The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – Classic Music Review

Perhaps there is an alternative universe where the music business isn’t a business at all but a benign facilitator of music, detached from profit-making. Such an entity would be solely devoted to preserving the creative spirit and protecting the mental, emotional and physical health of musical artists. In such a universe, the Sundays might have left us with ten albums instead of three.

Alas, in our universe most of the power is held by those who view music as a commodity, bottom-line adherents who embrace what they believe are tried-and-true pathways to commercial success—and expect the artists they sign to follow that yellow brick road to stardom.

The Sundays hoped to avoid all that by signing with an independent label and taking care of management duties themselves. The commercial and critical success of their debut album, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, seemed to validate the wisdom of that decision. Unfortunately, even independent labels have to operate within a capitalist system and when Rough Trade Records went belly up, the band felt they had no choice but to sign with the suits at Parlophone to record their second album. Due to typical legal wrangling, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic went out of print for several years.

They also learned that managing a band and touring extensively involved a whole lot of work that left them little time for creative play—and creative play is the raison d’être for the songwriting wife-and-husband team of Harriet Wheeler and Davin Gavurin. Wheeler told Melody Maker, “There was never a time I wanted to be incredibly famous or in a pop group. It just seemed a great thing to do to spend time working on something that’s your own.” Gavurin confirmed their status as stubborn artists when he told the Toronto Star, “We can’t write to deadline. You can’t force a whole load of songs out quickly.”

The two-year gap between their first two albums was partly due to the Rough Trade fiasco, partly due to touring and partly due to their refusal to rush the creative process. The five-year gap between albums #2 and #3 was a combination of music biz burnout and Harriet and David’s decision to start a family.

Despite the long hiatus—and despite the intervening rise of Britpop that could have classified their music as “dated”—that third and final album (Static and Silence) reached the UK Top 10 and the single “Summertime” was their most successful single ever. Even more impressive was the positive response to the album from fans in the United States, where The Sundays had earned a devoted following of indie fans from the get-go.

All this tells me that there was something about Reading, Writing and Arithmetic that touched people deeply enough to engender an undying interest in what The Sundays would do next, no matter how long they chose to remain incognito.

And that’s the raison d’être for this review.

*****

Most critics have likened the Sundays to the Smiths and the Cocteau Twins. Such broad-brush comparisons aren’t particularly helpful because it’s common for contemporaries to be influenced by the trends of the time. For example, Robert Plant ruined many promising rock bands in the 70s by inspiring their lead singers to mimic his screechy falsetto. If I had been alive in 1963, I could have said that The Beatles had a lot in common with Freddie and the Dreamers and from a superficial perspective, I would have been “right” in the sense that both bands played rock ‘n’ roll featuring jangly guitars and recorded songs with pleasant melodies. All very well, but who on earth would mention those two bands in the same breath today?

I think it’s more accurate to say that Johnny Marr’s guitar work influenced several musical acts in the 80s and early 90s and that David Gavurin’s guitar tones reveal some of that influence. As far as the lead singers go, I don’t detect anything in Harriet Wheeler’s voice that hints of Morrisey’s massive ego or the operatic drama of Elisabeth Fraser. Lyrically, The Sundays had little interest in current events or politics (like the Smiths) and given their minimalistic approach to arrangements (especially on Reading, Writing and Arithmetic), don’t come close to the sound of the Cocteau Twins. I think Don McLeese of the Chicago Sun-Times got it right in his review of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic:

On initial exposure, Britain’s latest musical rage sounds like a preposterous hybrid, as if Rickie Lee Jones somehow found herself fronting the Smiths or the Sugarcubes. Repeated listenings render comparisons and categories less appropriate, as the music reveals an internal logic that is all the band’s own, and the insidiously seductive songcraft of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic practically re-invents the ABC’s of rock.

For all the freshness of the band’s invention, there is nothing difficult or extreme about the music of the Sundays. In fact, nothing could be more basic than the stripped-down sound of bass, drums, guitar and voice.

Those stripped-down arrangements create a beautifully clear field for Harriet Wheeler’s vocals; you never get the sense that she’s straining to make herself heard above the band. Harriet’s voice has been described as “wondrous,” “carefree” and “expressive” by various critics and I can’t dispute the use of those adjectives. What I hear is a singer with a naturally pleasant timbre who makes excellent use of dynamics (soft-loud) and has a gift for intensifying emotional content without going over the top. Her phrasing is instinctual and as far from “stiff” as you can get, and she peppers her delivery with enchanting vocalizations and occasional flurries of blue notes that supply the necessary attitude. Harriet has a remarkable gift for keeping the listener in a delightful state of suspense, wondering where her voice will go next.

The interplay between Harriet’s vocals and David Gavurin’s counterpoint guitar is equally fascinating. Together they manage to explore the full range of possibilities in the relatively simple chording that marks many of their songs, with one or the other occasionally ignoring key limitations to create unexpected moments of dissonance that add a pleasurable tension to the music.

This stylistic bent is quite apparent in the opening track, “Skin and Bones.” Gavurin’s introductory arpeggiated chords initially fit comfortably in the key of F major, but the fourth chord is a twisted version of B major with an added Bb note. Traditionally speaking, a B major chord has no business in a song in F major, so even without the incompatible Bb Gavurin would have achieved the desired dissonance. So why the hell add a Bb note to a B major chord?

As it turns out, there is a definite method to his madness, which becomes apparent when Harriet enters to deliver the melody. When she arrives at the point of dissonance, she pays no attention whatsoever to the notes in B major but instead tethers herself to that weird B flat note, which just happens to fit comfortably within the song’s baseline key of F major. The result is melodic continuity spiced with just the right amount of tension to maintain the listener’s interest. As things turn out, the Sundays are full of delightful surprises in this song, generally ignoring the C major step-to-resolution chord until the bridge—but even there they defy expectations by using a Cmaj7 chord, mimicking the feel of a key change while remaining firmly in F major.

As the song proceeds, it’s easy to find yourself absolutely mesmerized by Harriet’s vocal, a highly varied performance that shifts from relaxed to soaring and from gorgeous major key melody in the verses to blue note flurries in the chorus. While Gavurin’s arpeggios become more intense in the chorus, Harriet is more than up to the challenge, allowing his intensity to inspire her own.

Lyrically, the song deals with societal fit and the general disappointment one feels when entering the real world of work only to learn that it’s not that challenging, that the people around you are a fairly mediocre lot and you’re in danger of becoming mediocre yourself:

You know, and I’ve been wondering
You know, all the way home
Whether the world will see
I’m a better man than others by far 

You know, I’ve had it so good
How loathsome, and not quite my style
Work and vanity wasted my time inside

Oh, you see me in a cardigan
And a dress, dress, dress that I’ve been sick on
Oh how are you
Can’t say I really care at the end of it all

Some have interpreted the narrator as a sociopath but having experienced the overwhelming ennui of the workplace and how “work and vanity wasted my time inside,” I can’t buy that interpretation. I think it’s more accurate to say that “the world” tends to turn us all into something we’re not, which in turn creates an anti-social vibe.

One final note—in our world of shifting gender definitions, it may seem a bit odd to hear Harriet singing “I’m a better man” and follow that with a reference to a “dress that I’ve been sick on.” One explanation is that Harriet and David collaborated on all the lyrics, so the “better man” verse could be from David’s perspective. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that women have been engaged in a decades-long struggle to prove they can do a job as well as any man. Take your pick!

Gavurin abandons the shimmery electric guitar arpeggios in favor of a lively acoustic strum for “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” the song that became the Sundays’ biggest hit in the USA (due to Rough Trade’s collapse, the single was never released in the UK). The combination of the constant strum and the steady rhythm supplied by Paul Brindley on bass and Patrick Hannan on drums leaves it up to Harriet to carry the song and unsurprisingly, she nails it, delivering a vocal that mixes soft-and-reflective with bursts of dynamic passion while demonstrating full command by varying the melodic line and adjusting her phrasing to give the story she spins a palpable authenticity.

You could say that the story in question is part love story and part coming-of-age narrative, but neither description does the song justice. The first two verses certainly describe an introvert (“People I know, places I go/Make me feel tongue-tied”) who has learned to put on a happy face for the world (“People I see, weary of me/Showing my good side”). Neither presentation works, as “people look down” at her in both cases. The repeated line “Here’s where the story ends” that closes those two verses confirms the inability to connect with others, but it doesn’t seem to bother her all that much (“I can see how people look down”).

The narrative takes a dramatic turn in the bridge, where we are presented with a mystery:

It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year
Which makes my eyes feel sore
Oh, I never should have said the books that you read
Were all I loved you for
It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year
Which makes me wonder why
It’s the memories of your shed that make me turn red
Surprise, surprise, surprise

Before leaping into the interpretation, it’s best to consider the slightly altered second bridge:

It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year
Which makes my eyes feel sore
And whoever would’ve thought the books that you brought
Were all I loved you for
Oh, the devil in me said, “Go down to the shed”
I know where I belong
But the only thing I ever really wanted to say
Was wrong, was wrong, was wrong

Having read several interpretations in online forums, I can buy the belief that “the shed” was a first-time sexual experience, but I have a hard time buying the idea that the “little souvenir” is a child because the song was written by two people who put their musical careers on hold to have a baby. The souvenir could be simply the memory of an awkward experience or perhaps an accidental scar left behind in the heat of passion. As far as falling in love with a bookworm is concerned—though I hesitate to link a song’s meaning to the songwriter’s personal experience—Harriet Wheeler was a literature student and lit majors are invariably attracted to other lit majors because of what they tend to have in common—intelligence, appreciation of language and at least a partial bent towards introversion.

At this point in the song, the listener feels empathetic concern for the narrator—after all, she described the experience as part of a “terrible year.” That is completely understandable, but we can’t forget that young adults are still in growth mode and the initial reaction to any experience is not carved in stone. The third, truncated version of the bridge reveals a more mature perspective:

It’s that little souvenir of a colorful year
Which makes me smile inside
So I cynically, cynically say the world is that way
Surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise, surprise

The experience is now “colorful” and elicits a smile, indicating acceptance of one of those irritating life lessons. The cynicism feels half-authentic and half-stance, but it does capture the truth that shit happens and several aspects of life seriously suck.

And “here’s where the story ends.” The narrator isn’t going to tantalize us with the juicy details; what matters is she has processed and learned from the experience—and it’s time to move on. “Here’s Where the Story Ends” proves to be an unusually rich listening experience, both musically and lyrically, and I don’t care how many other artists cover this song, Harriet’s original will forever remain the gold standard.

MORON ALERT! During my research on “Here’s Where the Story Ends” I stumbled on this tidbit from Songfacts: “The lyrics are difficult to comprehend in part because of Harriet Wheeler’s broad English accent and high-pitched voice.” Putting aside the fact that this is NOT A FACT BUT AN OPINION AND THEREFORE SHOULD NOT EXIST ON A SITE CALLED SONGFACTS, I find Harriet’s diction quite clear compared to other British singers (Hello, Mick Jagger) and I don’t know how anyone who actually listened to the song could have missed Harriet’s fairly broad vocal range.

The suspect is male and definitely American.

Rumbling toms pave the way to “Can’t Be Sure,” a single released a full year before the album came out. Such a long delay defies all the rules of proper album promotion, but in this case, it’s hard to fault the band—they weren’t expecting to become an overnight sensation when they sent some demo tapes to a few clubs in London in the summer of 1988, landed a gig at the Vertigo Club on a night when three representatives of the UK music media happened to be there and woke up to rave reviews of their performance . . . which led to a bidding war among the labels that ended when they signed with Rough Trade. “A lot of bands who get signed, who have been playing the circuit for years, have 30 songs for the first album,” said Gavurin. “But we didn’t have enough for our first album, let alone our second.” Refusing to be rushed via an arbitrary deadline, the Sundays spent an entire year working on their debut album.

I love stubborn artists.

One aspect of the Gavurin-Wheeler songwriting style is their willingness to abandon traditional popular song structure—verses merge into one another or vary in length, choruses don’t always feature the song title and sometimes feel more like a bridge than a chorus. Remarkably, these innovations actually strengthen the flow of the song, adding sparks of interest to the composition, especially when the music isn’t particularly complex.

The music for “Can’t Be Sure” is as simple as a song can get, a meditation on a D chord using a pattern that nearly every guitarist lands on sooner or later when messing around—D, Dsus4, Dsus2 with a shift to a G major chord in the chorus. Gavurin plays the chords in arpeggio style with a bright, reverb-laden tone at about half the speed of Hannan’s toms with the bass at comparatively low volume for most of the song. Over that background, Harriet introduces the central theme—though it won’t be apparent what that central theme is just yet.

Give me a story and give me a bed
Give me possessions
Oh love luck and money they go to my head like wildfire

It’s good to have something to live for you’ll find
Live for tomorrow
Live for a job and a perfect behind, high time

Those sound like fairly typical bourgeois priorities and yes, I have to admit that I take great pride in my beautiful ass. What’s important is what Harriet sings in the brief instrumental break that follows: “Nnn—aah!” Whether that vocalization is a rejection of bourgeois priorities or sheer disgust is uncertain, but I get the chills every time I hear it. Though it makes no literal sense, it feels like the right thing to sing at the right time.

Things get a little clearer in the next verse and what passes for either a chorus or a bridge:

England my country the home of the free, such miserable weather
But England’s as happy as England can be
Why cry

And did you know desire’s a terrible thing
The worst that I could find
And did you know desire’s a terrible thing
But I rely on mine

So now we know that the topic in play is desire, and Harriet seems to partially reject Gautama’s warning that craving is what makes us all so bloody miserable. Sure, unfulfilled desire is a terrible thing, but fulfilled desire is the best thing ever! And while England may have terrible weather (at least before global warming turned London into Las Vegas), why bitch and moan about it when there are more desirable experiences available?

The arpeggiated guitar drops out of the picture about two-thirds of the way through (after another round of the “England verse”), replaced with a combination of guitar string noise and light repetitions of a modified D chord to maintain continuity. Suddenly the drums leave the scene while Gavurin reestablishes the arpeggio, this time with greater intensity for the two repetitions of the “Desire chorus/bridge,” where Harriet matches that intensity note for note:

Did you know desire’s a terrible thing
It makes the world go blind
But if desire, desire’s a terrible thing
You know that I really don’t mind

Here the bass shifts to full volume while the drums revert to straight time for the passion-loaded finale:

And it’s my life
And though I can’t be sure what I want anymore
It will come to me later

Well it’s my life, and it’s my life
And though I can’t be sure if I want any more
It will come to me later, ah, yeah

I can seriously relate to those sentiments, which I think are common for most of us when we’re in our twenties. We start out confused and beating ourselves up for not figuring out how this crazy world operates and what we really want out of it, but we eventually reach a point where we just say “Fuck it. I’m just going to live my life and hope for the best.” We learn that we “can’t be sure” about much of anything—and that’s the way the world really works.

Great song, great arrangement and I love Harriet Wheeler.

After three strong numbers, “I Won” confirms my belief that there’s no such thing as a perfect album. The music is rather boring except for Paul Brindley’s bass runs, lacking the interesting chord variations of the first three songs (they seem to stay on E7 forever). The lyrics fail to qualify as even mildly interesting, and the theme of wayward youth trying to find itself was covered better in the two preceding numbers (and in the following track).

“Hideous Towns” is a light and lively number marked by a tricky drum beat courtesy of Mr. Hannan, solid guitar riffs from Mr. Gavurin and a cheeky vocal from Ms. Wheeler. The oft-repeated line “Don’t ask me why” also applies to your question, “Why in the hell did she shift to formal titles in referring to the band members?”

The experience described in “Hideous Towns” is universal—free from the parental nest, we begin to explore the world outside through work and day trips to places we’ve always wanted to explore and become Peggy Lee fans singing, “Is that all there is?” Harriet joins the Salvation Army (which drove her “barmy”) and lands a job with the Civil Service (which made her nervous) and pops down to Piccadilly Circus, which she found very strange and wound up taking the first bus home. Each experience is summarized in one piquant line:

Hideous towns make me throw . . . UP.

In the end, after expressing her disgust with “uncouth” youth, she finally accepts the reality of her situation: “Yeah, my hopeless youth is really very young/Just really very young.” That is a very unusual perspective because human beings have a hard time accepting their age no matter what stage of life they’re in, and it’s refreshing to hear someone say, “Yeah, my perceptions of the world are warped because I’m too young to know any better.” Self-awareness is a wonderful thing.

“You’re Not the Only One” has the feel of a dreamy song with its slightly melancholy melody flowing over a series of strummed major seventh chords. If you want to preserve that dreamy feeling, you might want to divert your attention from the lyrics, which begin by offering a defense of “weird” behaviors people engage in when they find themselves alone:

Where’s the harm in voicing a doubt
You’ll find me in the lavatory
And where’s the harm in talking out loud when I’m on my own
What’s so wrong with reading my stars
When I’ll be in the lavatory
And what is so wrong with counting the cars when I’m all alone

The narrator seems rather anti-social, telling the special someone in her life that “You’re not the only one I know/And I’m too proud to talk to you anyway.” She certainly enjoys her privacy, claiming that “It’s perfectly fine to sleep in a chair/From Monday ’til Saturday.”

What is happening is that we’ve accidentally barged in on a conversation between two people in a relationship and the narrator is arguing for the right for space in the relationship instead of having to be together all the time; sharing her “weirdness” serves as kind of a test as to whether or not the prospective partner approves of “the real me.” This is confirmed by a shift from first to third person in the “bridge”:

So they rode out west to the seaside
And they gladly decided to stay
After two hours wandering outside
Ooh the sea air drove them away, yeah

In the last two lines of the song, the narrator seems to open the door to continuing the relationship (“But if you do, don’t you know/That I don’t mind”). If the first verse seems a bit jarring in contrast to the lovely music, I’d point out that “You’re Not the Only One” has the feel of a modern novella in that it eschews the use of linear time and boring background information, instead plunging you in the middle of the action. If you stick with it, you’ll be able to put all the pieces together and confirm the validity of the melancholy music. Then you’ll sit back and perhaps say what David Gavurin said after they’d made a few demos of their music: “Hang on a minute, some of this [music] is good!” Given the beauty and lyrical sophistication of “You’re Not the Only One,” I’d personally replace “good” with “fucking awesome.”

“A Certain Someone” feels like a second attempt at “I Won,” with its repetitive dominant chord allowing for some energetic riffing from bass and guitar but little else. I do like Harriet’s voice in the verses, with its sexy run of blue notes, but I think the lyrics could have used some polish to build a coherent theme.

“I Kicked a Boy” opens with some nimble acoustic strumming from Gavurin that surprisingly leads to a waltz with Gavurin playing at double time and Hannan maintaining the stately 3/4 rhythm of the dance (later in the song, Gavurin pulls double duty with some sweet arpeggios). The subject of the song is what I call “Tasmanian Devil Syndrome,” those moments in childhood when we just fucking lose it and do something unbelievably cruel to another kid. I was a victim of that syndrome in second grade when I defeated a fat girl in a game of tether ball and she charged at me, pushed me down on a nearby patch of grass, placed her big fat ass on my head and started bouncing up and down on my face. A teacher heard the other kids screaming and pulled her off after about fifteen seconds. I escaped with a scrape or two and a terrible headache.

I never suffered from Tasmanian Devil Syndrome, but I did plot my revenge— a few days later I sucker-punched her as she turned a corner, ridding her of a stubborn baby tooth. Both of us paid for our crimes with a visit to the principal (parents included) and no-play recesses for a week.

Harriet places herself in the role of perpetrator and in the song’s early stages appears to have no regrets whatsoever:

When the weather’s fine, when it’s sunny outside
Think about the time I kicked a boy ’til he cried
Oh, I could’ve been wrong, but I don’t think I was
He’s such a child 

Not only does she feel no remorse, but she becomes a repeat offender!

When I am alone, I remember so well
How merrily I tripped a boy so he fell
Oh I could’ve been wrong, but I don’t think I was
He’s totally wild

But this time the reaction is more complex, and thanks to the Gavurin-Wheeler penchant for messing with verse structure, a fifth line is appended to the verse: “And I’ve been wondering lately just who’s gonna save me.”

Here’s the thing—those memories of awful things we did as children stick with us, implanting lifelong doubt as to whether or not we’re a “good person.” As our narrator returns to the present, she finds that the lingering doubt interferes with the ability to form and embrace adult relationships:

Now I have a cold, and no story to tell
I’d marry you but I’m so unwell
And I could’ve been wrong
Well I don’t think I was
He’s totally wild

In the end, the narrator cannot claim victory over doubt, as she still feels guilty about the mean things she did in childhood:

And I’ve been wondering lately
Just who’s gonna save me
Yes you should’ve been wise
Oh hysterical child
Where’d you learn to do that

Whether the human tendency to employ violence as a solution to a problem is a genetic trait or a cultural implant is still up for debate, but what’s important here is that the narrator has developed a conscience, and hopefully those haunting memories will fade over time. “I Kicked a Boy” is another marvelous effort and a remarkable work of poetic economy.

Next comes the more assertive jangle of “My Finest Hour,” a song where Harriet climbs to the top of her register and remains completely understandable (take that, Songfacts!). The story in the song is elusive at first with references to physical abuse, writing letters to a love interest and bemoaning her love interest’s youth. In the end, the song turns out to be sort of a remake of the Zombies’ “Care of Cell 44,” where the mystery man turns out to be a prisoner. Harriet plays the role of the submissive woman whose finest hour “was finding a pound in the Underground” and wishes the guy was someone he is probably never going to be (“I keep hoping you are the same as me”). The final passage strikes me as a bit too boisterous, but it does mirror the chaotic emotions of a woman who refuses to believe that her love interest is a loser.

The album ends with “Joy,” with “impressionistic” lyrics (Gavurin’s description). I’d go further and call them an absurdist description of the imagined end of the career of The Lone Ranger.

Yes, you heard me right. The Lone Fucking Ranger.

After three verses describing the character’s abandonment of truth, justice and that silly mask, we are treated to a bridge with no connection whatsoever to The Lone Ranger, Tonto or Silver.

Usually I get pissed off when confronted with nonsensical lyrics but the music to “Joy” is so captivating that I abandon the search for coherent meaning and just enjoy the interplay between the musicians. Hannan kicks things off with a kick-drum/high hat combination of remarkable dexterity, soon joined by Brindley’s catchy circular bass part. I’ll stop right there and clarify: a circular bass part means that the bassist is playing the same riff over and over and over . . . you get the picture. I’ve seen reviews that mention the circular bass part but give Brindley no credit for pulling off such a feat. It’s frigging hard to play the same pattern ad infinitum without developing carpal tunnel or arthritis.

Back to the music . . . Gavurin enters playing single notes on electric guitar; over the course of the song, he’ll throw in a few overdubbed counterpoints that enrich the beauty of the music without creating a distraction. Needless to say, Harriet delivers another wondrous performance, and though I’m a confirmed atheist, I would describe her voice in the three-plus minutes that make up the quiet part of the song as “heavenly.” At about 3:14, Gavurin amps up the volume on his guitar, Hannan’s bashes become more emphatic, Harriet becomes more earthy than ethereal . . . while Brindley toughs it out and continues to play the same bass riff over and over and over . . . “Joy” turns out to be a fabulous closer that leaves the listener with a desperate urge to hear more from the Sundays.

But as we know, listeners had to wait another couple of years for the next album, then five more years for the third . . .  and then the Sundays went dark. Harriet and David apparently decided that home and family were more important than pop stardom and that what they really wanted to do was create music without necessarily having to release it to the public. Rumor has it that they’ve continued to make music in their home studio but have no plans at present to share that music with the outside world

Though I miss their presence during this barren era in popular music, I respect Harriet and David’s decision to live their lives according to their own values and priorities—and I think that’s what gives their music undeniable integrity.

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