September 1997 – album reviews – R.O.C.’s ‘Virgin’ (“from the surreal and experimental to pure pop and simple emotion”)

8 Sep
R.O.C.: 'Virgin'

R.O.C.: ‘Virgin’

Cut‑ups are wonderful things. TV samples. Answering machines. Category‑defying noises. Harsh vocals. Scattershot free associations. Beautiful vocals. Hazy guitars. Clattering electro‑rhythms. A sense of the surreal. A sense of the melodic. Glorious eclecticism. The perfect post‑modern pop group.

Hallelujah! R.O.C. are back.

And against the odds, too. The debut album of this transatlantic trio (Fred Browning, Karen Sheridan and Patrick Nicholson, with roots in American, Ireland and Britain) welded pop music with a wilfully obscure grab‑bag of eclectic styles. Spookily emerging out of nowhere, it was critically hailed as the pinnacle of the ’90s zeitgeist, but the record‑buying public remained resolutely silent. Yet, here are R.O.C. ‑ back! ‑ on a new major record label deal (Good on you, Virgin, I take back everything I’ve ever said about the majors… well, almost…)

Dada opens the album with a statement of intent akin to the surreal art movement of the same name. Grasshoppers and various indecipherable speech samples give way to pounding, discordant and (very definitely) tuneless harsh electronica, accompanied by sinister laughter. Jeez, they’re such awkward people that you almost get the feeling that this is the spirit of ROC laughing at you for not understanding it, not getting it. Not very welcoming, either musically or emotionally. Thus, not for nothing does the oh‑so‑English conversation (too formal, too well‑accented to call rap) of the next track (Dis)Count Us In begin with the question “Are you still with me?” before Fred Browning relates a tale of watching a woman across a crowded room, to a backing of post‑modern electro‑pop.

All change. Mountain is R.O.C. as a slightly less comatose Mazzy Star performing to acoustic guitar and warm This Mortal Coil‑style atmospherics. Karen’s lyrics detail her observations ‑ highly emotional but somehow dispassionate ‑ of someone whose life has no direction and is spinning out of their control ‑ “Here we go again, / You’re going to take another rollercoaster ride through hell” ‑ in a beautifully recorded wash of womb‑like electronics.

Cheryl is a pop Suicide for the ’90s, an almost cheesy pop melody set to gleaming pulsating electronics and interludes of demolition percussion. Karen sings (Cheryl’s?) lyrics of a big fuck‑off to a man (antiquated sexist attitudes, thinks he’s God’s gift) and states her own terms for independence; “If it’s all the same / I think I’ll move on up… / I’m gonna get myself some dedication.”

Ever Since Yesterday starts as an acoustic‑guitar based lament to the departure of Fred Browning’s lover before all manner of randomly‑emitting Disco Inferno‑ish sampledelia and phased electronica makes its presence felt, distorting the whole sonic collage and moving it out into the realms of post‑rock. Instead of fading out, it collapses in on itself as the tape mangles. Gorgeous.

25 Reasons To Leave Me features Browning returning to his husky Shaun Ryder vocal style, set to a loping laid‑back musical backing not unlike a more uptight Happy Mondays; whilst K.C is a dry disconcerting, upfront recording, led by a simple and affecting sequence of organ chords, later joined by a soloing trumpet and brass accompanying a vocal of more third‑person observation from Sheridan. It’s no criticism to say that this track resembles late‑night bedsit pop at its best. Kind of a meeting between Prefab Sprout and The Cure, if you will.

Cold Chill Just Lately details the crossed wires, cross‑currents, accusations and arguments of a relationship break‑up. This rather harrowing subject is carried by the track’s broken, exhausted vocals. He’s not happy, but there is a certain black humour typical of R.O.C.: “But I guess it’s just a fucked‑up world we’re living in, / and you know it couldn’t get much worse. / But then it turns you over and fucks you in the ass… / She only cares about herself / She never cared about me.” Such bile is performed to an incongruous accompaniment of smoothly enveloping, ebbing waves of sound, a lurching rhythm, and throbbing strings adding a chamber‑pop element.

The final track, Ocean And England, opens with the sound of thunder and rain, and a bare strummed guitar‑‑the poignant musical lead is then swapped to a ringing electric piano and harpsichord before a huge sampled orchestra swoons in. Like many bravely experimental acts, ROC always remember that, sometimes, all one needs is a song and an affecting melody. “Ocean And England” is just that, and even includes a lovelorn lyric: “Hey you, / the ocean and England are so far away. / Won’t you consider coming home / to be with me again?”

Ultimately, though, this album lacks a little of the debut album’s magical Wonderland atmosphere ‑ swapping the feeling that anything could happen within the space of the next track for the feeling that yes, plenty will happen, but it will be more regimented and organised. Yet how many bands would have the sense of vision to travel, in one album, from the surreal and experimental to pure pop and simple emotion?

R.O.C. Still utterly beguiling.

R.O.C.: ‘Virgin’
Virgin Records, CDV 2829 (7 24384 29472 4)
CD-only album
Released: 8th September 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) quite a rare release these days, best obtained second-hand.

R.O.C. online:
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