I recently came across 'Ecstasy and Wine' in a Soho record shop and went for the plunge. It had been one of those 'must buy' items at the back of my mind for years. At the time of this early-compilation's release in February 1989 MBV were none-too-pleased, branding it a cash-in by their former label Lazy Records as they enjoyed their new-found high profile with Creation.
1988's 'You Made Me Realize' EP is generally written as the explosive tour-de-force that transformed the group from candypop lightwight janglers to sonic distortionists riding a wave of alt-American inspired decibel-driven intensity. But listening to these early recordings, just before 'the breakthrough', the question is, when exactly WERE My Bloody Valentine lightweight? Certainly not here.
The Lazy single 'Strawberry Wine' and mini-album 'Ecstasy' (both 1987) that form this compilation contain all the sweetheart melodies of the later stuff - Bilinda's ghostly vocals whispering from some hazy blissed-out dimension over a chainsaw-attacking dirge of sound - except here it's more Mary Chain than Sonic Youth; massed effects and open tunings still waiting at the wings.
Addmittedly, some of the songs may chime along in an early Love/Byrdsian jangle - not leaping out and grabbing you in a distorted throttle - yet isn't that rough/smooth changeability the case with all MBV records? There's a particular distinction in the rhythm section, an undeniable power that separates MBV from the whole disposable-jangle/second-rate Primitives thing of that particular era. Even in their softer moments it was discernible that they were made of more meatier stuff. Like the Velvet Underground, there's an awareness of darkness, menace, a f***ed-up sensibility beneath the mock softness.
At least four songs here wouldn't go amiss on 'Isn't Anything'. First track 'Strawberry Wine' kicks off with all the hallmarks of classic MBV minus the background layer of fuzz that familiarized the later sound. But on the second song 'Never Say Goodbye', there it is, a furious wash of distortion that dresses the boy/girl call-and-response vocals in black pearls, Bilinda ghosting in with loved-out promises to Kevin's moody, stoned propositioning ("Take me by the hand/Let me show you games we can play").
'Can I touch You' rings like a homage to The Beatles 'Rain', shimmering in a hazy-eyed, mid-sixties sensibility. 'The Things I Miss' is a bass stomp that thuds along with menace and swagger, and Psychocandy-vocals ("The touch of your kiss/Leaves me in a mess"), pure nihilism meets lust. 'Clair' swirls in a familiar catatonic rage, juxtaposing what MBV are best at: sweetheart girl vocals in the shadow of a lurking paranoia and danger, at times kicking in for the kill, or crashing like a train wreck. And final track '(Please) Lose Yourself in Me' merges nervous energy with tranquillized melancholy in the kind of treble fizz and choir vocals emulated by shoegazers such as Lush and Slowdive.
This record may not cascade in the strange open-tunings and varied sonic dissonance of 'Isn't Anything' and beyond, yet it sounds like a natural precursor rather than an early embarrassment, highlighting a band just before they hit (too) dizzy heights.
Recently I saw Kevin Shields backing a Patti Smith poetry reading at the South Bank, watching for two hours as he endlessly riffed his trademark 'Loveless' glide sound (the man next to me slept throughout). It seems sad that 'Loveless' was the zenith but also the fall - the mark on the map where it all ended. The 'Xtrmntr' and 'Lost in Translation' tracks are fair enough but NOT enough. Shields was at his best with the chemistry of his particular four-piece set-up (although I'm willing to be proved wrong - apparently he has "delivered hundreds of hours of guitar-based material to Island". But that was in 1999!) Any chance of a reunion perhaps?
'Ecstasy and Wine' shows a band before the complications of high-expectation and over-exposure set in to work its damage. There's a purity to the music - not apparent in the monumental but ultimately perhaps overworked 'Loveless' - that rides high above so much of the British indie of its day. In a way, the record sounds like a companion piece to 'Isn't Anything', like its less demon ridden-sister, before the sonic trip to outer space and the resultant crash and burn.