The Raincoats, Odyshape
Written for Wears the Trousers 26.08.11
The wave of musical experimentation which took place in the wake of punk generated many new and startling sounds, some of which endured and grew in influence while others became lost to musical history. The Raincoats, a London-spawned, ever-shifting collective based around the partnership of Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva, are now firmly in the former category. Their self-titled debut was described by Vivien Goldman as “the first woman’s rock album” to emerge, its lack of musical or vocal hierarchies or focus-pulling solo virtuosity pioneering an arresting and persuasive kind of rock without the cock. In 1981, Odyshape continued to shift the rules of the game.
Thirty years on, the nine tracks here may sound less groundbreaking, but at the time of its release Odyshape mapped a landscape previously alien to mainstream rock, a female-centred one of self-consciousness, self-doubt, embarrassment and anxiety, its borders defined by the pressure to conform aesthetically and cosmetically, as well as by family, society and biology. Punk’s preoccupation with mundane daily routine – bus rides, shopping, boredom – is rendered with drab watercolour realism rather than the gritty outlaw glamour with which The Clash tended to sculpt their cityscapes. ‘Then It’s OK’ presents love as redemptive relief from a hostile or indifferent world, but this emotional interior is drawn replete with its own contours of angst and apprehension.
The form taken by the music was as fresh and uncertain as its lyrical content. Odyshape’s loose-knit textures and frequent switches in tempo lend the songs a feeling of fragility and unsteadiness, as though to let your attention drift might cause these intricate constructions to fall apart. Birch and Da Silva’s vocals veer from a hesitant, mantra-like intonation, through fretful brooding, to a compulsive, confessional patter. Opening with the gently unsettling ‘Shouting Out Loud’, The Raincoats weave a tapestry of rough-edged harmonies with understated, almost incidental percussion used as decoration rather than as a driving force. There’s a homespun take on world music, too, with twists of gypsy folk coming through in the sinuously prominent violin on ‘Dancing In My Head’ and the slurred elegance of ‘Red Shoes’, and the Eastern-tinged ripples on ‘Only Loved At Night’.
After third album Moving in 1984, The Raincoats scattered to solo projects, reconvening in the early 1990s as the grunge movement took them to its heart. Their approach to songwriting and performance has been a clear influence on subsequent musical developments from twee to riot grrl. The Raincoats lack, perhaps, The Slits’ confrontational, bratty exuberance, the incisive stridency of X-Ray Spex, or the scholarly poetics of Patti Smith, but their dealings with personal politics provide no less of a challenge. Despite the musical and vocal self-effacing and understatement, these songs are powerfully and affectingly performed – the title track in particular pulls the listener into its clamouring neurosis to a degree that’s almost excruciating. This reissue is a chance to rediscover a subtly subversive gem.