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POP MUSIC

Refiguring the Lush Life

In its seven mostly underground years, the group that put out the dense 'Spooky' has kept emotions in check. With the new album 'Lovelife,' all vitriol breaks loose.

May 12, 1996|Lorraine Ali | Lorraine Ali writes about pop music for Calendar

For most of its seven-year career, Lush has been as intriguingly distant as Pluto, with a core of dedicated fans orbiting like curious probes.

One of England's enigmatic "dream pop" bands, the quartet buried its tunes and wafting vocals under layers of guitar reverb, signed with the esoteric 4AD record label and put out cryptically titled records such as "Spooky" and "Scar." It didn't help, from an accessibility standpoint, that the musicians looked so cool as to be unapproachable.

But with its third album, "Lovelife," one of the year's hardest-hitting and best pop albums, Lush drops its mysterious shroud and emerges as a strong and feisty personality. Singer Miki Berenyi now slings such pointed lyrics as "I can't believe I fell for such a loser like you" (from "Ciao!," in which estranged lovers bat insults back and forth), and critiques the singles scene in "Ladykillers" ("When it comes to guys like you/I know the score/I've heard it all before"). Berenyi's voice is confident, the melodies are ultra-sassy, the ballads graceful.

The response to Lush's new sound is also more clear-cut: "Lovelife" is the band's most successful record. The collection has been at or near the top of college and alternative-rock radio playlists since it was released in March, and the video for "Ladykillers" is receiving more exposure than all the band's past videos combined. Lush will headline a sold-out show at the Palace on Friday.

"This album's more satisfied, more confrontational and confident," says singer-guitarist Berenyi, 29, sitting poolside on the roof of her West Hollywood hotel. Wearing a metallic black dress, sparkling sweater and black tights with numerous runs, she looks incongruous in this cliched L.A. setting, her fire-engine red hair clashing with the patio's palms and her powdered, pale skin the antithesis of "Baywatch" healthy.

"A lot of people think this album is about one guy, and it's not," says Berenyi, who co-writes all of Lush's material with her childhood friend Emma Anderson, who also sings and plays guitar.

"The song 'Ladykillers' came from three specific incidents that happened in one week, like snapshots, and 'Ciao!' was an imaginary situation. I actually used Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood's duet 'Jackson' as a starting point for that. They bicker all through the song, and I thought, 'Two people arguing--I can do that.' "

At the time of Lush's appearance on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour, the band offered the washes of textural noise and ghostly, sheer, often indecipherable vocals that marked its debut album, "Spooky."

"We never had the vocals up front or had the effects on the guitars turned down," drummer Chris Aclund, who's joined Berenyi at a patio table, says of those early days. "But we thought if we can play Lollapalooza at 2 in the afternoon to a load of bored Pearl Jam fans, we can do anything."

Even though Lush's second album, 1994's "Split," offered some sharper edges, the band was beginning to feel trapped by its sound, which Berenyi says was given the band by the producer of "Spooky," the Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie.

"From then on it was quite difficult to shake," she says. "Even people that worked with us on different projects after that still had 'Spooky' in mind. It was like, 'Well, they're quite a melodic, gentle, soundscape type of band.' It was very frustrating."

But despite its difficulty homing in on its own sound, Lush became a respected part of the underground world.

"We had very little self-awareness," Berenyi says. "We were always a bit bemused with the amount of reverence that some people would describe our music with. We still thought we were treading water a bit. When I see bands come out now, they're a hundred times more professional than we were. We were like, 'We've got five songs now. I guess we can play.' "

Berenyi grew up in the London suburb of Willesden Green with her Hungarian dad, a freelance sports journalist, and her Japanese mom, a housewife and part-time actress. Her parents split when she was 4 and she lived with her mother, who listened incessantly to the Kinks, Roxy Music and Carly Simon.

Berenyi moved in with her London-based father at age 11 when her mother moved to Los Angeles, and the youngster soon met Anderson at the girls' school both attended. They immediately bonded.

The two were in their late teens when they started a garage band called the Bugg. The band became Lush in 1989, when its sound began to form and interest trickled in from the outside world. Aclund, a college schoolmate, joined before the band signed with 4AD in 1989. After a few EPs, former rock journalist Philip King came aboard as bassist, and the band released "Spooky" to critical acclaim in 1992.

When "Split" came out two years later there was less fanfare, but it marked a key transition.

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