Flashback ’90: The Sundays, “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '90

He might be a little peeved about the band’s ongoing hiatus, but Jeff Giles still has enough love for the Sundays to celebrate their debut’s 20th birthday.

To anyone who’s never heard it before, the Sundays’ Reading, Writing and Arithmetic sounds like a quaint artifact — it’s one of the last “college radio” records to come out of the format’s golden era, a time before “modern rock” merged with “alternative” and in order to be cool, all pop music had to be outfitted with serrated edges and draped in flannel. But what you can’t understand, if you didn’t experience the album as it was released, is that the Sundays sounded like artifacts in 1990. Popping up in a landscape dominated with the overpowering drum machines and booty-shaking melodies of artists like Madonna and Milli Vanilli, the Sundays might as well have been the fossils on the cover of their album; even within the context of college playlists, they were oddballs, never really fitting in alongside the likes of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. They were a band out of time.

Consequently, 20 years after its release, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic sounds just as fresh as it ever did — which is to say not very, which has always been a significant part of its charm. A lot of pop duos struggle with their balance of power — Hall overpowers Oates, the Gallagher brothers try to kill each other, and the stress of dealing with Jagger sends Keith Richards up coconut trees — but from the opening notes of this album, it was clear that lead Sundays Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin were two halves of a perfect whole.

The most upfront element of the band’s appeal was unquestionably Wheeler — like an indie-pop Susanna Hoffs, she had the kind of sweetly girlish-yet-knowing vocals that drive men (and, um, 16-year-old boys) crazy, as well as an adorable London accent that made “cynically” sound like “silly-gilly.” But a cute voice will only get you so far, and what really defined the Sundays’ sound was Gavurin’s guitars, which suspended Wheeler’s vocals over a shimmering, jangly, intricate web of sound. It was Gavurin’s guitars that earned the Sundays a stack of Smiths comparisons, but to these ears, the Sundays never sounded quite as precious as the Smiths; Wheeler and Gavurin might have occupied a less colorful emotional bandwidth than Moz and Marr, but instead of melodrama, the Sundays gave us something smaller, and perhaps more honest. Theirs was the kind of sound that could turn a mundane-reading line like “finding a pound on the Underground” into something that felt like an insightful observation.

Of course, that’s all intellectual critic mumbo jumbo. What turned the Sundays into stars — in the States, anyway; as tended to be the case with all the cool bands in those days, they were big in Britain first — was “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” a breeze-blown dandelion seed of a single whose gentle melody and sun-kissed guitars masked lyrics about sexual indiscretion and regret. In two decades of overplaying it, I haven’t once tired of the song, and if it had been the only track on Reading, the album still would have been well worth the price of a longbox in 1990. It ran far deeper, though — as our hipper British friends already knew, “Can’t Be Sure” was just as bewitching a single as “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” and if some of the record’s deeper tracks lacked the melodic immediacy of its hits, they didn’t lack for replay value. For a debut, it’s really remarkably consistent; you can play the whole thing in repeat for hours and just get lost in it. It feels warm — listening to it is like falling asleep on a sunny windowsill on a spring afternoon.

Sadly, the Sundays’ musical work ethic is just as sleepy; they released their second album, Blind, in 1992, but it was five years before they reappeared with their third effort, Static & Silence, and 2010 will mark the 13th year of the band’s stupid hiatus, ostensibly begun so Wheeler and Gavurin could raise their kids out of the spotlight, but which now exists, I’m pretty sure, for the sole purpose of pissing me off. Ah, well; call me silly-gilly, but I’ll keep waiting for new music from Wheeler and Gavurin, no matter how long it takes to appear. And in the meantime, we have three wonderful albums that still sound as fresh — or, you know, not — as they did when they were released.

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