As a longtime fan of music that falls under the umbrella of the Shoegaze genre, I’ve enjoyed Step On’s “Shoegazers we’re listening to” series (which has just posted its 10th installment). If you’ve been following it as well, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Shoegaze isn’t just one easily identifiable thing—the label is applied to bands with a wide variety of sonic palettes and songwriting styles, and that’s been true ever since the genre’s heyday in the 90’s.
In spite of that variety, however, I can almost guarantee that if you read any article about Shoegaze in general, or any review of an album that has been slapped with the Shoegaze label, at some point you’re going to see the words “My Bloody Valentine” (or perhaps just the shorthand initials “MBV”). The band’s 1991 magnum opus, loveless, is almost universally considered to be the seminal shoegaze album, and it pops up near the top of just about every listing of the most influential Rock/Alternative albums of the 90’s or even of all time.
For me, it was an album that radically changed the way I listen to music. Back when it was released, my musical tastes were very Top 40, with a smattering of College Rock and Lesbian Folk Rock. Back in those days, there was no World Wide Web, so being “online” meant email and text-based bulletin boards. I used a service called GEnie, which included a musical forum with message boards for fans of Pop, Rock, Jazz, and other genres, including “Alternative”, which was a catchall for everything that didn’t fit into the more common categories.
At some point I ran across a message thread in the Alternative forum where fans of MBV were discussing loveless, and I saw this description of the technique MBV maestro Kevin Shields used to create the introduction to the album’s opening track:
“The ‘whamming’ sound that comes in and out of “Only Shallow” is the feedback from 8 guitars and a Hammond organ sampled, and then slowed up through a midi sequencer, and then sampled back into a midi synth-guitar.”
That sounded pretty cool, so without having heard any music from the album, I went out and bought it. And I vividly remember my first listen—I was at my parents’ house for Christmas 1993, and no one else was home, so I popped the CD into the living room stereo and cranked the volume up pretty high.
[I’m literally getting goosebumps as I write this, remembering what came next…]
And then I heard four drum hits, after which my eardrums were pummeled by a breathtaking sonic soup unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Was this really music? When Bilinda Butcher’s ethereal, borderline-intelligible vocals joined the mix, all I could do was sit back and marvel. The juxtaposition of sweet, syrupy melodies against a giant wall of swirling, gliding fuzz made me question pretty much everything I’d ever thought about what constituted “music”. And I was hooked. For the past 22 years I’ve actively sought out albums that I’ve often described as “sweetness and noise” (and which my ex described as “having your head stuck inside a vacuum cleaner”).
Given the experimental quality of the instrumentation and the difficult-to-understand lyrics, one might think that the tracks from loveless would be unlikely candidates for cover versions. But in a testament to the influence the album has had, there have been no less than four full-album tribute remakes, along with numerous single-track covers. If you’re a fan of the album, and would like to hear what other people have made of it, you might seek out some or all of the albums & tracks below.
Japancakes – Loveless
This was the first full-album remake of loveless, and it’s a beautiful instrumental interpretation in which the vocals are replaced by cello and pedal steel, backed up by lush arrangements that feel somewhere between country and orchestral. Rather than mimic the original, Japancakes takes the songs and makes them their own.
Kenny Feinstein – Loveless: Hurts to Love
Feinstein fronts a Portland-based “roots-bluegrass-punk” band called Water Tower. His loveless remake was born of a desire to better understand the original album, which made no musical sense to him when he first heard it. After listening to loveless every day for a year, he recorded the full album, plus the EP track “Swallow”, with arrangements based around his acoustic guitar and vocals. The final result is a mixed bag—some of the music is quite pretty, but the album is a good example of the difficulty inherent in recording clean vocal lines for an album whose lyrics nobody really knows. Feinstein bravely commits to his interpretation of the words, but they feel off-base in places.
Various Artists – Yellow Loveless
Various Artists – Blue Loveless
These two full-album remakes feature Japanese (Yellow) and Korean (Blue) bands covering loveless’ 11 tracks. The Blue version dials down the noise, but it holds together better as a cohesive album. Most of the bands on the Yellow version go for more of a Shoegaze sound, and aside from a couple glaring missteps—Shonen Knife’s “When You Sleep” feels sorely out of place, for example—the album is an interesting listen and provides an introduction to some cool Japanese bands, including Tokyo Shoegazer and Lemon’s Chair.
(Yellow full album)
(Blue full album)
Ever since my first listen, the sonic gymnastics of “Only Shallow” have been my favorite MBV moment. Aside from the remakes above, I’ve collected numerous additional covers of that track. I’ve listed a few interesting ones below, but there are plenty more out there if you’re interested – there are more than 60 versions on Soundcloud alone found HERE.
Nadja – “Only Shallow” (from the album When I See The Sun Always Shines On TV)
The Canadian doomgazers take the original and filter it through their own fuzz-based sonic assault and the result is possibly my favorite cover song ever. The rest of the album is also worth a listen for its remakes of tracks by A-Ha, Codeine, The Cure, Slayer, Swans, Elliot Smith, and Kids In The Hall (yes, the comedy troupe).
Half Zaftig – “Only Shallow” (from the album The Eyes Have It: B-Sides)
This was the first “Only Shallow” cover I ever heard, and it does an admirable effort of recreating the feeling of the MBV version with more straightforward instrumentation. The vocals are mixed at a level that keeps them just about as ambiguous as the original. And that’s a good thing.
Ken – “Only Shallow” (from the album I Am A Thief)
Aside from recreating the original track’s “whamming” effect with electric guitar and synth, most of this version uses a more stripped-back instrumentation driven by bass and drums with an almost drum ‘n’ bass rhythm. Near the end, most of the instruments drop out for a mostly clean vocal bridge that works surprisingly well.
You can listen to it on MusicMe HERE.
Pas De Printemps Pour Marni – “Only Shallow” (from the album My Bloody Covers)
This self-described “French electro pop band” gives its influences as Broadcast, Sonic Youth, and Stereolab. That sounds like a good recipe for an MBV covers collection, but does it work? Well…sort of, I guess. The vocals are mixed quite high and clean in the mix, which could be a detriment (see Kenny Feinstein above), but the vocalist’s accent helps blur things a bit. The overall feeling is a bit lounge-y and sounds more Stereolab than Sonic Youth. I found the track amusing the first time I heard it, but it’s not one I return to often.
Walt Ribeiro – “’Only Shallow’ for Orchestra”
Ribeiro has recorded orchestral cover versions of tracks by dozens of popular artists from Skrillex and Lady Gaga to Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails. His take on “Only Shallow” is bouncy, lighthearted and fun – probably not adjectives you’ll hear applied to the original, but he makes it work.