“Another female-fronted band“. With those words sported on a t-shirt for a Sleeper photo-shoot circa 1995, Essex-born Louise Wener contrived to take on lazy musical journalists while adding her own sauce and spice to the Britpop oeuvre. Female-fronted Sleeper were, but such over-simplifications were part of the game in those post-Riot Grrl, pre-Girl Power days. Lines were drawn in the sand with Blur, Pulp, Oasis on one side and Sleeper, Elastica and Echobelly (to name but a few) on the other, with the women having to push extra hard to be taken seriously.
Sleeper were like a red pop rag to a Loaded reader’s bull, which more or less comes down to Wener’s choice of words and subject matter. Few lyricists of the times tackled issues of sex and relationships (but not limited to…) with such a nudge/wink fervour as Wener, all the while pushing her shopping cart full of Sleeper-blokes into the upper reaches of the UK charts. Looking back at the virile charm of “Swallow” and “Inbetweener”, and the not-so-behind-the-scenes inter-band mingling to follow, Wener clearly had much on her plate to write about.
On record, Sleeper were a mass of spiky guitars and clever hooks that only come from a well-studied background in relentlessly listening to pop music, with Smart duly reaching Top 5 in the UK album charts. You couldn’t fault Smart‘s attractiveness and its ability to sell the band. Underneath the hedonistic provocations of “Delicious” and its “We should both go to bed till we make each other sore/we should both go to bed till we make each other roar”, Wener was intent of painting a picture of suburban life and the dream of escaping the humdrum, something that was easy to imagine.
Remarkably, less than a year after the release of Smart, Sleeper would dismiss any threat of a sophomore slump with the effervescent serious pop of “What Do I Do Now?”. As a precursor to The It Girl, it was indicative of a polished, confident band with the album appearing at the right time to capitalise on the groundwork laid with Smart. The It Girl was an astonishingly accomplished that was smarter than Smart and less reliant on cheap provocation. It Boy Producer Stephen Street smoothed out the band’s rough edges and afforded the band the same golden touch he added to Blur’s Parklife.
If Smart was the cause, The It Girl was the effect. The casual play that gave “Inbetweener” became the regret and introspection of “What Do I Do Know?”. Follow-up single “Sale Of The Century” would solidify Sleeper’s footing in the charts as would further singles “Nice Guy Eddie” and “Statuesque”. There were enough possible singles scattered along both sides of the album that Sleeper could’ve milked The It Girl for the next two years. As indispensable albums of the Britpop era go, The It Girl earned its place amongst the Parklife’s and Different Class‘s.
What to be said though of their swansong Pleased To Meet You? Well, whether by foresight or mistake, it doesn’t appear here, which is a shame as time may have been kinder to it now than on release. Whatever the case, both Smart and The It Girl still stand up as being some of the best albums made by “another female-fronted band”. The timely Cherry Red reissues collect the bulk of the b-sides from single releases on bonus discs. Much like Oasis and Blur, some of Sleeper’s better songs wound up as extra tracks, including a baffling cover of The Pretenders “Hymn To Her”. Well, maybe not that one…