Looking for The Phantom Lady

Okay, so picture this: Lee Van Cleef stands in the midday white light and flicks a cigar butt into the dust. Somewhere overhead a buzzard circles. Out of the shadows steps Loredana Nusciak, hair piled high and dress cut low. At the end of the street a young Mexican boy climbs the bell tower at the Mission and lets out a pealing lament. Van Cleef walks slowly through the dust, the bells fade into star shaped guitar notes, and hey, we're falling into the soundtrack to the Western from heaven that is Aislers Set's 'Mission Bells'. Actually in this scenario it's more likely to their Spanish version, 'Campanas De Mission', but what the heck. Both can be found, alongside the equally exquisite (well what did you expect?) 'I'm So Glad To See You Go' on a 12" from Suicide Squeeze. Everyone should already love The Aislers Set, of course, but if you don't yet, then this single is as fine a place to start your affair as any, and is a glorious taster for the new album which ought to be gracing our stereos sometime early in 2003. It's good to have things to look forward to, isn't it?

Another Clientele record is always a cause for celebration too, and 'Haunted Melody'/'Fear of Falling' (Pointy) is no exception. If you're familiar with the sound made by The Clientele than this is more of the same, and that's of course just fine. This single shows no great changes of direction for The Clientele, instead giving once more the feeling that they are in the process of carefully honing their sound, developing soft and subtle changes of hue and tone. For me, it's these almost imperceptible changes from record to record that make the Clientele so special. It was the same with Felt, with whom they share this sense of organic development, and indeed with all great Pop; formula being the key of course. Of course too there's a soaking in late '60s psych-folk stylings at work in The Clientele that I find impossible to resist. Their cover of the West Coast Experimental Band's 'Tracey Had A Hard Day Monday' gave the explicit nod, but really the whole essence of that era seems to infuse The Clientele in the most perfectly natural manner imaginable. So imagine John Hartford strumming in Golden Gate Park, or maybe more tellingly Anne Briggs chilling out with Soft Machine in Highgate Park and you'd maybe be thinking on the same wavelength as The Clientele.

Also on Pointy is The Special Tape, the second EP from that mysterious troupe called Flotation Toy Warning who earlier this year gave us the glorious I Remember Trees. That EP housed the epic 'Losing Carolina', a beguiling mixture of found sound, somnambulist beats and spooked disembodied vocals. There's nothing on The Special Tape that quite matches up to that track's majesty, but that's nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact the EP opener 'popstar reaching oblivion' fails only by a whisker to reach those dizzying heights, let down at the last hurdle only by more reliance on that quaking voice and less on the peculiar juxtapositions that made 'Losing Carolina' so magnificent. Similarly 'live from the lake in the sky' and 'best boy electric' are fine, atmospheric delights that sparkle like the aurora borealis and are rare treats. The Special Tape is more proof that Flotation Toy Warning are one of the most beguiling delights of the year.

Another new delight unearthed this year has been the Dead Digital label. Regular readers may remember my frothing at the mouth over their first release back in the summer, and since then I've been impatiently expecting the second. I'm glad to report it's been worth the wait. 'Armadillo In The Snow' is a four track EP from Primitive Painters, about whom I know nothing aside from the fact that they make magnificent electro pop and may, or may not, have lifted their name from that old Felt song. Really though the Felt reference is misleading, at least sonically, as Primitive Painters sound much more akin to the sparse melodic techno of Sabres of Paradise than anything else. And that's a great thing, because I've been keeping my ears open for a techno sound that captured such a spirit for ages. See, Sabres of Paradise really got it so right, implicitly understanding the importance of melody and song and how to exploit those within the structures of 'dance' music. Primitive Painters have just such a natural grasp, and make terrific Pop as a result. The title track is a peculiar Christmas Hit around my attic, with its sleigh bells and winding electro refrains keeping my feet tapping. Meanwhile 'Mantra' is full of dark sweetness - Cabaret Voltaire throwing their hands up in the air beneath a disco ball; 'Peoples Parasite' drops Tony Blair on top of icy beats and keyboard mists, whilst EP closer 'Foetal Attraction' comes on like early Depeche Mode breeding with Studio Pressure. More, please, and thank you...

Thank you too to Fortuna Pop for delivering another Christmas Gift compilation in time for the holidays. Like last years' offering, this collection is chock full of treats, in fact even more so as the track listing this year leaps by two to ten. There's something for everyone here, and no disappointments under the wrapping, aside from maybe the slight sadness at Discordia's 'Boxing Day Blues' not being a cover of the Emily classic. Highlights for me are Sportique's deranged 'A Little Splash of Lime' which captures the emptiness of seasonal drunken liaisons, plus Tender Trap's sprightly 'Frankincense and Myrrh' and Lucksmiths' 'The Thought That Counts' if only for the fact that it's always a delight to hear Amelia and Tali's voices respectively. And so it's not quite up to Phil Spector's classic Christmas Gift that it's clearly (with a nod and a cheery indiepop wave) modelled on. But lets face it, what is, or indeed ever can be? Fortuna Pop have nonetheless given us a fine slice of festive cheer with which to enliven any stocking. Mince pie, anyone?

I mentioned Suicide Squeeze earlier for their Aislers Set release, and it's the same Seattle based label that profers Highly Refined Pirates by Minus The Bear. With terrific song titles that bear little or no apparent relation to the songs' contents (typical titles: 'thanks for the killer game of Crisco twister', 'absinthe party at the fly honey warehouse', 'I lost all my money at the cock fights' and my personal favourite 'we are not a football team'), Minus The Bear make a slightly double-jointed awkward indie rock, all elbows and ankles and nervous twitches. I like this more and more with each play. Details seep out, breathe on the nape of my neck; like the lines in the aforementioned 'we are not a football team' that go, simply, 'we're still out at 10 in the evening', words that just flash a Polaroid bulb on a certain feeling that slips into the scene every now and then, haunting the crescent with, today, golden locks and my brothers red bicycle.

Much less intriguing for me are Pilot To Gunner, whose Games At High Speed (ARRCO) is way more traditional American Indie Rock in structure. The Press release says that some have compared the band to Wire and Nation of Ulysses amongst others, but really there's none of the edgy direction changes and abrasiveness I associate with both those groups here, and who ever trusted press releases anyway? Instead this just sounds to me like workmanline rock, with the emphasis on 'man': all testosterone workouts and sweaty hoodies. Not nice.

Slightly more pleasant on the same label is Grand Mal's Bad Timing. This is a similarly trad rock effort, but one that strays more towards '70s sounds like The New York Dolls, Flamin' Groovies and Mott the Hoople, all of whom were apparently influences on the making of this album. It shows too, and at times it sounds reminiscent of when Primal Scream were on a similar trip back in the late '80s, when they gave us the overlooked/critically panned but actually occasionally great Primal Scream album. So whilst this album is fine r'n'r for those who still think that nights obliterated by whisky, beer and cigarettes is, you know, something special and/or interesting (and I'm not saying it can't be, I'm only saying that for me, now, it isn't), it's really not enough to hold my attention for more than a cursory listen. Next...

So next, and by far the best of the ARRCO releases I've heard to date (although I expect the Oneida/Liars collaboration to be pretty grand) is Calla's Tellevise. This goes in intriguing directions, explores avenues ignored by their more trad rock label mates. At times reminiscent of those Australian masters of the post-rock textural landscape Deloris, Calla hail from Brooklyn via Texas, and make an urban noise fired through with burnt edges. Calla are also a bit like Godspeed You Black Emperor!; they share the same kind of understanding of tension and space, but Calla provide more interest in, you know, SONGS. Which is to be applauded. There's twinges of Giant Sand in there too; maybe just in the way a song like the album closer 'surface scratch' etches itself on the ground with sand blasted guitar shards, or maybe in the way Aurelio Valle's vocals just creak with a memory like Howe Gelb's does on occasion. Whatever, it's all finely tuned, with breaths and notes and sighs carefully placed and left to decay naturally. Good stuff.

Similarly intriguing is the Out Like A Lamb set from Doleful Lions (Broken Horse). Singer songwriter Jonathan Scott has apparently long voiced his admiration for Neu! and the Beach Boys, and I guess with Doleful Lions he's out to fuse those seemingly disparate influences into new sonic delights. To a large extent it's a success, too, and if it's heavier on the melody of the Beach Boys that the drone of Neu! then, for me at least, so much the better. And really, when you think about it, Brian Wilson's fabled search for, and play with sounds not inherently 'pop' inside a Pop context isn't that far away from what Neu! were about anyway, although you could argue Neu! came more from the European Rock/Avant Garde avenues, but whatever...

Doleful Lions make a rather gorgeous whisper of a sound; guitars picking out starlight bathed in swathes of keyboards; a rolling distant thunder of drums and voices that tiptoe through quarried shards of slate. It's not a million miles away from the kind of sounds being made by Augie March in fact - both bands seem to share an interest in taking melody out somewhere new, somewhere slightly unhinged and unsettling. It's vaguely psychedelic, where thankfully the psychedelia is more the gentle thrill of Sagittarius than, say, the electric overdose and histrionics of a Hendrix or Cream. This is rock that doesn't really rock at all, but rather sways, lost in summer breezes and the mythology of Smile bootlegs (and cue the best line on the album; 'don't you know it was the government stopped the Beach Boys from releasing Smile?'). Definitely one to offer up its treasures with repeated plays (and in this respect too like Augie March's wonderful Strange Bird), Out Like A Lamb has me rooting around for the three previous Doleful Lions albums, all of which were released in the US by Parasol. Out Like A Lamb is the kind of thing from which Obsessions spring.

And whilst we're on the subject of obsessions, let me share another recent one with you: a song called 'Summer Love' by New Zealand's Brunettes. From their super-fine album Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks (Lil Chief Records - initial copies come with a colouring book, which might give you a hint at what kind of sounds we're talking about here), 'Summer Love' has found its way easily onto my end of year selection pack of Top Tunes sent out to special persons on the back of its simple Pop perfection. By which I mean tinny keyboards right out of 1983, lyrics that unashamedly reference Pop Culture ('I wanna be Bruce cos he was born to run, and Brian cos he was Fun Fun Fun', 'I could do with summer love with a girl named Sandy' or 'I wanna be Jimmy Dean cos he was bad, a human ashtray in a Jag') and the feeling that oh, tomorrow might be the end of the world but for today we have a song in our hearts and lipstick traces on our psyches. Listening to The Brunettes reminds me of reading Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, around the time when Dr Wertham's Seduction of the Innocents is published and the national outcry against comics resulted in mass comic book pyres across the USA. In Chabon's book Clay ponders the criticism levelled at comics of being escapist fantasy. To Clay's mind this is perhaps the most positive, redeeming aspect of comic books, not some dreadful negative as Wertham proclaimed. I have to say I'm on Clay's side on that, and for me this is why The Brunettes are so fine; they are great escapist fantasy - it's a Pop that exists within its own ludicrously tight frame of reference; a Pop that makes no claims at anything other than the wild delights of (eternal) adolescence; a Pop that creates a warm sanctuary from the insidious creeping darkness and hate that the 'real' world seems to throw up with alarming regularity. And for this we ought to clasp The Brunettes close to our chests and breathe 'I love you' into their flowing Phantom Lady locks.

© 2002 Alistair Fitchett