Winks & Kisses (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) by Airiel (Review)

The Chicago shoegazers’ four-EP set, now featuring previously unreleased demos, is a shining example of shoegaze pop par excellence.
Winks & Kisses (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) - Airiel

After making my way through the nearly four hours that comprise the 20th anniversary edition of Airiel’s Winks & Kisses compilation, I feel pretty confident in saying one thing: I’d probably listen to another four hours of Jeremy Wrenn just strumming away on his Rickenbackers and Fender Jaguars.

Mind you, Wrenn and his bandmates have distilled all that’s good and golden about shoegaze and dreampop, and their songs are subsequently filled with just as many hooks and melodies as dreamy atmospheres. (“Liquid Paper” and “Sharron Apple” are ample proof of this adroitness.) But listen to any song on Winks & Kisses, even the poppiest and most straightforward ones, and you’re bound to hear some delightfully otherworldly sonics.

Now, I don’t know what settings Wrenn uses on what I can only assume is an elaborate array of effects pedals, but I do know that his tones are shoegaze shimmer par excellence. The nearly-ten-minute “500 Deep” launches out of the gate with a stuttering drumbeat and loping bassline. By the four-minute mark, however, everything has dropped out except for Wrenn’s languid guitar tones, which are as evocative as anything Robin Guthrie ever coaxed from his instruments.

On songs like “Rainflower,” “Halo,” and “Firefly,” Wrenn creates dreamy cascades of sound that, on “Firefly,” provide a perfect backdrop for Stella Tran’s (Polykroma, Transient Stellar) ethereal voice. And “In Your Room,” arguably the band’s most iconic song, finds Wrenn’s guitar chiming away like it was carved out of purest silver, which perfectly accents his yearning voice and shamelessly romantic lyrics (e.g., “You shine so bright, a light inside my head/I love the thought of staring at you”).

Originally released by Clairecords between 2003 and 2004 as a tetralogy of EPs, Winks & Kisses has been reissued several times. But Feeltrip Records’ 20th anniversary edition includes a number of demos, many of which are previously unreleased. Despite being rough around the edges, the demos are still lovely in their own right. With its kaleidoscope of glittering guitar notes, “Stationary Lights” is anything but, while “Wasteland Cupid” evokes lovesliescrushing’s amorphous textures, albeit with a beat.

Of all of the various “newgazers” out there, I often feel like Airiel gets sadly overlooked despite having been around since 1997. Wrenn et al.‘s take on shoegaze is so classic, that I’m just surprised more people aren’t raving about them. Despite being two decades in age — even older if you count the various demos — there’s nothing stale about music this effortless, this effervescent. Every time I hear those chiming guitars on “Firefly” or “In Your Room,” I’m reminded all over again of why I fell in love with shoegaze in the first place.

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