3 April 2016

Boutique - Butterfly & Strawberries and Cream

Label: Trade 2
Year of Release: 1995

Boutique were one of the first bands I wrote about on this blog, and - partly due to the lack of information available at the time, and partly due to inexperience - I spewed out some utterly inaccurate drivel on to the screen. Life is a learning curve, dear readers, and allow me to try and do a slightly better job now.

Arriving at the height of Britpop in the mid-nineties, Boutique almost seemed like a calculated gamble of a signing by the record company, who may have sensed a possible turning tide away from the laddism of the period. Rather than sticking to the tried and tested classic songwriting paths of Blur or Oasis at that point, Boutique were all camp attitudes and art school pretence, owing more of a debt to early eighties synth-pop than sixties mod. At the point of their inception no scene appeared to exist which seemed relevant to their cause, but Taylor Parkes referenced them in a review as an example of a band who might fit a scene he was nurturing called Romo (or Romantic Modernism). Romo would owe a debt to the New Romantic movement of the early eighties, but attempt to also be progressive in its sounds. How well it succeeded on this level is something I'd throw open to question - indeed, I'd argue that for all its rather trad limitations, Britpop did at least allow more creative and extraordinary groups like Pulp and Super Furry Animals to get caught up in its slipstream - but nonetheless nuggets of pop goodness did get spat out of Romo.

Boutique appeared to consist of Chris Johnstone on vocals and Gary Chapman on synths, both of whom were a pair of outsiders from small-town Essex (The PO Reply Box on the back of the record's sleeve suggests Harlow) who, had Romo come along or not, would doubtless have carried on down their own particular electronic pop path in spite of the dominant trends around them. Three singles were issued on Trade 2 Records, none of which managed to even crack the Top 100 in the UK, though they did manage to make their presence felt in the indie chart. This wasn't enough to satisfy anyone at the record company that it was worthwhile issuing their LP, however, and it was filed away in the vaults where it remains unheard to this day.

A slight shame, that, because while all their singles ("Butterfly", "Strawberries and Cream" and "I've Told You Before") were simple, short, sharp affairs, there was an angularity to their style and arrangements that made them compelling. That's keenly in evidence on "Butterfly", where Johnstone's hiccuping, eey-oreing vocals collide with bleeping and gurgling antiquated synths, antiquated by both today's standards and certainly 1995's as well. Even duos like Erasure were trying to constantly modernise and update their synth equipment at this point, so the arrangement here feels consciously dated, in much the same manner that the arrangements of Cast or The Las were in thrall to a certain sixties period.

(Entry continues beneath the sound files)

Label: Trade 2
Year of Release: 1996

For my money, however, the band's best single was their third and final offering, "Strawberries and Cream". There are obvious and cheeky steals from both The Jam's "Start" (or is it The Beatles' "Taxman"?) here as well as David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes", making it a thoroughly bizarre meshing of two pop cultures. But besides that, it's a two minute wonder of a single, effortless and optimistic while also being plainly strange. The buzzing, ringing synths throughout the chorus try their hardest to convey a perfect summer scene, then the clod-hopping guitars thump in immediately afterwards... and it's an enjoyable confusion of a record created by two people who were clearly in love with many different aspects of pop music, however fashionable those may or may not have been.

Their promo videos have finally been uploaded to Youtube too, meaning you can observe the style of a band who, while they were definitely in thrall to Bowie and the early eighties, seem unquestionably mid-nineties to me as well. Something about their youthful enthusiasm, magpie thievery and spark date-stamps them to an era when faintly dorky kids with huge record collections could gain record contracts and raid the pop charts - and while so much of that time was littered with bilge, if it allowed groups like Boutique to have their little moment, maybe that's an acceptable price to pay.

I've Told You Before
Strawberries and Cream


VanceMan said...

Had I know they existed in 1995-1996, I would have been all over them. What probbaly sounded out of date then makes it sound a bit more "timeless" (like 1980s v. 1990s "timeless.") The remixes on "Strawberries and Cream," though, strike me as very Manchester 1991-3.

23 Daves said...

As I remember it, nobody really criticised them for seeming retro or out of date at the time - any dismissals seemed to be more about their vague association with the damp squib of the Romo movement. (InAura suffered in a similar way, and were a fantastic live and studio band). Actually, I don't think they were written about very much at all.

At the time, I seem to remember thinking their noises *just about* fitted into the dominant Britpop trends. Those Jam/Beatles riffs on "Strawberries and Cream", for example, and the angularity of some of the singles, meant they weren't Visage Mk II.