The Sundays: Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (1990)

This album was such a breath of fresh air when I first picked it up back in 1990. I was in a bit of a musical malaise -- stuck in law school without access to a steady flow of new releases as I'd had back at the college radio station; indie rock seemingly adrift after the high watermark of R.E.M. and the Replacements and Husker Du and all the other bands I'd discovered in the mid-80s. The new shoegaze stuff I was discovering was cool, but dark.  But this was a delightful bit of ethereal jangle that warmed my heart.

The Sundays took the musical sound of the Smiths -- controlled, jangly guitars and subtle percussion -- and used it to back the girlish, acrobatic voice of Harriet Wheeler, sounding a bit like the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser (only with actual words). The debut offers a handful of sweet, catchy tunes that I still find effecting today. The obvious stand-out is the single "Here's Where The Story Ends," one of the most remarkably infectious tunes of the era, a song that instantly sounds like something you dimly remember from childhood yet feels brand new. The sort of thing I felt compelled to include on every mix tape for years.

But there are other treasures as well. "Can't Be Sure" has a quiet, repetitive groove, positively haunting; "I Won" has a bit of a Suzanne Vega-styled folk bent; and the terrific "Hideous Towns" offers a rising riff, like something from a Miracle Legion record, that's impossible to shake. A few songs, like "I Kicked A Boy," seem like lost bits of the Smiths catalog with Wheeler stepping in for Morrissey.

While most of this is quiet, comforting music that washes over you, there are a couple times where Wheeler's operatic vocals drift into a more piercing range (a tendency that the Cocteaus would stumble into as well); opening track "Skin & Bones" is probably the worst offender, an odd choice as an introduction to the band and one which I typically skip -- so don't be put off if that's your first taste of the Sundays.

The band stuck around for two additional albums; both, while lacking anything quite like "Story," are similarly enjoyable (with 1997's Static & Silence showing some more adventurous sonic exploration, suggesting new directions they could have gone had they persevered). 

Here's the video for "Where The Story...":
...and "Hideous Towns":