Dots joining up, lights lighting up
The Pastels play Triptych

Sunday 27th April, half past five. A hairpin queue outside Glasgow's Tron Theatre straggles on to the street. From my position halfway towards the door, I can see to my left two tramps attempting to convince the end of the queue that it's their street and that really they ought to be compensating them for using it. To my right, through a high window, my girlfriend has spotted an old friend and they are jumping up and down at each other, trying to retain eye contact long enough to mouth ´Hello! Are you here to see The Pastels too I can't believe they're playing by the way what've you been up to the last few years?' Ahead, the door man collects ticket stubs and tries out jokes on his captive audience. Surrounding these events is a haze of excitement and a light covering of rain. For tonight, ladies and gentlemen, sees the glorious return of The Pastels to Glasgow.

As far as I know, The Pastels never left Glasgow. There's been plenty of evidence of activity of one sort or another from that quarter over the six years since their last LP, Illumination. Stephen and Katrina have set up a fine record label - Geographic - and a new record shop (Monorail), which continues the fiercely independent tradition of Stephen's old haunt, the record section he ran in the Byres Road John Smiths bookshop (now closed). If they don't like it, they don't stock it - a worryingly unique philosophy amongst record shops these days. There has even been some new music, but only as odd tracks on compilations - a little too close to Kevin Shields territory for anyone holding their breath to see where the astonishing run of records The Pastels released in the '90s is going to take them (and us) next.

In keeping with their status of late more as godfathers than prime movers in a scene, The Pastels brought along lots of kindred spirits to play with them at their three Triptych concerts (of which I saw the Edinburgh and Glasgow shows). This meant that the band themselves were I think nine strong, and also that there were some really great support acts. First up, in Edinburgh, appearing to be suffering from advanced stage fright, were (Geographic band) Empress. The two of them set up slightly to the left of centre on a large stage cluttered with other bands' equipment, and all but huddled together for warmth and protection as they coaxed pretty strums and drones from a guitar and a small keyboard. Fortunately the warmth came across, and their set was rather lovely - I'd hate to see them play to an unsympathetic crowd, though.
The best support act by a mile at either date was Barbara Morgenstern, a one-woman disco army and quite possibly the first person in the world to dance while playing a laptop. Certainly the first to do it with hair flailing in such an unselfconscious way. One song she introduced saying ´You know how when you've done something really significant, it's sometimes really hard to move on and do the next thing? This song's about that...' - which helped, because the German lyrics meant nothing to me, at least. After the only song to feature any English (a chorus of ´Move/C'mon move'), she explained that it wasn't ´just about physically moving...' - actually, I forget what type of moving it was supposed to be about. If the music was anything to go by it may have been once again about motivation - a minimal building organ chords + drum machine mid tempo effort, plenty of tension. Uplifting without being depressing. A star is born, hopefully.

I can't put this off any longer. Eventually, it's time for The Pastels. Armed equally with apprehension and awe, I make my way to the front of the Tron, to the sound of a xylophone and a loop of Katrina going ´Ahhh' (so they even regard going to the dentist as songwriting these days?), and the sight of nine dimly lit Pastels standing in front of a backdrop of handmade felt pine trees, apparently sewn in to the safety curtain... But this is to conflate things. They in fact played two sets at the Tron, one at the beginning and one at the end of the evening, so I saw them three times over the course of the weekend, and felt differently about it each time. In case you're thinking ´Why is that of the least importance?', let me take a little detour and explain.

A month or so ago I wrote a review of a Throwing Muses concert for Tangents, from which it might be taken that Throwing Muses are my favourite band ever ever ever. Well, they are and they aren't. In the early '90s - when I first started listening to music - I thought that the only really great records were the dark ones: the Muses, Joy Division, American Music Club and so on. No, actually not ´and so on'. The Muses, Joy Division, American Music Club. In my lighter moments I might relax with ´Scott 3' or ´Miss America'. The argument seemed pretty watertight to me: to make great music you have to be suffering - who's going to be driven to greatness if they're already happy? Then in 1995, after reading Everett True's review of their great ´Worlds of Possibility' single, I bought a second hand LP with a childish painting of an aeroplane on the cover: The Pastels' Mobile Safari. If anybody reading this doesn't own a copy, go and buy one now - it's life changing stuff. From the opening lines ´Everyone should have a friend/To share your life and your heart', through the euphoric ´There's really nothing to understand/Let's go and see our favourite band' of ´Classic Line-up', to the call-to-arms of ´Yoga', Mobile Safari did what no other record I'd ever heard did: it's songs were as hard hitting, engaging and downright wonderful as anything by the above mentioned heavyweights, only they were HAPPY. Why had no-one tried (or if they had, succeeded at) this before, in the whole of rock, the whole of pop?

I could go on, but you get the point: buy Mobile Safari and listen to it every day for the rest of your life. Other great things about it are (in brief) the wonderfully diverse instrumentation The Pastels arrived at by asking their friends into the studio, and the being-a-band-in-Glasgow lyrics that somehow work on a universal level. And Katrina's ´Mandarin' - not remotely HAPPY, but the most beautiful sound the world has yet to hear. Anyway. This is why anything The Pastels do is cause for celebration. The follow-up LP Illumination is arguably just as great (as is predecessor Truckload of Trouble), but Mobile Safari's the one for me.
I can't put this off any longer. The Pastels are playing their intro music in subdued lighting and it builds once everyone's sat down and in comes a guitar chord strummed repeatedly under the xylophone motif, then a languorous trumpet joins in and the world slows down to Pastels time. They play a set as contemporary as they can make it - two instrumentals from a soundtrack album due out soon, some Illumination songs, a new song (´Secret Music' - only new-ish, really - it's been around since 1999), and a cover of The Hallelujahs' ´Star'. First time round, in Edinburgh, it worries me that there are no new songs-with-words. The band sound great, but... I'm a fan, I demand genius records less than every six years from my heroes. Is this unreasonable? To want a band whose records in what they say and how they're made encourage the coming together of friends to make great music, oblivious to corporate concern and those it affects, to write some songs themselves? Which makes The Pastels sound like some worthy government project when that's not it at all - Stephen and Katrina are two of the best pop songwriters ever, not to mention two of the best pop singers. What's with all the instrumentals?

Hang on though - the band do sound great. By Sunday's second performance they seem to have loosened up a bit too. The gentle intro music's banished to the end of the set, and they plunge straight into ´Charlie's Theme' with more spirit than before. The second of the soundtrack songs sounds even better - a big, driving thing with epic three-note solos from Gerry Love that reminds me a little of New Order's ´Sunrise', and blows wide open my complaint that instrumental = treading water. Stephen seems to be enjoying himself for the first time too, if his stage chat's anything to go by. The best bit of which goes along the lines of:

Stephen: ...the most surreal moment of the weekend was when we played with Cinerama in Aberdeen. We watched them, and it was kind of like ´The League of Gentlemen'... [pause while everyone waits for elucidation]

Katrina: Did you like them?

Stephen: Um... I admired the stagecraft...

[cue next song]

Delivered, as is Stephen's wont, at 3 rpm, and much funnier in the event than written down.

Everything seems to click in this final set, the ragged edges complimenting the big arrangements and making the whole thing come alive. The laptop previously used to ram a Kid Loco beat down the back of ´The Viaduct' crashes in the song's opening bars, but they play it anyway (poor Tom having to improvise a drum beat), and it's all the better for the lack of rehearsal. It's not as good as ´Secret Music' though, all of a sudden revived from recycled out-take status to a song come of age - it was only waiting for a full band this good to come along and play it. I don't know whether I'm crying for the song itself, Katrina's voice, from being in the pub since five, or because I just fell in love with The Pastels all over again.

As for Stephen's songs, once you've accepted that ´Truck Train Tractor' was never really going to be on the cards (or ´Exploration Team'), they're great too. ´Frozen Wave' with its ´Mixer tapes/Picnics and landscapes' floats deliciously on its two note krautrock bassline, and ´Fragile Gang' is one of his best songs (it swirls, it yearns) and perfectly suits this end-of-evening setting. So, in the end, a rejuvenation, an occasional flicker from a band presumed out of action, lost to hunting out and promoting other, newer bands (and much as I appreciate being introduced to Maher Shalal Hash Baz and the wondrous Nagisa Ni Te, they're no substitute for The Pastels themselves). Hopefully this, after a lull like that which separated the band's '80s and '90s output, is a beginning and not an end, ushering in the undreamt of heights of The Pastels Phase Three.

Chris Fox