The punk and new wave movements lowered the barriers for entry to a musical career, promising a more egalitarian future. Yet with the occasional exception, like Debbie Harry, The Go-Gos, and Tina Weymouth, guitar-based music remained a largely male domain in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Raincoats convened in London, where three of the four members who played on the debut were squatters, living in abandoned apartments. The squatting culture and punk culture permeated their music – the members were largely untrained, but their squatting lifestyle allowed them to practice often. This resulted in music that was unconventional.
The band’s two constant members are Portuguese-born vocalist and guitarist Ana Da Silva and bassist and vocalist Gina Birch. Violinist Vicki Aspinall played with the band during their original 1978-1984 tenure, while former Slits drummer Palmolive also played on their debut. The band were one of the first to release a record on the UK indie label Rough Trade. While they achieved success on the UK indie charts, they were too experimental to break through to the mainstream. Their most famous advocate was perhaps Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, whose enthusiasm for the band helped their catalogue to enjoy a reissue in 1993. They’ve kept up a profile – their debut sneaked onto the 2020 Rolling Stone best album list, while Gina Birch released her solo debut, I Play My Bass Loud, in 2023.
Rock’n’roll is shit … music has reached an all-time low – except for The Raincoats.Johnny Rotten, Trouser Press, 1980
The band have remained a going concern since 1993, but has only released one more album – 1996’s Looking in the Shadows. They’ve continued to play live, including a gig with Angel Olsen in 2016 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rough Trade. Ana Da Silva contributed backing vocals on The Go-Betweens‘ ‘Bachelor Kisses’.
The Raincoats features an unconventional band, occupying fascinating musical territory. They’re raw and energetic enough to fit as punk, but their weird arrangements and rhythms fit them into post-punk. And they’re odd and experimental, but there are enough hooks to satisfy more mainstream listeners, even if the most accessible song is the cover of The Kinks’ ‘Lola’. This debut was produced by Mayo Thompson of Red Krayola, who encouraged Aspinall to play like The Velvet Underground’s John Cale. The Slits’ Palmolive is the only drummer credited as a full member on a Raincoats album – she’d leave before this record was released.
It’s often Birch’s driving bass that holds the tunes together, while the guitar, violin, and drums all flit around. The group often seem insular, immune to trends and in their own bubble, tight yet deeply unconventional. ‘No Side to Fall In’ mixes dissonant violin with pretty vocals, while the violin also dominates ‘Life on the Line’. Neither Birch nor Da Silva have great voices, yet they have an undeniable chemistry singing together, imperfect and invigorating. ‘Fairytale in the Supermarket’ was originally a non-album single, but has featured as the opening track on post-1993 rereleases of The Raincoats.
The Raincoats is unconventional but it’s invigorating, an untrained approach opening up new possibilities for a four-piece band.
The first Raincoats album was deeply original, and it probably wouldn’t have hurt to delve into the same areas. But instead, their sophomore record goes in a different direction, determined not to repeat themselves. The template for Odyshape was set when the band visited Manny’s Music, a music emporium in Manhattan. They picked up exotic instruments – Birch bought a balafon, a West African percussion instrument. Odyshape featured an assortment of non-Western percussion, including a kalimba, and Indian instrumentation like a shruti box and a shehnai. The band had recruited drummer Ingrid Weiss, but she left during the early stages of recording, and the drum stool is shared between Weiss, Robert Wyatt, Richard Dudanski, and Charles Hayward.
You might assume that the different instrumental palette leads to a mellower album, but this is largely untrue. There’s still a post-punk intensity in many of the tracks, despite the more acoustic timbres. There are moments of restraint – ‘Dancing in My Head’ is surprisingly tender and restrained, based around a minimal piano part. ‘Only Loved at Night’ boasts one of the band’s most memorable riffs. ‘Baby Song’ is a side two highlight, much stronger than the Hüsker Dü track of the same name.
Odyshape isn’t quite as strong as The Raincoats’ debut for my money, but it’s even more unique.
The Raincoats’ third album was easily their slickest to date. The rough edges that made their first two records unique and compelling are less evident here. But they’ve still eccentric, even as they sound more normal than before; the touches of funk and world music aren’t dissimilar to what the Talking Heads were exploring on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. Birch is more dominant than on the band’s previous records, which adds to the record’s normality, since Da Silva’s generally the weirder of the two. You can hear Birch and Da Silva pulling apart more here – Da Silva explained in interviews that the pair are different ages and have different interests.
Birch’s ‘Dance of Hopping Mad’, driven by a funky bassline, sounds almost mainstream compared to the band’s early work, but it’s a good pop tune. Da Silva’s supplying the more idiosyncratic material that would have fitted onto the band’s earlier records – ‘I Saw A Hill’ features pretty violin. Birch’s material on the second side is often piano-based, with Aspinall providing baroque piano lines on ‘The Body’, where Richard Dudanski’s vocals are also prominent.
Moving is a little more mainstream than you’d expect from a Raincoats album, but it’s another fascinating entry in a singular discography.
Looking in the Shadows
The attention from Raincoats uber-fan Kurt Cobain led the band to reunite in the 1990s. They were scheduled to open for Nirvana’s UK tour in 1994, but Cobain committed suicide a week before. But Cobain’s enthusiasm helped the band to gain exposure – their three studio albums were reissued, and they recorded a new album in 1996. Birch and Da Silva had largely let their music careers slide and had to relearn their instruments. Even more than on Moving, you can feel Da Silva and Birch pulling in different directions – Da Silva favouring an arty approach, and Birch offering personality-driven, straight-ahead tunes. Vicky Aspinall isn’t involved in the reunion, replaced by Anne Wood.
NME trashed the album on release, and Da Silva has been dismissive of the record in interviews. But it’s a serviceable reunion, nonetheless. The biggest downside is that the group surrender mystique, with Birch delivering some dubious lines like “My name may be Birch/But I’m not a tree”. The closing title track is the most satisfying, with Birch and da Silva singing together, capturing some of the magic of their earlier records. The Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley provides backing vocals on ‘Love a Loser’.
Looking in the Shadows is a serviceable reunion album, but it largely lacks the magic of their earlier work.
10 Best Raincoats Songs
No Side to Fall In
Life on the Line
Only Loved at Night
Dance of Hopping Mad
I Saw A Hill
Dancing in My Head
Adventures Close to Home
Looking in the Shadows
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