I have never heard any group with a similar propulsion. Oddly, “Little Hammer” does not pound, but gently brushes the percussion. Foreshadowing the pop direction the band would take on its next albums, it’s like a halftime rest before “Insubstantial,” which erupts out of a soft start into what the band does best: the soft-loud dynamics that the Pixies and Nirvana popularized for alternative rock. While those bands featured singer-songwriters who were charismatic personalities that cultivated an audience, Masters and crew let their songs do the talking.
The squalls which begin and end tracks highlight what makes each song different, and connects them through Naysmith’s feedback, effects and distortion. These segues upset the art-rock ambiance and keep the tone from becoming too twee or too amplified. This foundation helps statelier songs like “A Deep Sleep for Steven” progress with dignity before the perfectly pitched “Language of Flowers,” which hints at the band’s affection for Echo and the Bunnymen.
Pale Saints smartly cover the subject of a previous Revisit. Their version of Los Angeles outfit Opal’s “Fell from the Sun” boosts the volume and the pace, while keeping the ambling arrangement of the original underneath the loudness.
Opal’s successor Mazzy Star had a minor hit with Peter Blegvad’s “Blue Flower,” and the Saints soon covered it in turn. Pale Saints combined the hazy folk ambiance of Opal and Velvet Underground-inspired bands of the early ‘90s, with a harsher, more experimental tinge that stood out from the likes of 4AD peers such as Lush. Meriel Barham, who was Lush’s original vocalist, is credited as backup musician and singer on the Pale Saints’ debut, but the role of singer-songwriter-vocalist remains in Masters’ control, which boosted its impact and bolstered its range.
The elegant, mid-tempo “Sight of You” is a fan favorite that allows Masters’ choirboy vocal to linger in a cathedral-like setting of airy, soaring instruments. It segues neatly into a last fling with the mechanical drumming that Cooper offers, under Master’s steady bass and Naysmith’s flailing guitar riffs, jerking into slashing chords. “Time Thief” ends with a high-pitched gnarl that would get howls out of Andrew, the Airedale Terrier I had at the time.
The Comforts of Madness made it to number 40 on the British charts in 1990. Barham joined the band full time, and with Gil Norton’s more accessible production, subsequently dominated their sound; and the band lost their edge. Even if In Ribbons (1992) features some of their best songs, their pop turn led to Masters’ departure, and the group stalled after the forgettable Slow Buildings (1994). They eventually collapsed back to the duo of Naysmith and Cooper, who worked together on various projects, while Barham produces electronic music under the name Kuchen.
Pale Saints’ quirky legacy rests in their debut. As with many bands that joined a love of trippier music with post-punk, they did not last long. But The Comforts of Madness is the work of an uncommercial band that could make forty minutes zoom by and reward repeated plays. My dog and I never got tired of it. (Spectrum Culture 5-27-15)