In a perfect world, Th’ Faith Healers would be as popular as the Pixies. Critics would gush about the noise-pop perfectionism of the band’s three Too Pure releases, Lido, Imaginary Friend, and L’. Th’ Faith Healers would be millionaires, or at least hundreds-of-thousands-aires, and they’d go on world tours and tear up the festival circuit as headliners or near-headliners. Girls would flip.
At least we have what we have from them, and that’s three records of nearly peerless aggro drone-pop mastery.
Th’ Faith Healers were part of that mid-90s Too Pure stable that included such lush and luscious bands as Laika, Mouse on Mars, Stereolab, Seefeel, Rothko, and Pram, among others.* Most of those bands were known for introspection, atmosphere, and texture. Th’ Faith Healers were one of the few bands that broke that unity of sound, emphasizing concrete crunch over abstracted abstraction, and they arguably did so more than any other labelmate.**
Though I alluded to the Pixies, and though there’s an obvious and undeniable affinity, there’s more to Th’ Faith Healers than aggressive, quirky pop. The squalls of noise, despite being resolutely lo-fi, are much more abrasive than anything you’re likely to find on anything Black Francis has had a hand in. The songs themselves owe much more to the chugging, hypnotic repetition of Krautrock than the two-minute sugarbursts the Pixies excelled at. Perhaps most notably, the sense of bouncy, in-your-face fun that characterizes the Pixies has been swapped out for a foreboding weirdness. All these changes, I should note, are to the vast betterment of Th’ Faith Healers.
Imaginary Friend is sequenced carefully. Th’ Faith Healers start off with a muscular brand of amphetamine-fueled pop and then methodically eviscerate it, stretching it out and making it progressively moodier. Opener “Sparklingly Chime,” with its chunky bassline, spoken vocals, and wailing guitar lead, could conceivably be the quirkiest song on, say, a Breeders record. Somehow, though, I don’t think anyone is going to mistake the menacing, propulsive, seven-minute-plus “The People,” complete with cathartic caterwauls of noise and murmured falsetto, with “Mr. Grieves.” (Guess which song I prefer?) And Black Francis at his absolute ballsiest would have been terrified of the half-hour Kraut-punk jam “Everything, All At Once Forever/Run Out Groove,” which is sort of like the 90s version of “This Dust Makes That Mud”—unapologetically indulgent, meandering, and positively hypnotic.
Though Th’ Faith Healers were, sonically, a bit out of place in comparison with their contemporaries on Too Pure, they really did share a number of aesthetic sensibilities with their labelmates, including a fascination with the possibilities of sound and an emphasis on nontraditional song structure. Imaginary Friend, in all its threatening, noisy glory, is a testament to that, a nocturnal, creepy, joyfully menacing piece of work.
*Christ almighty! Every time I look at the Too Pure roster, I get chills. Too Pure is, pound for pound, my favorite record label.
**Though McClusky comes close.