Made To Make Your Spine Tingle

Some of you might recall my recent delve into the past of St Etienne and Heavenly records. Well it's a delight to able to bring the tale up to date with the release of their sixth album, Finisterre (Mantra).

Finisterre is St Etienne's Protest Album. That's a Protest Album in the nature of Back in Denim of course, rather than, say, The Times They Are A-Changin, but it's a Protest Album all the same. It's a Protest Album about what Pop, culture and life ought to be but so often aren't.

St Etienne have always had a very clear idea about what makes for great Pop and Rock. They've clearly always been devoutly in love with its possibilities. They've always been amongst the strongest daydream believers, the ones shouting the loudest 'yeses' in response to that Lovin' Spoonful question that's at the absolute heart of all Pop: 'do you believe in magic?'

St Etienne believe so strongly in the magic that they've articulated both that love and conversely the hate of it all going wrong into songs that slap you in the face with dynamic spirit and sus. And naturally, this being St Etienne, they cloak their slaps in the most luxurious of velvet gloves.

Finisterre is St Etienne's Punk Rock album. Of course St Etienne have always been a punk band at heart, which is the only place that counts after all. In the past they've had sleeve notes penned by Jon Savage and Julie Burchill. Here, they rope in the under-sung hero of Punk, Mark Perry, whilst actor Michael Jayston at one point recites in that marvellous voice: 'sometimes I feel nostalgia for an age yet to come'. That they sound more S Club Seven than Sex Pistols is of course an added bonus.

Finisterre is naturally a great Pop album. It contains some of my favourite St Etienne songs ever, and when you're up against past glories the likes of 'Nothing Can Stop Us', 'Motorway', 'Pale Movie' and gee, a host of others, that's really saying something. Single 'Action' is a Punk anthem, a rallying call to arms full of Dexys' pathos and passion about one of those moments in life's cycle where you remember the times you felt That Feeling and reach out to attempt reclamation. 'Soft Like Me' is simply awesome, especially with Wildflower's guest vocal; a grand song that seems to sum up the St Etienne stance on this whole album: 'soft but strong'. It's certainly one of the highlights of my year. 'B92' starts with Jayston stating that 'Rock could be so good, but we made it all so rubbishy', which is spot on. The song then continues with more fabulous electro-pop, namecheking Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back In Town' and cheekily their own 'Nothing Can Stop Us'. Sarah Cracknell also rather grandly claims that 'this is our wall of sound'. Well, it's not quite Spectoresque, but it's not far off. And then there's the title track, preceded by Jayston's voice referencing former Heavenly label-mates The Manic Street Preachers and masters of late '80s political pop McCarthy, before guest Sarah Churchill starts a gorgeous narrative about the nature of the modern world with a host of lines that have me leaping from the sofa and proclaiming my love of St Etienne from the attic window. The girl next door in the Kerrang shirt looks suitably bemused. The lines are so sweet, like 'I'm so bored with stupidity and the myth of common sense', 'I believe in Donovan over Dylan, love over cynicsm' and finally the Suicide-esque 'dreams never end'. Indeed they don't. St Etienne still dream of a better (Pop) tomorrow, and I'm still dreaming right along with them.

I'm also dreaming of an Indian Summer over here in the UK, not least because it would be just the right kind of climate to accompany the release of Marc Carroll's Ten Of Swords album. It's certainly been a fantastic soundtrack to my own high summer, with its ace power-folk-country-pop-rock ringing through my ears as I head up and out along country lanes, sensing guitars cascading from the skies. It's one of my criteria for judging the greatness of Pop you see: its ability to stick in my head and accompany bicycle rides. Ten Of Swords passes the test with flying colours. There are a whole host of memorable tunes: opening single 'Crashpad Number' with its ringing McGuinn-esque guitars and its nod to 'Manic Monday' as the chorus takes off; Mrs Lullaby, who it seems 'turns tricks for a pound', and which ushers in ghostly memories of the Jam at their Pop best (although it might just be the way Carroll sings 'in a strange town'; 'Idiot World' coming on like Velvet Crush with a lost classic from the mighty In The Presence Of Greatness. It's not all rocking out though. Songs like the gorgeous gentle shuffle of 'Soft and Blind', the country picking 'Falling Into Nowhere' or the album closing 'Terror and Tired Eyes' are restrained moments of beauty, all the while filled with melodies you want to hum all day long. At times it all recalls the wonder of those early Uncle Tupelo records, notably Still Feel Gone, and like those alt-country groundbreakers, Carroll has the good taste to cover the traditional folk tune 'Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down'. I'd wager Carroll first heard the song via Uncle Tupelo rather than through Harry Smith's American Folk Anthology, but that's no crime of course. With Ten Of Swords Marc Carroll has made a marvellous fusion of folk, country, rock and pop, and it deserves to be huge. Let's just pray for some sunshine to go with it.

Does the sun ever shine in Leeds? I don't know. It certainly never has when I've been there. Whatever, straight out of Leeds, via Pittsburgh, come Bilge Pump with Let Me Breathe (Gringo). As you might expect from a bunch of maniacal Northerners paying homage at the altar of Mark E Smith whilst clutching a sackful of old Slint, Rodan and June of 44 records, Bilge Pump play raucous fractured rock punctuated with obtuse, surreal and biting lyrics. Not that it's anywhere near on a par with the barbed wit and wisdom that has tumbled from the great gob of the mighty Mark E over the years, but hey, what is? For those old enough to make sense of such references (and for those young and sharp enough to want to take a dig through the history books) Bilge Pump also recall Edinburgh's once fabulous Dog Faced Hermans, or maybe even those other Manc hooligans of noisepop The Membranes. In other words, devoutly dark but shot through with flashes of psychedelic acid colour made to make your spine tingle.

Of course there's also a chance that actually Bilge Pump are more like the band that Daniel, Nick and co put together in Freaks and Geeks: a nightmarish cacophony that, in the minds of the creators, is in fact a facsimile of Led Zeppelin and King Crimson. Scary.

Speaking of Freaks and Geeks, I just want to take time-out to say that I think my favourite TV moment of recent years, or maybe ever, is the part in one episode of that show where Lindsay listens to The Grateful Dead's American Beauty for the first time. It's wonderful, from the moment she puts the album on the deck, with a bored 'what the hell' shrug, to the repeated lifting of the needle back to the start, to play it all over again and the intrigued scouring of the sleeve, as 'Box Of Rain' soundtracks the scene, and Lindsay windmills around her room, a smile as wide as the Golden Gate bridge across her face. Wow. I admit the first time I saw that episode I was all full of contempt. I mean, the Grateful Dead, what a bunch of hippies, right? But when that scene came on and I heard 'Box Of Rain' for the first time ever, I was really converted. At least to the greatness of that album, if not to the overall worth of the 'Dead. And it seemed such a shame to me that, as the series ended with Lindsay skipping out on her summer school to go following the Dead with the Deadheads in their VW van, that she was off to be surely disappointed by what awaited her. Imagine hearing American Beauty, after all, and expecting an early '80s Grateful Dead show to sound just like that record... sheesh.

Okay, back to the present.

Volume five of the Sweet Sixteen compilation series (Parasol) is a treat and a half for anyone still into sweetly melodic pop, folk-tinged country or dreampop. And why wouldn't you be? There's a definite Swedish bent on this volume, with more than 20% of the tracks hailing from that fair land. For example, there's Club 8. Now, I've always loved Club 8 whenever I've heard them but for some reason I've never bought any of their records. There's no reason for this other than the fact that they've never cropped up in the record stores of Exeter, and I've been too lazy to order them over the interweb thang. Maybe it's for the best though, because it means that whenever I do hear Club 8 it's unexpected, or at least random, and the best way to experience Pop, after all, is as a random delight. Here they proffer the title track from their Spring Came, Rain Fell album on which they once more come over as St Etienne's siblings, sitting on the swings in the park. The red swings, naturally.

Fellow Swedes The Soundtrack Of Our Lives meanwhile are more like a groovy 6Ts beat psych band transported to 9Ts Camden. Lots of ba-ba-ba's, swirling organs and guitars that cascade across hidden heart strings. I imagine they have good short haircuts and wear sharp suits. It's all pretty neat, and everything's just fine. Similarly neat but back with an electro-pop the likes of Stars do so finely is Martin Permer, whose 'Popgirl' from his Summerdays Attract The Pain album gyrates in all the right ways. Do people still call things 'groovy' except in an ironic Austin Powers way? Well Permer is groovy, and no irony is involved. So there.

Away from Sweden, there's Chicago's Doleful Lions, who here shiver down the end of summer with a strummed acoustic guitar over easy drums and a tambourine that does all the things you'd expect from a tambourine, which is to say, looking like Andy framing his silver hair and shades and Edie frugging in the corner. There's also The Witch Hazel Sound, who apparently recently had a song appear on dodgy 'cult' TV show Roswell. Don't hold that against them though. After all, didn't the Hang Up's 'Top Of Morning' once crop up on an early episode of Dawson's Creek? And didn't it raise your spirits as a result? Well, whatever, in '2 or 3 Things I Know About Her' The Witch Hazel Sound offer up a swish soft-pop loungecore, a soft-psych daze of a song made for watching the clouds that allows me to excuse them their Roswell incident.

Vitesse are clearly in thrall of Stephin Merritt and '80s electro-pop, and that's a pretty fine way to be. 'Such Emotion' recalls prime Magnetic Fields circa Charm of the Highway Strip or Get Lost, which is to say it recalls the finest Pop from the last decade or ever. It's no surprise then that Vitesse have already released an album (their third) on ultra-hip Spanish label Acuarela (rapidly becoming my favourite label of the moment), with Hidden Agenda putting out their most recent You Win Again, Gravity! (a Simpsons reference, perhaps?). I'm intrigued to hear more.

Top treat for me though are The Possibilities. Out of Athens, Georgia, they do a great retro-sound-for-all-your-tomorrows. It's all mussed up wall of sound melody, dream-pop in fizzy acid colour, organs whirling in the spaces between Neptune and your navel. 'Invisible' really is a wonder of tuneful noise that in an alternate universe is a Number One single for months on end and soundtracks every fracturing heart that tumbles and falls through the forest in the afternoon, mouth open wide to catch the sun that shafts through the gaps in the canopy. It's that good and makes me desperate to hear more from their Way Out album (also on Parasol).

Now, I don't know when the Flotation Toy Warning 'I remember Trees' EP (Pointy) came out, and I don't really care. It's been playing a lot here recently, mostly on afternoons when the haze is laid out on top of the Haldon hills and I'm just idly looking out the attic window on brick walls and yards full of rusted up bikes and stolen bollards. I guess it's because Flotation Toy Warning sound like afternoon music; an afternoon where you're laid on the sofa maybe, playing some old country records whilst through the window wafts the noise of lazy beats and electronica played by the woman next door who's digging out her old DJ Krush and Broadcast singles, punctuated by snatches from passing cars playing Kraftwerk, BBC Radio Three and opera. That really is the sound of Flotation Toy Warning; a sound that would be ramshackle if it weren't so artfully stitched together; a collage of sounds and influence that could end up like some shoddy pastiche but instead transcends the scraps and coalesces into something as startlingly seductive as a Kurt Schwitters. Listening to Flotation Toy Warning is a deeply rewarding and fascinating journey that I urge you all to take at the first opportunity.

© Alistair Fitchett 2002

Marc Carroll's Ten Of Swords is released on 23 September, 2002
St Etienne's Finisterre is released on 30 September, 2002