Published on September 7th, 2017 | by James Hrivnak0
Catherine Wheel’s Adam and Eve Turns 20
Catherine Wheel was one of the most underrated bands of the 90s. We look at their later album Adam and Eve as it turns 20.
1997 has become one of those watershed years, noted for its importance in the shaping of the popular music landscape. After all, It’s the year that saw the release of Radiohead’s OK Computer, which in the last two decades has been (mostly rightfully) lauded, praised, and analyzed to death. But it’s also the year of some other game-changers and when rock music began to experiment and pivot: Daft Punk’s Homework, Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, the Verve’s Urban Hymns plus self-titled joints from Blur, Portishead, and even Third Eye Blind. But a lot of these album are marked signposts of an era long gone or a flash in the pan (has anyone listened to U2’s Pop lately? It’s not bad, really, but boy does it shows its age).
While many of these albums have been praised or reappraised in the last decade, one of the best bands to emerge from the 1990s has gone largely unsung. Catherine Wheel were so often so close to breaking through since their early shoegaze days. Their debut — 1992’s Ferment — (celebrating its own milestone this year) gets ranked close to the top of great shoegaze albums, being overshadowed by bands like My Bloody Valentine and contemporaries Ride.
In the years following Ferment, the band kept refining and redefining their sound, moving away from shoegaze’s heavy feedback and buried vocals. Later albums Chrome and Happy Days incrementally move away the watery haze of their early sound, while strengthening and amplifying the band’s assets. Happy Days in particular is obvious in its ambition to crack into America’s post-grunge sound with slick hooks, shredding guitars, and blunt production. It was a gambit that almost paid off with success in the single ‘Waydown.’ But that’s an album that hasn’t aged well, with its thudding production aiming for mass appeal.
Retreating for a couple years, the band re-emerged with what should be considered their defining statement. Working with famed producer Bob Ezrin, Adam and Eve didn’t sound like an of the band’s previous albums. From even before one note is played, Catherine Wheel lay their cards out on the table. Adam and Eve is a new beginning; ground zero with its biblical reference. Just look at that cover art. Naked bodies contorted in abstract and beautiful ways. It’s going to be an intimate piece, and singer Rob Dickinson’s striking, emotive voice bears all.
It’s the most confidence the band’s shown on record. The unlisted, untitled preamble to the record is a simple acoustic guitar and singer Rob Dickinson. He croons about shedding skin and getting started. It’s an understated and introduction that leads into ‘Future Boy,’ a pastiche of sounds that builds tension and into a dynamic release of plaintive acoustic guitars. Stripped of swaths of feedback and reverb, and with Dickinson’s vocals showcased upfront, it’s moody, yearning, and heartfelt.
It’s followed by ‘Delicious,’ which is the giddiest and more playful track the band ever wrote. Dickinson always had a compelling and sensual voice, but there’s a new sense of sexuality and playfulness as Dickinson sings, “I wish I was Bruce Lee, I might have been Michael Caine.” It’s a sexy scorcher that should’ve been a hit.
Adam and Eve is not a complete about-face for the band: There’s threads in Adam and Eve that the band had been drawing out since its early days. Tracks like ‘Phantom of the American Mother’ continue with sounds and themes from Happy Days’ ‘Heal’ and ‘Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck’; ‘Here Comes the Fat Controller’ is a thunderous mini-epic that condenses Chrome’s cinematic scope. The band’s pop hooks are sharper than ever on ‘Delicious’ and ‘Satellite,’ not to mention ‘Ma Solituda’ which is possibly the sweetest and most achingly beautiful song the band has written.
The back half of Adam and Eve finds the band in their loosest form: ‘Thunderbird,’ ‘For Dreaming,’ and ‘Goodbye’ amble along like late night confessions sounding closer to the last two Talk Talk records than anything else.
Adam and Eve was released to a fair amount of critical praise, but that’s where its success would end. In the U.S., the album peaked at 178 on the Billboard 200. Catherine Wheel’s label, Mercury, was having trouble and the marketing support wasn’t there for the band, at least in North America. I suppose its legacy is that it has no legacy. No artists seem to be directly influenced by Adam and Eve, even though Catherine Wheel have a strong, if not large, cult following. Adam and Eve isn’t even (currently) available on iTunes or Spotify, but can be found in used record stores across the country fairly easily.
Adam and Eve is such a unique record in an already strong catalogue, striking a balance between Radiohead’s braininess and Oasis’ direct guitar pop. It moves and has confidence that Dickinson and company never had before or since. It feels like such a defining statement, it’s easy to forget they had one more album in them, 2000’s Wishville, though, is mostly a dud.
The band went on indefinite hiatus after Wishville, and Dickinson released one solo joint, 2005’s fine Fresh Wine for the Horses. While Catherine Wheel never reach the popularity of the contemporaries in terms of record sales, their output still holds up well — and Adam and Eve is just waiting for rediscovery as one of the underappreciated gems of the 1990s.