by Michael Goldberg
Monday September 24, 2001
Escaping Into Le Jardin De Heavenly
Finding comfort in obscure pop sounds from the past.
From 10 years past, across time and space, floats the gentle, melancholy pop of Oxford, England's Heavenly. This is music to escape into, music that by its very distance pulls us out of the present.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that shook the world the week before last, I have found the need for a break from the emotional heaviness, and the recordings of Heavenly have provided some shelter. This is music that soothes the sound of lying in the grass, gazing upward through tree leaves at the sky.
Heavenly Vs. Satan (what a title!), which includes the group's first album along with three early singles, was just released for the first time in the U.S. on Olympia, Wash.'s "love rock" label, K Records. It's a beautiful collection of songs, as is the other Heavenly album that I've been playing over and over, Le Jardin de Heavenly.
"Heaven In His Arms"
Even in January 1991, when Heavenly Vs. Satan was released on England's small indie Sarah label, the music was from another time. Even then it seemed to hearken back to a previous era of pop music only there is no previous pop music that sounded quite like Heavenly.
The closest reference point is the "girl groups" of the early '60s, with their melodramatic tales of devotion to their boyfriends. Only Heavenly doesn't really sound like those groups. It's as if a smart, self-aware punk combo from the late '70s found the need to retreat from the loud fast fury into a music both personal and serene.
The music of Heavenly made by two guitars, drums, bass, keyboards is mostly quiet, minimal rock. It suggests, perhaps, the first recordings of the Byrds, and the English duo Chad and Jeremy. You might think of the quieter songs on The Velvet Underground, or Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers after they turned down the volume. Only imagine a group fronted by a female singer with a British accent you have to strain to hear her, and she never breaks a sweat.
The songs themselves, sung by Amelia Fletcher, are purposefully innocent naïve even love songs with occasional sly humor. In the album opener, "Cool Guitar Boy," Fletcher sings, "I love him lots and I wish that he'd see me/ The Cool Guitar Boy/ He looks so brilliant when he plays his twelve-string/ And smiles. Oh pure joy!"
It was nearly 20 years ago that Evergreen State College student Calvin Johnson started an indie label that he called K Records, releasing a cassette by the Supreme Cool Beings titled Survival of the Coolest. (Johnson went on to lead Beat Happening while running K.)
I never heard that Supreme Cool Beings recording. Although I've been aware of K since the early '90s (and have a handful of the label's releases), nearly everything on Beat Happening and K in the fascinating chapter of Michael Azerrad's "Our Band Could Be Your Life" was new to me I suggest you seek out that book. It is really essential reading!
K was (is) a punk label, but in the mid-'70s spirit of punk, with Johnson taking the DIY attitude from punk. Where so much of American punk in the '80s (think Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Big Black) was loud, aggressive music, the K records were almost folksy. Album covers were cute, but in a cool way. For instance, the cover of Heavenly's Le Jardin de Heavenly features drawings of butterflies, while the "darker" Beat Happening album Black Candy has a drawing of a piece of wrapped candy on its cover.
I find it fascinating that, in the small college town of Olympia (60 miles southeast of Seattle), a community of musicians developed around Johnson and K Records that went on to have impact on folks all over the world. With Johnson as visionary, a distinct K style developed. In the two decades since K was founded, many of the label's releases now sound like timeless classics. And, as time went on, K was able to connect with likeminded artists around the world, including Heavenly.
For me, K is an example of how, even in the most unlikely of places (far from the centers of the music business), a scene can develop and people can come together, forming a community that can make a difference.
Today, as I write this, one week after terrorists exploded the calm that many of us in the United States have lived in, I am grateful that K exists and that the music of Heavenly, an obscure band most music fans have never heard of, is still available. I have the feeling that 10 years on, I'll still be finding comfort in the Heavenly sound.