Lilys - In the Presence of Nothing (1992)


Shoegaze

1992

To call Kurt Heasley a studious disciple of My Bloody Valentine would be an understatement akin to calling Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music merely ‘discordant’. Heasley’s obsession with Isn’t Anything was made clear as day on the Lilys' first single “February Fourteenth”. With a buried chorus of “Vaaaa-lentine”, suitably drowned under crashing waves of feedback crunch, it hid a reference to Messrs. Shields & Co. in plain sight.

Originally written in February 1990, it would be released a year later on Slumberland Records as a 7” with the jangly “Threw a Day” as the B-side. Slumberland’s head Mike Schulman (who also served as bassist for Black Tambourine) said of the record ”I remember pretty vividly the first time I heard the master tape - it perfectly captured how explosive the band was live and how sharp the song-writing was. A stone cold classic.”

By the time the Lilys full-length LP came out in September 1992, Heasley and co. had already reverse-engineered large parts of Loveless, which wasn’t even a year old at the time. Writing in the Loveless edition of the 33 ⅓ album deep dive series, author Mike McGonigal calls the Lilys “the only MBV ripoff that mattered”. While that’s not completely accurate (surely Lovesliescrushing belongs on that list as well), the backhanded compliment still applies. The opening two tracks are bathed in MBV worship, right down to the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics that transition swiftly from soft, barely audible vocals and semi-acoustic strums to a wall of feedback. The 7-minute ballad “Elizabeth Colour Wheel” is a particular highlight; reminiscent of “Sometimes”, it features a fantastic final third where the guitars go from simple strums to a supernova of jet-engine static.

Loveless’ byzantine maze of guitars sounds like what you would expect a record that took 3 years of meticulous experimentation to sound like. Yet here were Lilys, a ragtag group of Americans haphazardly assembled from Washington DC and Philly’s slacker rock scene, expertly dis-assembling the sound and putting their own spin on it.

“Tone Bender”, named after a DIY-friendly effects pedal, captures Kevin Shields’ prettified guitar grind with slag heaps of distortion so thick and gelatinous you could swim around in it. As an exercise in layered guitar drone, it deserves to be studied alongside “Only Shallow”.

The closing track “Claire Hates Me” is a fast-driving noise-pop/alt-rock gem, and genuinely sounds like something that could only have come from America, or rather from the twee punk bands housed under the Slumberland stables. Fuelled by the energy of the punk and grunge bands coming out of Sub Pop, SST and Matador, it’s a joyful, fuzzed out paean to unrequited love.

That this would be their sole effort at UK-style shoegaze is more than a little disappointing, because even a cursory listen makes it clear that they got MBV in ways that most bands following in the wake of Loveless didn’t. Guitarist Archie Moore (known to be a Psychocandy fanatic) left to join Velocity Girl in 1993, and Heasley himself was becoming more interested in ‘60s pop and psychedelic folk. The last remnants of the Lilys’ fuzz-pop sound can be heard on “Ginger”, the lead single of the 1994 EP “A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns”.


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