Everything's All Right Forever

Maybe it's the magnificent return to form of Belle And Sebastian with their Dear Catastrophe Waitress album that's to blame, but recently I've been finding it difficult to get very excited about many of the CDs a-piling up on my desk. Maybe too of course it's the fault of school, not giving me the time or space to listen. I often think I ought to start playing some of these CDs during class, but I know that would be a bad idea.

Anyway, with the pile not getting any smaller, it's time to blow that whistle, fire that starter gun or, in the words of the umpire, ´play ball'.

Eltro start with a curve ball (don't expect these baseball analogies to continue. ´curve ball' is about the only one I know) on their Past And Present Futurists (Absolutely Kosher). It's much better than all right. In fact it's pretty classy, a melange of electro squelches, spiky rhythms and rather lovely melodies topped off by Diana Prescott's terrific downbeat voice tracing a kind of Broadcast / Metric ellipse on the sky. Eltro are oddly mesmerizing, and smartly reflect a lot of that early ´80s sound made on Ze by the likes of Lizzy Mercier Descloux or Cristina. It's disco for the thinking dancer, blinking in time to the marvellous horn blasts that cascade like rosebushes, the barbs cutting you whilst the petals smother you in sweet perfume. This one definitely goes in the pile for future listens.

Okay, pitch me another. More electro sounds on Loz Koleszko's The Monkeys Danced Like Cuboids (1 Man Army). This kicks of with some great drum'n'bass clattering around sombre organs and scuffed glitches. It's ace and I remember again how much this kind of music ruled my world not so very long ago. Time to let it back in I think, if this is anything to go by. See, I got kind of bored of it all, so maybe things in small measures is best after all, and this six track small measure is just the ticket. It reminds me in part of the glory of satanstompingcaterpillars or their alter-ego Black Moth Super Rainbow; all lo-key moody magic, delightful tunes snuffling through an electronic undergrowth like android hedgehogs with titanium spikes. Something makes me think this is a soundtrack to an imaginary movie, or maybe there really is a movie, I dunno. I could try and find the press release, but I can't be arsed digging through the pile, so, ah, let's just say yes it is. So, a soundtrack to an imaginary contemporary Noir slasher-thriller starring android hedgehogs. What more could you possibly wish for?

Also slightly better than all right (the title of this piece is already looking a bit inaccurate, isn't it?) is the eponymous album from Rhode Island based Avenpitch (Omega Point records). More clattering electronic backings on this one, crisply topped off with some gruff Angry Young Man bleating that's not far removed from say, The Beastie Boys in their infancy. Imagine Yazoo fronted by Ad Rock with the odd Squarepusher record dropping in for an inning and Slayer rehearsing somewhere in the background and you'd be getting close.

Also on Omega Point is another eponymous album, this time from Supra Argo. This duo also blend guitars with electronics but it's uniformly more sedate and definitely suffused with a more obvious ´80s techno-pop feel. In places it reminds me of Act, and whilst Collin Rae is no Thomas Leer, and Karen Sandvoss no Claudia Brucken, they're clearly on the right track. Worth watching.

After their debut album for SL, I thought that The Starlets might also be ones to watch. On Surely Tomorrow You'll feel Blue there were glimpses that they were capable of breaking free from the weight of their influences (Go-Betweens, Belle and Sebastian, etc etc, you get the picture I'm sure). Sadly, on the evidence of their follow up, Further Into The Night Forever, it seems they weren't. Not to say that this sounds exactly like those groups whose records they have clearly held close to their collective breasts (it doesn't - though maybe if it did that wouldn't be such a bad thing), rather that in trying to capture the feeling evoked by those groups, they've come up with a record that is limp and almost so thin it doesn't exist. The best moment here is the opener ´I wake up dreaming' which sweetly picks up some refrains and echoes from the closer of their first album, but after that it's a uniform ride of what feels like forced sweetness and light. It would probably sound a lot better if there weren't a new Belle And Sebastian (or even a new solo Isabel Campbell, who actually guests here) album to compete against, but as it is, this sounds bare and horribly lightweight. Shame.

Oh, and here's another CD from SL records in my pile which I just found. It's ´4 Songs' by Desc. Desc sound all right too, with a kind of dirge that they possibly think sounds like Nick Cave but which clearly doesn't. It makes me wonder if the godlike genius of Ballboy really are the only great band on SL.
Speaking of godlike, who remembers Drugstore? I thought they were godlike for a while, a while ago. It was for a few months whilst their wonderful ´Alive' debut 7' and the subsequent ´Starcrossed' 10' graced my record player. Isabel Monteiro's gorgeous Brazilian tinted voice was spectacularly seductive, and the band backed her with some wonderful sonic washes of spooked guitars and plaintive rhythms. Fiel Garvie then remind me so much of Drugstore. It's most obvious in the way Anne Reekie sings, all breathy and floating past like a dream, but it's also in the backing tracks, which swim on seas of guitars that probably fantasise of mint copies of Lazy My Bloody Valentine records or unearthing a horde of unheard Chapterhouse demos. Which is clearly only half a recommendation. All of which means that Leave me Out Of This, Fiel Garvie's second album, is better than all right, but a fair way shy of being great. It sounds too derivative for that, sounds too in awe of groups like Cocteau Twins or indeed Drugstore to really fly on wings it can call it's own. It's one of those albums you'd stick in the three strikes and out pile: It takes a good enough swing, but it's no home run.

Joining it in that pile is the second, eponymous (what is it with eponymous records this month?) album by I Am Kloot. It's a shame it's there too, because I had such high hopes for this record after the delights of their Natural History debut, but sadly they've failed to deliver. So, a few nice tunes, a smattering of intriguing words, a sound big enough to fill you with a sense of strength but not too much to make you back off from its testosterone stench, a voice that makes you want to use words like ´quirky' and ´down to earth'. It's okay. Not bad, not great, just ´okay', and if truth be told I much preferred lead Kloot Johnny Bramwell when he was acting Dangerously and Introducing Jane.

Now, regular readers may remember how much I loved the fabulous Matinee 50 compilation album, wherein a bunch of Matinee recording artistes covered a song by another of the label mates. It was a cracking collection and a neat idea. Well, Shelflife have just released their own ´50' in the shape of the You're Still Young At Heart collection. No doubt there will be discussions as to whose idea it was first, but in my book there's no argument about which is the better record. There's just no contest, because where the bands on the Matinee album are uniformly great, the ones on the Shelflife collection are, sad to say, almost uniformly mediocre. At best. The Shelflife bands here remind me of the kinds of bands who cropped up at the end of the ´80s, the bands who seemed to jump on the aftermath of what I hesitate to call the ´C86' scene, who turned the whole Punk-Pop revolution of groups like Razorcuts and Talulah Gosh into a sick, sad, parody of itself. They gave rise to the horrors of the whole ´twee' scene, wittered on about jelly babies and filled fanzines and record sleeves with photocopies of hipster girlies from the ´60s. Not there haven't been some good bands on Shelflife. There have, and some of their songs do appear here (we have tracks written by the excellent Club 8, Autocollants, Castaway Stones and Arrogants), it's just that none of those groups actually offer any recordings. So we're left with what sounds to me like second or third division ´indiepop' groups, and only Simpatico (who oddly enough also records for Matinee) rises above the murk.

Not wanting to go out on a bum note then, my attention turns to another compilation; the Modapop collection on Spain's Elefant label. Containing a mixture of a few bands I've heard of and a whole bunch more I've not, this is a terrific introduction to the delights of European Pop. Of those I've heard of, there's a couple of cuts from the glamorously hip Camera Obscura, a treat from Tender Trap and a couple of gorgeous soft kisses from the past courtesy of the much missed Le Mans. Spain's Le Mans, in case you didn't already know, made a lovely soft sound and were a part of the gentle revolution of the nineties. Their records floated by like sycamore seeds spinning to the ground. Scotland's Camera Obscura might be said to mine a similar vein today, although they are more clearly rooted in the lineage that connects Belle And Sebastian back to the likes of Alison Statton, or further back yet, to the sweet harmonies of the ´50s. Whatever, they sound truly amazing. Similarly terrific is the Tender Trap offering on which Amelia Fletcher duets with Pipas' Lupe Nunez over a flouncing electro track. Never has the mixture of English and Spanish sounded so sweet. Elsewhere a jambalaya of other Europop acts, largely from Spain, provide other delights that gleefully challenge rock orthodoxy with hops, skips, jumps and slow smooches that sweep through the evening twilight. And all, apparently, for the price of a single. Now that's what I call value.

© 2003Alistair Fitchett