Catherine Wheel – Chrome

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I haven’t seen as many concerts as a lot of people, but I’ve seen my fair share. I feel fortunate to have been able to enjoy so much live music. There are some bands I never got the chance to see, or had the chance to but could not for one reason or another. Some of those bands who evaded my gaze made some of my favorite music. I never saw Catherine Wheel live.

What I Think of This Album

I cannot properly convey how much I love this album. Nothing I write will be sufficient. I will fail not just the band and the music, but myself; I can communicate neither how strongly I feel about these songs, nor why. Easily Catherine Wheel’s best album, this is a natural progression from Ferment. The pop hooks are sharpened, the guitar attack is more focused, and the songwriting is tighter. The album is arguably louder than Ferment, but it is a third as heavy; producer Gil Norton (Echo & the Bunnymen, the Pixies) gives the guitars a metallic (but not metal) edge, making them brighter and reflective. The sound is light and flexible, even as it rocks your face off.

Opener “Kill Rhythm” is a desperate wail, the band producing a windstorm of trebley noise and precise, chin-snapping beats. “I Confess” straddles the loud/quiet gap with considerably more grace than anything on the debut album; culminating in a frenzied freakout that somehow naturally eases into Rob Dickinson’s gentle croon. After these strong songs comes the first stunner:  “Crank” (at one point, the title of the album, as well). With a deliciously spiky distorted guitar intro rapidly augmented by insistent drums and a droning bass part, plus more guitars, the song becomes a showcase for Dickinson, who sounds much more confident on this album as he pushes his tenor and adds a surprising sweetness. That said, guitarist Brian Futter is the vocalist’s twin star on this tune, adding sparkle, muscle, tension, texture, and volume. My only complaint is that this song should have been twice as long.

“Broken Head” is also excellent, a deep cut that is not even remotely filler, but a neo-psychedelic near-epic of guitar mastery. The next high point is “Pain.” I could listen to this song on repeat for years. The intro is phased gentle strumming, interrupted by some light feedback, before everything comes crashing down in a winning sequence of chords, and the feedback comes to life as a banshee. Then it gets quiet again, and the band rides this dynamic for almost seven minutes, relying on a gorgeous melody and outstanding vocals from Dickinson, as well as critically precise drumming from Neil Sims. Futter, needless to say, destroys everything in sight with a gangly, menacing lead part. An extended subdued portion is broken by bursts of feedback at around 4:53 before another explosion of noise, and it sounds like Athena emerging from Zeus’s skull. Amazing.

Only slightly less impressive is the relatively short and poppy “Strange Fruit,” which rocks with dramatic abandon, as Dickinson delivers a moody and dangerous vocal performance. The third major song on the album arrives in the title track. This is a harder track, with a relentless, pile-driving, gleaming rhythm and desperate, haunted vocals. Futter erects girders around the song with lightning quickness as bassist Dave Hawes and Sims try to break free, each seeking to outdo the other in a battle that we all win. Dickinson sounds exhausted at the end, and appropriately so.

The fourth peak is the plaintive, hazy, and hypnotic “The Nude,” with a snappy Duane Eddy-inspired guitar riff that appears post-chorus to hook you forever. Before then, though, is the chorus, and Dickinson’s grandiose, anguished delivery of the first line (“Far / Deep / Phantom seeking”) is one of my favorite elements, as well as a lovely string section in the background. Also, the first line of the verse resonates more deeply than I care to admit:  “You’re making me doubt myself / This feeling I know so well.” This song is majestic.

The hard art portion of the album emerges on the sprawling “Ursa Major Space Station,” supposedly named after an effects pedal, which tells you pretty much all you need to know. It is basically an excuse for Futter to show off and well, he’s earned it. “Ursa Major” is a bit silly, but it is still a hell of a good time. The band tips its hat (and its hand) on “Fripp,” a proggy seven minute exploration in honor of the King Crimson guitarist (who has also worked with Bowie and Brian Eno). This is a spare, spooky glide through the depths of the darkest ocean, with some meticulous work from Futter, the steady presence of Hawes and Sims, and perfect vocals from Dickinson. This is the kind of artsy exercise the band would indulge more on its B-sides collection Like Cats and Dogs and on proper album Adam and Eve; here, it is an eye-opening declaration of this band’s abilities and ambitions.

“Half Life” is a moody meditation, with an oddly sprightful drumbeat and a laser-like lead part from Futter; halfway through it shifts into a higher gear for a bit before coming back, a feat it repeats as the song adapts a more metal (not metallic) tone. These transitions are a little forced and the metalism is off-putting. This is the only time on the album the band stumbles.

But all is forgiven when the pop perfection of “Show Me Mary” jumps out of the speakers. Inexplicably the final track (which should have been “Fripp”), this unexpected sugar rush is a jangly, bouncy masterpiece. Honor compels me to admit that the Candy Skins used the song’s central guitar riff first on the addictive “Wembley” a few months earlier, but Catherine Wheel put it to much better use (and added a phaser). Never again would Catherine Wheel write a song as carefree, bright, joyous, and engaging. This track would have been the centerpiece of any other band’s album. Here, it is tacked on to the end, one of at least six astonishing songs. Buy this album, play it often, and play it loud.

The cello and string arrangements were done by Audrey Riley, who played with the Smiths, the Cure, the Go-Betweens, Echobelly, New Order, and Mojave 3.

The Best Thing About This Album

Of the six highlight tracks here, I can winnow them down to a Sophie’s Choice between “Pain,” “The Nude,” and “Show Me Mary.” I am a child of pop at heart – I have simple needs. Give me “Show Me Mary.”

Release Date

July, 1993

The Cover Art

Fortunately, this is also one of my favorite album covers. The blues are gorgeous, and perfectly match the sound of the album. The swimmers’ grace, physicality, and athleticism is not only awe-inspiring in its own right (seriously, who are these people who can do this?), it also mirrors the band’s qualities on the album. I like the ghostly double-image of the swimmer’s hand at the top of the frame. The art is by Storm Thorgerson of the Hipgnosis design house (they did work for Pink Floyd (as in, Dark Side of the Moon, among others), Led Zeppelin (Houses of the Holy, for one), and Black Sabbath); Peter Curzon; and Keith Breeden.

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