Vol.33: Twee Singers in a Guitar Cathedral (Fantastic Something’s “If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain)”)

Cover of Fantastic Something If She Doesn't Smile (It'll Rain) single

You mope your way, and I’ll mope mine.

Fantastic Something – If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain) (1984, Cherry Red)

Download the single, courtesy of the Sweeter Moments blog

Why It’s Perfect: Consider the title: If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain). Within the tiny emotional universe the song creates, it reads as a simple statement of fact. It’s a sunny day, and a boy is looking for a girl. It can’t be just any girl; there is only one girl, the girl who makes him happy. He cannot be more specific on this point, because the only thing he knows about her is that when she is not around, he is not happy. Sometimes he is lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her. If she does not smile when they meet, it will rain (precipitation presumably localized to the airspace immediately below his tear ducts). That’s just what happens next.

There is a fine line between coming off as childlike and appearing to be, well, retarded, but Fantastic Something manage it well. The emotional binary here is posed in absolute terms: the protagonist believes that finding the girl will make him perfectly fulfilled but, more importantly, also believes that she is the only way to achieve that fulfillment. As a result, If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain) flits between absolute contentment and deep melancholy like few other songs I know. The Veis brothers harmonize well, but they seem to be singing near the top of their range (perhaps even falsetto). The higher they sing, the weaker their voices sound, and this weakness is what makes the lyrics feel so terribly poignant.

All of this slightly twee (okay, very twee) fragility would be unremarkable were it not for the absolutely gorgeous guitar. I’m going to try not to let my total lack of musical training get me in trouble here, but one of the things I love about jangly guitar playing (think The SmithsThe Byrds, early R.E.M.) is how continuous the melody feels. The notes tumble over each other, each ringing out distinctively even as the next begins, cycling on into the next phrase. What I find so captivating about the guitar on If She Doesn’t Smile is how it evolves into a weave of intricate, interlocking parts, all chiming together in perfect synchronization. The B-side of the Smile single is a resplendent instrumental version with a ton of extra guitar overdubs retitled The Thousand Guitars of St. Dominiques, and something about that title makes me hear the central guitar part as having a bit of a churchy, Baroque harpsichord air (lifted subtly by a tasteful bit of distant strings). Every guitar is not merely in its right place, it’s in the only place that it could be. Though the quality of the guitar composition far outstrips that of the vocals, they share this distance from real experience, the vocals in their exaggerated naiveté and timidity, the guitar in its faultless divinity.

I’m making a lot out of a cheaply recorded, obscure indie 7”, I know, but if there’s anything all this painfully gnarled verbiage can get across it’s that sometimes even the humblest artists can stumble on a feeling that even the most concerted effort struggles to put into words. There is the single as it may be to you, a slight, pretty thing, and the single as it feels to me, as I have tried to tell you. And then there is simply the sound of those cascading guitars, which do more than I could ever say.

Defining Moment: About a minute and a half in, the brothers coo about having briefly found their girl (after having memorably asked a bee “Where did my honey go?” *wince*). As they hit the end the end of the verse, they moan “don’t go away, go away” and hold the note, and that sustained note is the saddest moment in the whole song. And then, that unearthly guitar finds its full voice for the first time. Wonderful.

Picture of indie band Fantastic Something.

Artfully bedraggled.

Other Great Songs by Fantastic SomethingIf She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain) is a good example of the reason I didn’t call my blog “Perfect Pop Hits.” Fantastic Something was a duo, brothers Constantis and Alexandros Veis, who emigrated to the UK from Greece sometime in the late ‘70s (or possibly 1980, sources vary). There is very little information about them online, but it seems likely that they attended university in London and became part of the burgeoning alternative pop scene. Their demo caught the ear of influential A&R man Mike Alway of indie label Cherry Red Records, who signed them and released this lone single. Unfortunately, they were a bit late to the party and missed out on inclusion to Cherry Red’s legendary Pillows & Prayers – Cherry Red 1982-1983 compilation which dominated the UK indie chart and launched the careers of bands like Everything but the GirlThe Monochrome Set and Felt, the latter perhaps the closest band to If She Doesn’t Smile’s ethereal grace.*

Like most great indie singles by bands with no publicity to speak of, If She Doesn’t Smile didn’t shift too many units, living on dimly in the memories and dusty record collections of greying alternative kids, embraced by a few archivists in search of unknown jangle gems. Fantastic Something did release a self-titled LP in 1985, also on Cherry Red which you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding online. The LP is pure sophisti-pop, exchanging the single’s intimate drift in favour of a Burt Bacharach/The Pale Fountains flavour, though some of the arrangements are inspired. It has a number of fetching tracks like the plinky Garden City and warbling instrumental Hurt Kingdoms, so if that sound rubs you the right way, give it a listen. In 2001 they quietly (how else?) issued a new fully acoustic EP called Songs in a Small Room which is trickier to find, and features a sterling cover of The Beatles‘ And I Love Her that is closer in spirit to their one perfect single than anything else they ever released.

* Fantastic Something were included on the second volume of Pillows & Prayers, but it was unfortunately released only in Japan. This second volume is often anthologized with the first, however, so it’s relatively easy to score a copy of. There’s even a DVD with the charmingly awkward video for If She Doesn’t Smile, which you can watch below.

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Filed under 1980s, alternative, indie, jangle pop

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