17. The Primitives, Lovely
Certain as I am that the following statement can be refuted many times over by countless music fans with their own predilections, I’m still going to put it out there: No debut album begins in better fashion than Lovely by the Primitives. “Crash” wasn’t their first official single. In the U.K. it was preceded by a bevy of other songs, most of which also showed up on Lovely. But “Crash” is such a glistening piece of pure pop perfection that it’s an announcement of resounding necessity. The Primitives are a band that demands to be heard, not by the sheer force of their playing, like the punk icons of a decade earlier, but through startling command of songcraft. Penned by chief songwriter Paul Court, along with bassist Steve Dullaghan and lead singer Tracy Tracy, the song begins with a quick, tingly riff like steadily falling rain. It goes for almost ten full seconds, before a punch of sound and then Tracy launches straight into the chorus: “You go way too fast/ Don’t slow down, you’re gonna crash.” It’s over in two-and-a-half minutes, because sometimes that’s all the time greatness needs.
The Primitives first formed in 1985, although initially without Tracy, and the Primitives without Tracy is unthinkable. A tiny bottle blonde with a presence that demonstrates how icy certainty can be the most beguiling quality of all, Tracy brought a casual command to the songs. Whether singing about heartache or ongoing affection (the Primitives trafficked in both, meaning the point of view of the records seems to be all of pop music’s possibility and purpose), Tracy brought the same tone, slightly disaffected but also sweet. There was a sugary quality to the songs, laced with something just a little bitter, like the zest of a lemon rind. The singing cuts through the Jesus and Mary Chain-styled gloppy buzz of “Thru the Flowers,” for example. Her vocals are beams of sunlight leaving marks more akin to razors. In look, in sound, in everything, Tracy is exactly what a band like the Primitives needs to feel complete.
Lovely is a stacked record, full of gems that have a touch of cloudiness to them, the kind of shadowing that makes a thing of beauty even more beautiful. There’s the post-punk brashness of “Really Stupid,” the narcotic-conked Go-Go’s sound of “Nothing Left,” or the dreamy tenderness of “Don’t Want Anything to Change.” The Primitives weren’t prone to wild veering stylistically, but they knew how to keep the dynamics of their songs from becoming rote. I love the way the echoing, Joy Division-y intro of “I’ll Stick With You” is washed over but not quite subsumed by a cheery tune that reaches back to girl group goodness without overtly aping it. It’s a simple, satisfying trick that shows up all over Lovely: songs zig when they seem like they’re about to zag (or, maybe more accurately, just barrel straight along), but the shift is always done with such verve and panache that there’s no noticing the sonic sleight of hand. As with any great entertainers, they coax the audience into wanting to believe in them, in their showmanship and charm. Listening to Lovely is engaging in a bear hug embrace of elation itself.
Shining like a flare at its peak, the Primitives were obviously not built for longevity. They released their sophomore album, Pure, one year later (that album’s stunning track “Way Behind Me” also showed up on later pressings of Lovely) and then one last effort that was almost entirely ignored when it bounced in and out of record stores in 1991. Like other bands from that era that enjoyed only modest success, the Primitives’ cachet only grew in the intervening years. In their case, it was thanks largely to the inclusion of a remixed take on “Crash” on the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack, of all places. The song has become one the retrospective standards of college rock, getting covered in the oddest ways. All that probably helped spur a reunion (not that old college rock bands need all that much prompting to get back together), leading the Primitives to release the decent Echoes and Rhymes in 2012, their first new music together in twenty years. It may be a mere echo of what came before, but Lovely is an album that deserves to reverberate forever.