ince I left my collegiate notions of an anarchist collective utopia with my student loan papers and the key to my dorm years ago, I'm going to have to use Lush as my main point if I ever want to argue in favor of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism. No, I'm not talking about the cynical view that this new CD is just one in a series of cash cows from a label recently under financial stress (and new ownership)-- Ciao! is a better and more faithful portrait of the band than either the Cocteau Twins' or Pixies' retrospectives that have seen release through 4AD in the past few years. I'm referring to the spirit of competition that existed, just subcutaneously, between co-frontwomen Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson throughout the band's lifespan.
Driving one another to excellence, their willingness to spar with each other within the confines of the three-minute pop song propelled Lush to critical acclaim and a respectably sized, loyal fanbase. Playing off each others' successes, failures and challenges, Anderson and Berenyi's meticulous songcraft gave Lush one of the highest signal-to-noise ratios of any early 90's rock band. Adam Smith would have been proud.
Ciao! their new, career-spanning compilation has more balance than a Romanian gymnast: four songs taken from the band's swan song Lovelife, four from debut Spooky, four from the pre-Spooky EPs, and five from the band's best and most underappreciated achievement, Split. Working in reverse chronological order, the disc has a sort of "Heart of Darkness" device going for it. The journey leads you back in time, toward the headwaters and wellspring of the band's original dreamy, hazy sound. The farther you travel, the more tangled, overgrown and surreal your surroundings become.
Starting things off, however, is a showcase of both the band's late-era poppy side, featuring the Anderson songs "500 (Shake Baby Shake)" and "Single Girl," as well as Miki's hokey, misguided duet with Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, which lent this disc its title. One of the neat paradoxes of Lush: as they grew into their mainstream, guitar-pop sound, they also became both more jaded and more concrete in their lyrics. Compare "I don't need your practiced lies/ Your school of charm mentality/ So save your breath for someone else/ And credit me with something more/ When it comes to men like you/ I know the score, I've heard it all before" from "Ladykillers" with the buried vocals of "Sweetness and Light": "Only to stay/ Only to breathe/ Only to see/ That space and light is what I really need."
Musically, Lush was always good at using contemporaries of theirs as touchstones. It would be unfair to call them influences, since the chronologies and relative importance is all muddled, but you can hear the Sundays' shared bliss in "Sweetness and Light" and "Lovelife," and a noisier Heavenly in the keen melodies of "Hypocrite." Probably the sunniest of all the shoegazer bands, they skirted the fringe of that movement, more there at the insistence of the British press than shared aesthetics. Even their blurred Spooky-era stuff was joyous and exultant in tone.
Pointing out the highlights of a highlight disc is ridiculous and maybe just a little too postmodern. However, I can say with certainty that I was immensely pleased to notice that tracks like the punky "Hypocrite," "When I Die," one of Anderson's best songs ever, an old favorite like "For Love," and the early band-defining moment, "Thoughtforms" were all included.
Best-of compilations almost always fail. If the band being complied is too great (cf. Death to the Pixies), a best-of attempt is doomed from the concept: all the albums are worth getting, so why settle for a sampler that only serves to destroy an album's carefully selected track order? If the band is mediocre or worse (cf. Modern English's Life in the Gladhouse), then the concept of "greatest hits" doesn't even apply-- the album is two hits and a lot of filler. Better fodder for this type of packaging is a group on the periphery; one that is excellent, but marginal in the sense that they were always on the verge of superstardom, yet never firing on all four cylinders at once.
People who might have been previously wary of taking a chance on Lush can now know for certain that if they plunk down their cash, they'll be getting a well-rounded primer on a whole career. It isn't a substitute for their whole catalog, but it isn't a too-shallow-to-be-useful waste of money, either.
When I sat down to listen to Ciao!, it had been at least seven years since I'd last listened to Lush, and probably five since I'd even thought of them. But by the end, I was digging out the old discs again-- not out of an obligation to research and refresh, but because I wanted to relive and remember. As well as making new fans, Ciao! does just as good of a job at winning the old ones back. Like me.