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By John Brodeur

1989—a year that brought us De La Soul and “Fight the Power,” but also Milli Vanilli—marked a bit of a turning point for the music industry. Prince’s “Batdance” topped the charts; so did Paula Abdul, repeatedly. But change was bubbling under the artifice as the “alternative” bands of the day (though that term hadn’t come into wider use at the time) began to break into the mainstream. R.E.M. blazed the trail, and the Cure moped right on through: After cracking the Top 40 with “Just Like Heaven” from 1987’s uncharacteristically shiny/happy Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the gloomy British outfit led by guyliner pioneer Robert Smith found themselves poised to explode with the follow-up. And that they did, producing the biggest commercial success of their career (more than 3 million sold) and a hit single so perfect even 311 couldn’t fuck it up too bad. Your mom asked you what “goth” meant.

Sounds like a pretty normal band-building track, until you consider that the album in question was Disintegration, a record that’s as unrepentant about its tone (“We’re sad about being famous”) as it is ironic for what it wrought (“We’re famous for being sad”). Or perhaps not so ironic—Smith had a unique moment here, in which he was able to consciously create his legacy. To kick back against his band’s growing popularity, he set out to make the opposite of Kiss Me, and in the process created the quintessential “The Cure” album: a 72-minute opus of long, sighing buildups; oceans of sound painted with breathy synthesizers and broad-stroke melancholy. (Fun fact: Despite its marketing as a single album, Disintegration runs just under three minutes shorter than its double-length predecessor.)

This one album’s enormous success is basically the reason that Rhino is reissuing the band’s catalog: Had Disintegration flopped, the band wouldn’t have lasted much into the ’90s. As if to honor the album’s distinctive place in the cultural canon, this is the first of the Rhino editions to carry three discs rather than two. The first disc gives the original 12 songs a remaster, which doesn’t seem to do much more than boost the volume. (That’s all it really needed.) The pounding toms and layers of simple melodic motifs are iconic at this point; what’s surprising is how much the influence is recognizable in current popular music. I’m hearing a little of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak in there, a pleasant surprise.

A few things I’d forgotten in the many years since my last listen. It’s not all that gloomy: These songs are set pieces, musical compositions in which the lyrics are secondary. When the sonic atmosphere is bleak, there’s still that reliable boyishness in Smith’s voice. Even the death-march toms on “Closedown” underlie a relatively optimistic lyric (“If only I could fill my heart with love”).

Also, the second half? Incredible.

The reissue is housed in a standard multi-tray folding case inside a slip-sleeve, with a photo-filled booklet that offers track info, lyrics, and an essay, stopping well short of too much information. The second disc features 20 previously unreleased demos, the majority of which are instrumental. Smith’s original cassette demos and band rehearsal recordings bring the album’s expansive scope down to scale, but the sound quality is going to lose anyone but hardcore fans. The studio rough mixes on the disc’s second half help to show the evolution of the album’s sound, with the last two tracks—the unreleased “Delirious Night” and the Joni Mitchell cover “Pirate Ships”—proving to be the crown jewels of the package. A third disc features the eight-song Entreat live album, recorded at Wembley Stadium in July 1989, expanded to 12 songs (and now, Entreat Plus) to mimic the exact Disintegration track order. It, too, is pretty killer—a document of the band’s enormous popularity, and their massive ability as a live act. Too bad there’s not a DVD.

Disintegration isn’t the definitive work that Robert Smith intended—I’d even argue that it’s not fully effective as an epic-scale whine. (Isn’t “Fascination Street” about doing drugs?) But if you, like Kyle Broflovski of South Park, think it’s the “best album ever,” know that Rhino’s reissue is worth a rebuy.

Back into the now, the band of the moment (or is the moment already gone?) seems to be Sleigh Bells, the Brooklyn duo of singer Alexis Krauss and former Poison the Well guitarist Derek Miller. (They reportedly were a full band until a few members left to form last month’s band of the moment, Surfer Blood.) These guys are indicative of the blog age, having gone from posting demos on MySpace to signing to the label run by professional firestarter M.I.A. in about seven minutes. Now, after a season of frothy Web hype, they’ve delivered their not-so-long-awaited debut album, Treats. It’s the first album for which I’d suggest wearing earplugs while listening, regardless of volume. The duo’s songs juxtapose Miami bass beats and Jack White-style guitar riffs with Krauss’ appealing rah-rah-rahs; the recordings take these elements and compress the sound until waveforms are gasping for air. Everything on Treats is in the red—it’s like being hit in the eardrums with a frying pan for 30 minutes. Every kick drum sounds like a “fuck you”; the guitars are snotty; Krauss sounds like a total crazy person.

So, um, is it any good? Absolutely. Sleigh Bells manage to fashion an experience out of the full-length format, dropping intervals of relative solace between the sonic assaults: “Crown on the Ground” wraps a few girl-group melodies around its gleefully stupid “hook”; “Straight A’s” follows with 90 seconds of unintelligible mess. And “Rill Rill,” with its R&B drum sample and acoustic guitar strum, proves they’re not just a one-trick pony. But, so what if they were? It’s a pretty awesome trick.

 


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