To join the ranks of sophisticated pop ensembles with female vocalists whose membership includes the Cocteau Twins, 10,000 Maniacs and, on occasion, Everything but the Girl a band must meet certain stylistic criteria. The guitar-based sound must be politely electric, near but outside the boundaries of folk rock, and delicate but not flimsy. Lyrics should be intelligent, even a bit arty. Appealing melodicism is crucial, as is a stylish, genteel reserve.
The Sundays not only qualify for acceptance in this postmodern club, but the London quartet deserves an honored place in its hierarchy. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is an alluring slice of lighter-than-air guitar pop, a collection of uncommonly good songs graced by Harriet Wheeler's wondrous singing. While her band mates play with shimmering economy, Wheeler brings an exceptionally expressive voice to bear on the rich melodies and homely lyrics that offer offbeat thoughts about life, love and the English climate.
The album's finest tracks "Can't Be Sure," "Here's Where the Story Ends" and "Hideous Towns" have an uplifting spirit that can render a potentially unpalatable line like "Desire's a terrible thing but I rely on mine" intriguing. "Skin & Bones," "You're Not the Only One I Know" and the soaring, minor-key "My Finest Hour" ("was finding a pound on the Underground") are further demonstrations of the Sundays' easy charm.
The sound is as spacious and tastefully appointed as an art gallery. Coproducer Ray Shulman achieves remarkable sonic transparency by capturing only what's essential to shape the songs. On several numbers, guitarist David Gavurin picks out discrete notes, strumming a chord here and there for dramatic effect. Driven by an unvarying rhythm drone in "Can't Be Sure," Gavurin's steady guitar pattern tugs against the expansive, segmented melody, cleverly turning a simple tune into a small gem one of the many in the masterful lesson Reading, Writing and Arithmetic delivers. (RS 580)
(Posted: Jun 14, 1990)
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