Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s a dreadful name. Let’s acknowledge it and get past it so we can focus on the music, which is pretty remarkable.
When you think about great bands from the shoegaze era you understandably think about the big three: My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Maybe if you’re feeling generous you throw in Chapterhouse. Lush, too. But Kitchens of Distinction (hereafter referred to as “KOD”), despite a couple moderate-sized hits, flew under the radar and are generally unremembered and unmentioned from this time period. This makes some sense because the band were a little out of step with their contemporaries. Where MBV, Ride, and Slowdive are pretty affectless, burying their vocals under torrents of noise (which is great, don’t get me wrong) and eschewing anything resembling a personality, KOD were unabashedly optimistic and romantic, singer/bassist Patrick Fitzgerald’s vocals front and center. And where other musically like-minded bands boasted lyrics that were often little more than impressionistic fragments, Fitzgerald, as an openly gay man, often tackled tales of love and regret and didn’t make an effort to mask his own sexuality (Strange Free World‘s “Gorgeous Love” opens with the lines “I can feel the waves of your gorgeous love/And it hurts to think that this is seen as wrong,” and on their next album they would release “Breathing Fear,” a song about gay-bashing, as its first single).
It might be this markedly different approach to songwriting and performance that saw KOD kept at arm’s length from My Bloody Valentine and the rest of the shoegaze canon. This is a shame, because Strange Free World easily holds its own with the best albums from the era, and in Julian Swales the band had a guitarist that was – whisper it – every bit the equal of his more highly-esteemed peers, MBV’s Kevin Shields included. Swales, truthfully, is the band’s trump card, and the guitars onStrange Free World are nothing short of magical. At the time this album was released in 1991 I hadn’t yet heard of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive (Strange Free World actually predates both Loveless and Just for a Day), and while I owned (and loved) Ride’s Nowhere, Swales’ layered, echoing guitar seemed otherworldly.
Opener “Railwayed” was, to this kid growing up in Cowtown, Ohio, revelatory, and it still sounds fresh. We get five brief seconds of drums and bass before Swales’ shimmering guitar soars in over the top of it, floating above Fitzgerald’s plaintive vocal. The song’s chorus is both a euphoric cloudburst and a hell of a calling card for the rest of an album that doesn’t stint on ambition or beauty. In fact, I’m finding it’s hard to write about this album without resorting to all those hoary old clichés: chiming sonic cathedrals and all that. But holy cow – that guitar. It continues into the second track, “Quick as Rainbows,” which is buoyed along on layered acoustic and electric guitars before erupting in its final minute into a buzzing storm of effects. “Hypnogogic” ups the ante further, relying on Fitzgerald’s bass and vocal to carry the melody while Swales pulls double duty: he cushions the vocal with a droning curtain of guitar that lurks in the background while simultaneously etching abstract filigrees of sound over the top. I love this stuff.
My limited vocabulary shouldn’t be read to imply that this is all just abstract beauty. The melodies are strong, Fitzgerald’s voice is expressive and occasionally conversational, and there’s hidden muscle to a few of these songs. “Polaroids” is a lament for lost time and squandered opportunity that builds over its five minutes until dissolving in an angry flurry of distortion and pounding drums. “Aspray” works similarly, Fitzgerald relying on abstract aquatic imagery while Swales’ guitar mimics the angry surf in the lyrics. And if anyone knows their music, it’s probably for “Drive That Fast,” a song that got some play on MTV’s 120 Minutes. It’s not my favorite on the album (that would go to “Quick as Rainbows”), but it’s close. Fitzgerald’s high-pitched bass once again drives the song while Swales’ guitar is off doing typically astonishing stuff in the background. But again, it’s a forceful tune. Fitzgerald sings, “Take me away from these simple feelings/I know there’s places on the other sides of here,” and Swales helps the listener see just what he’s singing about.
“Under the Sky, Inside the Sea” is a stunning closer, a sun-dappled beauty that begins with a quietly loping bassline and builds to a crescendo of guitar, horns, and Fitzgerald’s vocal: “The sea eats the shore it’s always hungry/We fall from laughing at the size of it all/Drinking, wishing, smoking, hoping/He says, ‘Well, here we are at the edge of the world.'” Gorgeous.
I just can’t do the album justice. My love for it might have a lot to do with it hitting me at just the right time. For a kid just figuring out all that late-teenage identity stuff, Fitzgerald’s plainspoken romanticism got to me on some elemental level. And I’d just never heard anything like Swales’ guitar before. But I think it’s more than just “right place, right time.” Like yesterday’s pick, I still listen to this album regularly and continually find new things about it to love. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.
Next steps: If you like Strange Free World, their first and third albums (Love Is Hell and The Death of Cool) are the most worth seeking out. Their final release (Cowboys and Aliens) has a few good songs – opener “Sand on Fire” is a barn-burner – but is easily the weakest of the four. The band reunited briefly in 2013 to release Folly, an album that doesn’t fully recapture the magic of their early days but is enough of a reminder to make it worth your time.