Review by Tim Sendra
On their debut album, A Brief History of Love, the Big Pink immerse themselves in all aspects of the first wave of shoegaze. The duo of Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell have doubtlessly made a complete study of the guitar music coming out of their native U.K. in the late '80s and early '90s and worked to build their sound into an impressive conglomeration of influences that's made up of components like the proggy excess of the Catherine Wheel, the guitar overload of My Bloody Valentine, the drum loops and dance elements of Chapterhouse, the dark, industrial sheen of Curve, and the epic sweep of the Verve but with plenty of modern production tricks. The influence extends to the vocals, which recall the expansiveness of the Verve's Richard Ashcroft rather than the dreaminess of the Thames Valley shoegaze contingent. Seeing (and hearing) all these comparisons may make it easy for some to instantly write the band off as record collectors or scene fetishists with no ideas of their own, but that would be a mistake. Yes, they are derivative. Yes, they are rehashing the past. This is key, though. They write really good songs and make them sound really good, too. That's the neat trick that allows them to escape the retro-revivalist label and that's why A Brief History of Love should appeal to both fans of shoegaze days gone by and the people who are still discovering the past and digging other groups who, like the Big Pink, are keeping shoegaze alive. The best songs on the album would do all right if stacked up against the work of their idols. Take "Dominos," for example. The thundering drums combine with an instantly memorable hook, the kind that makes you want to sing along before the first chorus is half over, to make it soar. "At War with the Sun," too, has a thrilling chorus and an uplifting feel, "Tonight" rollicks and rolls like a goofy cross between Jane's Addiction at their most pop and Medicine at their frothiest, and "Love in Vain" is a heartbreaking ballad that sounds like a second cousin of "Drugs Don't Work." The whole album isn't perfect; there are a few moments where things get a little predictable and the production is a bit slick, but these are minor concerns because the songwriting and performances paper right over the flaws. A Brief History of Love is a strong, sometimes really, really good debut, and a nice addition to the shoegaze canon.
I gotta admit, I'm disappointed the Big Pink didn't issue some sort of nuclear anti-Pitchfork screed when "Velvet" only snuck into the tail end of our Top Tracks of the Decade at #500. Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell could be the nicest guys in the world for all I know, but everything about the Big Pink up to this point has been about the huge, swaggering gesture-- their song names read like mission statements ("Crystal Visions", "Too Young to Love", "At War With the Sun"), the cover art for their singles are 4AD-gone-softcore (check the banned Dennis Cooper pic on the "Too Young to Love" single artwork-- your move, Bradford Cox) and, the only thing more full of itself than the band name is the album title. It's all loaded with the kind of unshakeable self-confidence that typically leads to daunting hype from Brit mags, ridiculously fun press quotes, and, just maybe, an album that justifies us giving a shit two months from now. As you can guess from that score up there, A Brief History of Love is way better than it needed to be, a bracing and beat-driven debut from a label usually known for shoegaze's more cryptic qualities.
But perhaps the most audacious claim made by A Brief History of Love is that Oasis' Be Here Now might've been onto something had its creators not been loaded on cocaine during its recording process (to this day, it's still one of the worst sound engineering jobs you'll hear on a major-label album). This is generally not a popular stance, since history has viewed it as the big loser in Britpop's dinosaur-meet-asteroid summer 1997. But not everyone was interested in following OK Computer's example of using electronic music for texture so much as another avenue towards anthems, and tracks such as "Bittersweet Symphony", "Pure Morning", "All You Good Good People", and, yes, "D'You Know What I Mean" proved a natural fit between massive, if rudimentary hip-hop beats and what might otherwise be flag-waving, stadium-filling radio smashes. And so then, the lineage continues with the Big Pink's mighty "Dominos"-- it's such an undeniable, simple hook, and such an undeniably locomotive but lumbering beat that it steamrolls any doubt you have about the rest of it being underwritten or misogynistic.
But more promising is how in spite of the IMAX-ready sonic presence of previously released singles like "Dominos" and "Crystal Visions", History rarely feels something other than hand-crafted. Furze and Cordell produced the album themselves, with engineering done by Rich Costey who, judging from the latest Mew and Glasvegas records, knows his way around huge. A Brief History stills sounds surprisingly nuanced in headphones-- you can enjoy how the group fits an entire album's worth of power chords into a swath of synthesizers that honor their 4AD legacy on "Dominos", but from the anticipatory shaker that leads into the hook or the feedback-scratched bridge, repeat listens are rewarded long after they've been demanded. "Too Young to Love" hurtles by on momentum more than melody, its raga drone breaking up into shards of scree like a comet through the atmosphere. But almost as hypnotic is the passionate vocal performance on "Velvet", which reveals a similar endlessly upward arc to "Fake Plastic Trees", right down to the distorted blow-out midway through.
Though History never fails to sound elegantly wasted at any tempo, its majority goes in buffet-style on the last two decades of UK's beat-minded rock, united by Furze's Jason Pierce-ing sneer. "At War With the Sun" nicks Stone Roses' jangle with nastier distortion pedals, while "Frisk" is halfway between Damon Albarn's early forays into funk and the more silken prog of Mansun's Attack of the Grey Lantern. Two years ago, you might've caught Cordell releasing early singles from Crystal Castles and Klaxons on his Merok label, so it's not a surprise that learning on the job resulted in nu-rave wondering how it missed out on shrieking dumb fun like "Golden Pendulum" and "Tonight".
Despite all the cavalcade of classics that A Brief History of Love conjures, my favorite comparison for these guys is actually another youthful, romantically minded British act: The xx. By "comparison," I don't mean "sounds like"-- the two bands seem like they're operating while diametrically opposed. Some might find the Big Pink churlish or even anti-romantic (though I'd argue they hardly spend enough time acknowledging women enough to really comment on them) compared to the restrained and unusually mature xx, who hew more comfortable notions of gender relations. "Love in Vain" tries a little tenderness, but "if you really love him, tell me that you love him again," hints at vulnerability before "then go" turns the sentiment as cavernous as the reverb surrounding it. But while sometimes you fall for the art of seduction, there's the part of us that want to be overwhelmed-- A Brief History of Love is a study in the enormity of sound doing just that, each reverbed kick drum, phasers-on-stun guitar, and wastrel vocal refuting the idea that you need to talk about the passion to express it.
— Ian Cohen, September 17, 2009