Bittersweet symphonies

Erstwhile June Brides vocalist Phil Wilson wields Industrial Strength pop

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Indie culture tends to romanticize dog-eared production as a sign of authenticity rather than one of limited means. When I interviewed Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang last winter, they emphasized how they strove for professionalism designing Galaxie 500's epochal album sleeves and then laughed when we talked about how younger bands try to recreate their so-called handmade quality. Phil Wilson suffered an altogether nastier shock when fans of the June Brides rejected his attempts to expand the scope of the band's singles from tattered nursery rhymes like "Every Conversation" to the more poised pop songsmithery of "Josef's Gone."

Of all the casualties of indie capriciousness, the Junies seem to have had especially rotten luck. Originally formed in 1983 by Wilson and schoolmate Simon Beesley, the June Brides quickly swelled to accommodate trumpeter Jon Hunter and John Cale–inspired violist Frank Sweeney. The group was a staple of Alan McGee's Living Room venue, but McGee didn't sign the Junies to his ascendant Creation Records, purportedly writing the band off as too obvious a choice.

The Junies' slapdash discography of postcard singles and a mini-album — all collected on Cherry Red's essential 2005 anthology, Every Conversation: The Story of The June Brides and Phil Wilson — was par for the era, but the outfit had several brushes with something more: an NME cover story, opening slots for the Jesus and Mary Chain at their infamous Ambulance Station shows, and taking Morrissey's vote as "best band of 1985." But before they could get their footing, the combo got caught in an unenviable snare of nostalgic fans and a press backlash toward the twee bands associated with the C86 (Rough Trade/NME, 1986) compilation.

Alan McGee did invite Wilson to record solo material for Creation after the Junies split up in 1986, but after a couple of tender, country-tinged singles didn't sell, the singer-songwriter extricated himself to a career in civil service. A new four-song EP, Industrial Strength, released by Oakland indie-pop aficionados Slumberland, picks up the quirky folk-rock vein he left off with on "10 Miles" and "A Jingle." Wilson's voice is a bit less herky-jerky than it once was, but he sounds refreshed on the jangly opener, "Neon Lights." The best song of the set, a hypnotic swirl of dream-pop called "United," shows he still has a knack for making a ecstatically romantic lyric sound a little anxious.

In the past, Wilson used to work the opposite way, dabbing forlorn verses in his quicksilver melodies and soft-curving arches of verse-chorus-bridge. Bittersweet pop doesn't come any more delicately folded than the vocalist's gorgeous goodbye to the '80s on the Caff Records' 1989 "Better Days"/"The Written Word" single. The flubbed notes and flat harmonies of the early June Brides singles are endearing, but Wilson's later efforts with the band — see the glitzy panache of "Just the Same" — show that the singer-songwriter was drawn to Brill Building polish as much as Television Personalities scruff.

This was a solid decade before it became fashionable for indie-rockers to mine baroque pop à la Pulp and Belle and Sebastian — an English association that could easily be expanded to put the Junies in the same league as American melancholy artists like Yo La Tengo and Sebadoh. Wilson won't be netting a check for his California mini-tour comparable to the one the Jesus and Mary Chain got for headlining Coachella last year, but his songbook remains ripe for rediscovery, this summer or any other.

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