity Knocks, an intermittent series of posts highlighting my favorite unheralded albums. Coincidentally, these posts could also be titled British Bands I've Never Seen Live but Really Wish I Had. For this installation, we'll check in on the band Six by Seven, who qualify under both of the above guidelines.

Six by Seven, The Things We Make
Picture this: The curtains open on a group of chorus line of dreamers in 1970s leotards. It's 1996, and I, like so many other directionless liberal arts majors in the Bay Area, became a dot-commer, the effects of which continue to dominate my life. But among the run-of-the-mill rat race-type concerns, I enjoyed one surprising benefit: My Anglophilia rocketed off the charts. Thanks to the then-revolutionary technology known as streaming, the difference in time zones, and the fact that I was stuck at the computer for eight-plus hours each day, I had the perfect opportunity to tune into Steve Lamacq and the Evening Session on BBC Radio 1 every weekday. Not just any radio show, the Evening Session boasted access to exclusive tracks from and interviews with all the big names in British music, as well as a dedication to highlighting tons of up-and-coming bands.

Keep in mind that this was before the days of Napster, MySpace, BitTorrent, and the iPod, when only the chosen few were privy to leaked albums and you had to be an uber-geek to lay claim to a home broadband connection. (Note to self: You are old!) For me, at least, it was an invaluable advantage to be able to listen to music before paying exorbitant prices for the import single. And not just any old music, either--it was stuff I never heard and would likely never air on U.S. radio.

Granted, a lot of it was not very good; my CD collection is littered with discs that are not only unlistenable but unsellable. And the Evening Session wasn't immune to the bursting Britpop bubble; toward the late '90s, they spun horrible nu-metal bands--the very groups I wanted to escape. But for a few years, it was the radio show of my dreams.

I'm pretty sure I first heard Six by Seven on the Evening Session, very likely via "Candlelight." I remember thinking how much they sounded like the Charlatans (UK, I guess) on the single, which is kinda amusing, considering I'm not a Charlatans fan. There must've been something there, though, because I kept listening.

Somewhere along the way, I probably heard the singles "European Me" and "88-92-96," revealing roots more akin to the droney, shoegazer-based variety I love so much. Throw in a Flaming Lips (post-Zaireeka, but pre-The Soft Bulletin, thank you very much) remix of "Candlelight" and you get a pretty promising mix of influences and peers.

Perhaps a little history lesson is needed for those not steeped in the arcana of '90s-era British music. Though the band formed in 1991, Six by Seven didn't release their first single, "European Me," until 1997, followed by a couple more singles and a full-length album--the very subject of this post--in 1998. I don't particularly enjoy framing any artist in the context of another artist, but I'll say this about this record: It would've sounded conspicuously out of place in the Britpop landscape. In the wake, however, of 1997's landmark releases by Radiohead, the Verve, and Spiritualized, The Things We Make presents a logical progression.

Comparisons are cheap, and I admit they're a little tenuous in this case, so I'll try not to linger on the argument too much. What Six by Seven shares with Radiohead is a sonic boldness and a seeming dedication to art rock, and like the Verve, their music is imbued with palpable emotions. Of the aforementioned groups, Spiritualized may be their closest compatriot, albeit with fewer blatant drug references (on Six by Seven's part, that is). It's not hard to pick out the epic buzz and multilayered guitars, but I'll give the edge to Six by Seven in terms of passion.

I can't speak to the band's lyrics, and frankly, I can't recall many of them right now; if you're a word freak, this might be a pass. I also suspect listeners either love or hate singer Chris Ollney's voice, but it works for me, from the roar of "Something Wild" to the crooning "Oh! Dear" to the effects-drenched "European Me" and "88-92-96." As far as I'm concerned, it's really about the whole bundle--the voice, the guitars, the production, the pacing--and the mood that this album invokes. In a nutshell, it's a great package of pop and psychedelia.

Legend has it that "European Me" was heralded by the NME as "one of the greatest debut singles of all time" upon its release. Never mind that the NME makes that claim, on average, every other minute--the song is a great distillation of Six by Seven's trademark sound. The creeping tease, the deliberate pace, the intermittent squiggles of guitar, the seven-minute expanse--it sure sets the scene.

But for a pop girl like myself, "For You" may be my favorite track. There's no doubt that Six by Seven can carry off fractured, agonized dirges, but their power pop shines through on this tune, the closest to a hop, skip, and a jump that you'll find on the album. If I had my way, "For You" would play in the background of every sports highlight reel ever aired.

Rounding out the three faces of Six by Seven (for a total of 126?) is "Oh! Dear," a good, old-fashioned power ballad, or at least the late-'90s U.K. indie band version of one. If angst and abstraction dominate this album, "Oh! Dear" is the antidote, with the most straightforward lyrics of any song on this record. Don't worry, though; the fuzz pedal is still in effect, as is the single, elementary drum beat that characterizes many of the other songs on the record. Also, it clocks in at over seven minutes--but what's your hurry anyway?

I kept up with Six by Seven for a few more releases into the early 2000s, and for a time, my Two and Half Days in Love with You shirt never failed to spark conversation. As I recall, they didn't let up on the distortion on those follow-up recordings, but other impressions escape me. However, blame my attention span, not the band. As far as I'm concerned, they secured a permanent spot on my playlist with "The Things We Make."

Listen (right-click and choose Save Link As):
» Six by Seven: "European Me"
» Six by Seven: "For You"
» Six by Seven: "Oh! Dear"

See also:
» Obscurity Knocks: Marion, "The Program"
» Obscurity Knocks: Adorable, "Against Perfection"
» Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"
» Six by Seven on MySpace


cruz992 said...

Nice. I might pick up their first one.

Tomatohead said...

Will have a listen when the child is away and will reread your song-by-song analysis! Oooh, fun!