Middle Of The Road 
In the fallout of the Punk disintegration there was a lot of talk about reclaiming the middle of the road. It’s an idea that has been intrinsic to some of the greatest Pop since; from the sugar on Sunday sweetness of Saint Etienne to the opulent bounce of Oppenheimer. And didn’t Lawrence once sing that you would find him in the middle of the road?

Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley has been widely feted by many as being the character who introduced them to the finest Soft, Baroque and Franco Pop (the inner sleeve of Fox Base Alpha was equal parts inspiration and affirmation of cool reference for many), but I would guess there’s been Sean O’Hagan and the Stereolab troupe to thank also. Certainly Tim Gane and his gang of hipsters pointed many towards the likes of The Free Design, and lest we forget, it was the Duophonic label who opened many ears to the sound of Broadcast with the ‘Living Room’ and ‘Book Lovers’ singles. Warp eventually issued those tracks (and their debut for the Wurlitzer Jukebox label ‘Accidentals’) as the Work And Non Work set, and are set to follow suit with the Future Crayon collection of odd EP and compilation tracks. Of course you don’t need me to tell you it is a superlative collection and one that is more than worth your time and money. And who can forget the surreal genius of hearing ‘Come On Let’s Go’ accompany a clips montage from the World Cup? Was it something about Zidane? I don’t remember. I just know I was so blown away at hearing Broadcast on primetime TV, watched by millions. And rightly so, for was there ever a finer Pop moment than that?
Junior Boys tread the MOR ground with aplomb too, and their second set So This Is Goodbye is a more than worthy successor to 2004’s masterful Last Exit. Junior Boys inhabit a beautifully barren, textural tundra where Techno and House come together with smooth singer-songwriter charm. They are the sound of Pet Shop Boys without the penchant for ‘clever’ post-modern irony, and are all the finer for it. Which is really saying something of course. The centre point on the set is surely the cover of Sinatra’s classic ‘When No One Cares’. It is a special moment in Pop’s evolution and one that shows that Junior Boys really are way ahead. And incidentally, didn’t Denim release their ‘Middle Of The Road’ on Andrew Weatherall, Terry Farley and Pete Heller’s Boys Own label, which in turn transformed into Junior Boys Own? They released some amazing records like Bocca Juniors’ epic ‘Raise’, Underworld’s ‘Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You’ and of course the One Dove classics. And didn’t they also release Jah Wobble’s ‘Bomba’ with Natacha Atlas’ on vocal duties? Atlas herself of course also covered Francoise Hardy’s ‘Mon Ami La Rose’, which takes us back to the MOR of Franco Pop, and at the risk of sounding like John Carney, it all fits.

Speaking of Franco Pop, it’s great to be able to announce that there is at last a new Lispector set to catch in your sweaty mitts and clutch close to your hearts. Actually it’s a split album, with eight Lispector tracks alternating with nine cuts by Maison Neuve on a hand stamped CDR release on Savage Records. It’s a glorious confection of bedroom recording, all spooked space and easy charm; Jonathan Richman serenading Jean Seberg in a 14e arrondissement café, or Jean Paul Belmondo sprinkling gold dust on synthesisers in the rain on the Champs Elysses. Magic.
Also magic is the new release by Testbild! Their Imagine A House set for the always classy Friendly Noise label is another triumph of low-key electronica blending with brittle acoustic singer-songwriter fragility. Reminiscent of early Broadcast, this has elements of Free Design soft pop, easy-listening bossa grooves, experimental electro, a pearlescent Grenadine glow and the sharp besuited style of fifties west coast jazz clubs. There are also echoes of the great forgotten Emily Rub-Al-Khali set, as what sound like oboes boom gently in the mix beneath textural rhythms and oscillating grooves. It’s what we used to call an eclectic set, by which we mean that it naturally involves the cross-germination of genres and ideas, formulating some beautifully strange and captivating noise in the process. Imagine A House is one of the most quietly beguiling albums of the year and should certainly be high on your list of collections to investigate.

Now I don’t know whether Sweden’s Lovekins would thank me for describing them as middle of the road, but they should certainly take it as a compliment. I loved their ‘Blame The English’ and ‘Max Leon’ singles a while back, and tripped over their wonderful cover of Pet Shop Boys’ ‘I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ recently. It’s a terrific acoustic delivery that strips the original down to its simple basics, exposing the bare bones. It really does show off a terrific song, and indeed Very is one of my favourite Pet Shop Boys albums. Now the ‘Max Leon’ single of course was released by the wonderful people at Songs I Wish I Had Written, and their latest release is the excellent ‘Minua ollaan vastassa’ by Finland’s Regina. Think Pipas with heavier beats and jazzy inflections and you’re getting close. You can download the original version from the label website, whilst you can find radical remixes on the CDR single. And whilst you’re at it, check out the label’s other releases, all of which are gloriously fine, especially the manic technopop thrill of Le Sport. I mean, how can you resist a group who have a remix called the Mont Ventoux mix? They also have a song called ‘If Neil Tennant Was My Lover’ which kind of brings us back to where we came in.
I don’t know if Lovejoy’s Richard Preece was ever a Pet Shop Boys fans, but I suspect he may have been. He was certainly a fan of the excellent Miaow and Cath Carroll, whose seminal 1991 album Lovejoy surely nod in reference to as much as Graham Greene on their England Made Me EP for Matinee. There is a similar electronic inflection to Lovejoy’s four tracks, and they are every bit as soaked in the same kind of atmosphere of rainy seaside summer days as Carroll’s album managed to evoke. And indeed, there’s a cover of The June Brides timeless ‘In The Rain’ that sets the scene as well as anything ever could.

Also on Matinee is the He Holds A Flame EP by Harper Lee. Now I’ve gone on record in the past as saying that I really struggle with Harper Lee and their predecessors Brighter. There has always been something about the vaguely self-pitying vocals and lyrical content that has put me off, but I have to say that I find myself warming to these five tracks more than anything previously. Best of all is ‘William Blake’ which recalls something of Movement era New Order in its brilliantine ice coolness. And is that cover photo taken on the carousel on Brighton beach? The same carousel that Scout Niblett was pictured on for the fabulous cover of issue three of Careless Talk Costs Lives from three years ago? Three years?! Where on earth does time go?

© 2006 Alistair Fitchett