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NIGHTBLOOMS (Buy CDs by this artist)
Butterfly Girl EP (UK Fierce) 1992
The Nightblooms (UK Fierce/Paperhouse) 1992 (Fire/Seed) 1993
24 Days at Catastrofe Café (Fire/Seed) 1993

In the course of just a few years, this Dutch quartet underwent a nearly complete transformation of sound, even though its two-man/two-woman lineup (they all lived together) remained fixed. (That Steve Gregory, the mysterious Svengali/auteur behind the Pooh Sticks and Fierce Records, produced the band couldn't possibly have anything to do with that, now could it?) "Crystal Eyes," a 1990 single, cakes singer Esther Sprikkelman's lovely little melody in a thick crust of howling guitars (including a spectacular whammy-bar solo by Harry Otten), amp noise and general mayhem; the noise level on its flip side, "Never Dream at All," is so extreme that it's hard to notice the fragile tune at all.

The title track of the Butterfly Girl EP, on the other hand, demonstrates the Nightblooms' ability to not exert its power — for most of the song, the band lets Sprikkelman and bassist Petra van Tongeren sing with scant accompaniment, though the constant low-level feedback hints at what happens when the Nightblooms do let loose. The EP also reprises "Crystal Eyes" and throws in a straightforward rocker and a live noise-fest.

The centerpiece of The Nightblooms is an eight-minute version of "Butterfly Girl" with some ghostly tape loops at the beginning. Most of the album sets Sprikkelman and van Tongeren's clear, unaffected harmonies over fairly conventional shoegazey rock, though usually to exceptionally beautiful effect. The band also plays with some weird song structures ("A Thousand Years") and the kind of subtle dynamic variation few can pull off.

The first half of 24 Days at Catastrofe Café is enough of an about-face that — if not for Sprikkelman's breathy lisp — it's nearly impossible to believe it's the same band. The record starts with seven short, crunchy riff-rock numbers with handclaps and all the fixings, including a re-recording of "Never Dream at All" that could pass for a long-lost sibling of "We Will Rock You," followed by the lighter-waving "Everyone Loves You" (including a five-minute, stadium-pleasing guitar solo). The two remaining songs get back onto more familiar territory, with a ten-minute epic called "Shatterhand" that distills and amplifies everything that was noteworthy about the first album and — also like The Nightblooms — a short, drumless, gorgeous coda ("Sweet Rescue").

[Douglas Wolk]