The Most Wonderfulest Thing
Recent listening, July 2002

As you'll no doubt know, I've been listening to a lot of reissues on the Sundazed label recently, but away from that peerless label more great Soft Pop has been offered by What Are Records. A Good Thing Lost 1968-1973 compiles 21 of Terry and Susan Jacks' finest into one CD, and it's as fine a collection of soft folk pop as you're going to find. It's flawed of course. Listened to in the wrong frame of mind, perhaps wandering into the kitchen early in the morning to make some toast, mind only minimally on the sounds, it can sound eerily like the Corrs or the Corries. Which is no great thing in my book, even if the Corrs have made some fine Pop singles/songs that would benefit from a rather less, ah, airbrushed production and presentation. You could say the same thing about the Poppy Family actually, as lots of these songs are fairly clichéd in their content and sound, tapping cynically into fashions of the times. 'Which Way You Goin' Billy' for example is a pretty tacky tale about the Vietnam War and specifically about, and here I quote Terry himself, 'the loss felt by the thousands of women who were left behind when their men were send off to war'. I'm not saying that Jacks didn't feel strongly about that, just that it sounds a lot like a cheesy exploitation of heightened emotion. I guess it worked. The record sold over 2.5 million copies. And it does sound lovely... No surprise then that Mr Jacks went on to pen that masterpiece of manipulative melodrama 'Seasons In The Sun'. Nevertheless, The Poppy Family made some fantastic records, full of heart-warming melodies and gorgeous arrangements, and this is a fine collection.

Similarly fine is the double CD Association anthology Just The Right Sound on Rhino. I first heard of the Association when Glasgow's Groovy Little Numbers covered their 'Windy' back in, what, 1987 or '88? It was a peach of a version, and made me long to hear the Association. That I didn't hear much for years was as much to do with the lack of readily available second hand material in the Glasgow stores I used to frequent as to my lack of finance and the myriad of other avenues opening up that demanded as much, if not more, attention. So this comprehensive collection is welcome indeed. From their ace debut single cover of Dylan's 'One Too Many Mornings', through their classic hits like 'Along Comes Mary', 'Never My Love' (#2 in the BMI's list of most played songs on American radio and television, just behind 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin''), 'Windy' (#61 on the same list) and 'Cherish' (#22, and the song played by Iona in Pretty in Pink to remind her of her Prom) to later cuts like the lovely 'Goodbye Forever', it's a 52 track rollercoaster ride of peerless Pop. And as if that wasn't enough, there's also the priceless addition of the previously unreleased 'Better Times', which is a wonderful slice of Curt Boettcher/Lee Mallory Pop perfection; Boettcher of course being involved with production duties on the early Association tracks, including the 'Along Comes Mary' single and And Then... Along Comes The Association album.

Getting slightly more up to date, time-wise, Brooklyn's Ladybug Transistor obviously have a love for the greatest of soft summer pop too. The influence of people like the fabled Millennium, Cyrkle or Association is all over their 1999 minor-classic The Albermarle Sound, which is finally given a domestic UK release thanks to the fine people at Pointy records. Maybe no surprise then to find Joe McGinty (ex of those Groovy Little Numbers) cropping up as strings arranger, whilst there's an explicit reference to the Californian sixties sounds dropped cleanly and clearly with a peach of a cover of Jan and Dean's 'Like A Summer Rain' - co-written by Gary Zekely who was of course the prime writer in the fabulous Yellow Balloon. Not that their native New York isn't present in the mix too: 'Today Knows' is a great revision of Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day', for example, all swelling strings and hidden aches. But The Albermarle Sound isn't the sound of urban streets, it's the sound of leafy parks and suburban lawns; a perfect summer snapshot encased in the sweetest amber.

Pointy, of course, have been responsible for a variety of releases over recent years by The Clientele, notably the Suburban Light collation of their first batch of singles. For the latest EP release by the sublime London trio, however, it's the already defunct Earworm label who put out the vinyl (glorious 10" format) in the UK, whilst Spanish purveyors of great taste Acuarela deliver the CD version. The five songs of the Lost Weekend EP are naturally filled with the Clientele Formula that blends the surrealism of French Symbolist poetics and proto-Pop artists like Joseph Cornell with a kind of sleepy Psychedelia with Jazz inflections (think United States of America, Soft Machine etc). So it's all late afternoons and early evenings, the sun drowning in the molten mercury sea and an airy mist drifting off the river. Or, to bring in Joseph Cornell again, it's about capturing your life into boxes and storing them in the stifling attic behind musty velvet curtains; all of your yesterdays and tomorrows distilled beautifully into an endless stream of todays. That's the sound of The Clientele.

Do we really need yet another band that purports to blend sensibilities from the likes of the Velvets and the Go-Betweens? Glasgow's Starlets would seem to think so, and on the evidence of their debut album, Surely Tomorrow You'll Feel Blue, I'm inclined to agree. Not that you'll hear a lot of the Velvets here, or if you do it's going to be refracted through the likes of someone more contemporary, like Luna; The Starlets are infested with the same kind of melodic magic, though mostly without the edge (fine single 'Hypercool' excepted). What replaces that then would be a kind of gentle melancholic instrumentation; there's glorious strings and brass here that punctuate the songs with a feel that's not entirely unlike the lighter fragments of the early Pale Fountains or Trashcan Sinatras. I wonder if The Starlets wear khaki shorts and beat caps? Regardless, The Starlets are right now filled with the kind of edge of the world blues that could lead to great things. They're not quite there yet (the occasional lapse into Beautiful South territory is worrying at best), but they're certainly worth watching.

More Scots worth watching, according to Some People Who Know are allegedly Degrassi and Barrichello, both of whom record for Edinburgh's highly fancied SL records. The kids from Degrassi (one assumes they've graduated from both Junior High and High) have been listening a lot to early Ride and Chameleons and make similarly charged grandiose Rock tunes spiked with some fine melodies. Recorded with Scottish Arts Council funding in Fife by Mogwai and Michael Brennan (Super Furry Animals), their Terminal Ocean EP is out July 8th and will no doubt appeal to Indie Kid lovers of, um, Mogwai and Super Furry Animals. As well as maybe the old codgers who remember the Chameleons and Ride.

Barrichello, meanwhile, have the best name in Pop at the moment, being named, one presumes, after Brazil's loveable Ferrari (and, lest we forget, ex-Jordan and Stewart) Grand Prix driver Rubens. This Barrichello, unfortunately sound little like the joys of a screaming V10, or indeed anything vaguely Brazilian. Instead, on their four track Down Soft EP, Barrichello come up with a mish-mash that sounds kind of like Salako or the Beta Band's odd blend of found sound meets acoustic indie-folk with some scratching and hip hop beats thrown in for the hell of it. It's all a little measured for my ears; forced plundering, contrived post-modernist combinations of approaches designed to sound 'contemporary', but which actually just sound unfocused and lacking in any real personal vision. It's Odd for the sake of being Odd; Strange in the sense of off-the-shelf store bought Strangeness.

More naturally strange are Philadelphia's Satanstompingcaterpillars who follow up last years' lovely The Autumn Kaleidoscope Got Changed album with The Most Wonderfulest Thing. Sounds are a little more urbane this time around, with some great drum'n'bass breaks clattering around under and over vocals that typically sound like they were recorded from inside a cloud. Remember those odd little fragments of tape-recorded 'songs' on the first Arab Strap album? How they sounded like they were recorded in the wee small hours under the blankets with a torch to light the tape recorder's buttons? Well, this has a similar feel. It's similar also to some of the first Adventures In Stereo album, with loops obviously made from fragments of records, the cuts and crackles of the vinyl as much a part of the experience as anything else; it's all resolutely bedroom-construction, and all the better for it. Satanstompingcaterpillars are wonderfully quirky and impossible to pin down and should be treasured all the more because of it. The Most Wonderfulest Thing is already one of the summer highlights of the year and I look forward immensely to what they come up with next.

Speaking of Mogwai, which I was a moment ago, there's a Mogwai connection to the Forward album by I Am Spartacus on Gringo records. The story goes that these recordings were made back in 1998 and seeped out at that time on a handful of cassette copies. These tapes, and their second, third, fourth etc generation copies, then apparently became 'legendary', and the album became a mythic beast. Foremost amongst those lauding the recordings was Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite... Now, I have no idea if this story is true, or if it's a great invented myth to plug the record, but I don't really care, because regardless, Forward is a beguiling, beautiful record. It's full of cellos that sweep graciously down grand staircases in abandoned chateaux, drums that seem to pick up melodies and float around the chandeliers, guitars that pick out the sunlight piercing the holes in the shutters and the fractured skylights covered in grime. Sure, you could be mean and say that it's typically in the vein of Godspeed You Black Emperor or Rachels but that's to miss the point that saying so is saying it sounds like heaven, hell and all places in between.

Cloaked in similar cloaks of splendour are Spain's Migala. Their new Acuarela release Resto de Un incenio is, apparently, an album of old songs. Not that it's a reissue though, as the ten tracks on here are all new recordings, re-workings of songs that have previously graced the bands' three previous albums. I have to admit to some problems with the whole idea of revisiting and remodelling previous work, but since I don't know the original contexts of these songs it scarcely seems to matter. What does matter is that these ten tracks are full of a kind of effortlessly elegiac and earthy sound that might be classified alternatively as post-rock or post-folk. Whatever that might mean. It has echoes of Godspeed You Black Emperor merged with Uncle Tupelo ('El Pasado Diciembre' in particular recalls the glory of UT's 'Sauget Wind' single); the fragrance of super 8 movies and old bleached postcards. Gracefully magnificent.

Also on Acuarela is a three track EP by Ian Crause. Some will know Crause from his previous bands Floorshow and particularly Disco Inferno. Disco Inferno particularly seem to have acquired some kind of mythic status in some circles, although I have to admit to never being particularly convinced. Maybe I need to revisit them. Whatever, the three tracks on this EP see Crause further exploring his fixations with New Order/Joy Division, although now the influences of those groups seem to be more in the structure rather than specifics of sound. Instead, the tracks (particularly opener 'Head over Heels') sound more Antipodean and recall the likes of solo Grant McLennan at his Pop best, or The 3Ds. It's fine stuff, and a taster for more, hopefully, to come.

I like some of the ideas in Nixon's November 1985 album far more than I like the actual content; with song titles like 'Summer Love Song', 'Stupid Heart', 'It Doesn't Matter If You're Young When You're Not Alive' and 'If She Really Wanted To Kiss' this is classic teen-angst indie-pop that revels in surface and cliché. And although that's fine and is what, to some extent it's all about, I just don't feel in the mood for it anymore. Actually I'm not sure I ever did, if I'm honest; there was a period post-1987 or so when a whole clutch of bands seemed to appear who were influenced and inspired by the likes of the na¥ve 'cutie' Pop made by the likes of Talulah Gosh and Razorcuts who, it seemed to me, kind of missed the point. The point being that it was somehow about MORE than wearing anoraks and eating sweets and rebelling into innocence. It seemed to me that what was a real political statement at the time became totally swamped with people who just took the surface imagery and made endless repetitions of fey emptiness; faking sensitivity and loneliness. Sadly too, the lasting legacy of those times seems to be just that soul-less void of whimsy. So that the likes of Sweden's Nixon make records that are sweet and charming, but which totally lack any sense of context. Having said that of course I dare say that if I were sixteen in 2002 I'd probably adore finding this album, and would revel in the sentiments. And how could I resist a song called 'Thora Birch'? So, ironically, the me of November 1985 would inevitably love the record more than the me of July 2002. Which is probably the whole point...

There's no doubt that the Nixon folks are in love with Amelia Fletcher. There's not been an indie-popper in the past fifteen years who hasn't at some point been besotted by at least one of her bands. Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research; they've all left behind them classic nuggets of the most shimmering punk-fuelled Pop imaginable. Stuffed full of tunes that go sweeping and swirling into the far reaches of the stratosphere, Amelia's various bands have been glorious frameworks for her wonderful voice and great proto-riot girl lyrics. Her new band, Tender Trap (I keep wanting to type Tiger Trap - the wonderful '90s US band led by Rose Melberg who were clearly in thrall of Talulah Gosh), are no exception. Tender Trap finds Fletcher teaming up with erstwhile partners in crime Rob Pursey (Heavenly and Marine Research) on guitars and DJ Downfall (Marine Research) on sequencers and various programming skills. The results on the Fortuna Pop released Film Molecules album are, thankfully, pretty much what you would expect; short, simple, evocative songs that bristle with an in-built natural flair for Pop that hooks you in the heart. Highlights would be the mod-electro of 'Face of '73' which starts with the sounds of a camera motor-winding away, like a fragment of sound from Blow-Up or 'Girls On Film'; the fine maybe-a-blueprint for living that is 'That Girl', with the great opening lines 'she would never believe what she was taught in school, all of the history and the geography. Better to read Patti Smith and Simone De Beauvoir to know how things are', and then the song closing 'Travis are boring, Le Tigre are smart'; the alternately downbeat and soaring melancholia/release of 'Son of Dorian Gray'; 'Brown Eyes', with it's film projector intro is a gorgeous glance at love cruelly ended; single 'Oh Katrina' simply an infectious teenage tumble in the park with a chorus that springs off the swings and runs hell for leather behind the snogging tree, before laughing gleefully all the way home.

© Alistair Fitchett 2002