Sounds Pretty Good To Me
It was strange getting Kevin's newest missive through the mail, since it arrived the morning after I had assembled a mix tape that cobbled together a bunch of sounds that were, in the broadest of senses, 'electro-pop'. So there were tracks by Cabaret Voltaire, DAF and Suicide rubbing shoulders with songs by Stars, Baxendale and Go-Kart Mozart as well as a couple of old 7" single tracks that I dragged from the boxes; TV21's sublime 'All Join Hands' and Thomas Leer's 'Private Plane'. Kevin is right that Leer seems to have been largely forgotten, although he did resurface alongside Claudia Brucken as the short-lived ZTT duo Act back in 1987, which as I check the dates on records suddenly shocks me, and maybe 'resurface' isn't the right word to use in that sentence. Act made a great debut single with 'Snobbery And Decay' that sampled 'Cabaret' and had a smiling Liberace on the cover, and speaking of covers they had a strange line in cover-versions, doing Lloyd-Webber's 'I'll Be Surprisingly Good For You' and the Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit' on their first two singles. And didn't they also do the Smith's 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' on an album? Or was that the post-Brucken incarnation of Propaganda?
Also on the tape was the sound of contemporary electro-poppers Freezepop. Hailing from Boston, Freezepop made in their Freezepop Forever album of 2001 (Archenemy Records) a minor classic of stripped back synth Pop songs that carries all the promise and ill-fated tragedies of the 1980s wrapped up in a laser beam, pointed through jump-up techno and aimed at your brittle heart. Freezepop Forever is full of knowing nods to the history the group must surely know about only through the archaeology of Pop: singles picked up in thrift-stores and relatives' attics, albums reissued by someone determined to keep a fire burning somewhere. Which might sound slightly disparaging, but it shouldn't, because really Freezepop sound fantastic, and I've not been able to get their tunes out of my head for weeks. There's the match maker techno beat of 'Harebrained Scheme'; the wildly bopping 'T DJ', ducking and diving through the tunnels of the subway, addicted to the electricity humming from the third rail; the icicles popping at the heart of 'Tracey Gold'; the knowing Pop self-mythologizing album closing 'Freezepop Forever'; the bona-fide Pop Hit blast of 'Summer Boy', all teenaged summer loves long lost and longed for, whose chorus of 'Summer Boy, the sun is hot. Summer Boy, and so are you' is just too damn stupid to not love unconditionally. Best of all though is 'Tender Lies' which is a lovely song where the wonderfully named Liz Enthusiasm gets to actually sing instead of half-talking in the kind of half-clichéd robotic rhythms that the rest of the album mainly relies on. 'Tender Lies' is like a lost Strawberry Switchblade track, reverberating with the same kind of cracked and flawed plastic beauty that fed through songs like '10 James Orr Street', 'Being Cold' or 'Who Knows What Love Is.' All of which probably sounds like a nightmare of candy-floss circuits to some, but to others, like me today, that sounds like some kind of heaven. Freezepop Forever should be released in Europe around about now (early 2002) by the Spanish Siesta label.
Also from Archenemy is the six song mini-album Frontier by Lifestyle. Lifestyle didn't grab me as instantly as Freezepop, but might yet outlast them with an added depth and hooks that draw out over time and sink into the sub-conscious, resurfacing covered with memories of Haircut 100 smooching with Scritti Politti.
Again, this is Pop that wishes it remembered the early 1980s. Which inevitably means it's a Pop that of course cannot remember the context of much of the (UK) synth-pop that came out of that decade; where synth-pop became a horribly empty vessel that only seemed to collude with the divisive attacks of Conservatism and the destruction of any sense of social equality. Listening to Lifestyle now however, to the all-out Pop assault of 'My Favourite Song' or 'I Guess We Could We Could Get Down', I think more of the way ABC's The Lexicon Of Love sounded so much better two summers ago driving through the Loire valley than it did at its time of release, more of how great the last Scritti album sounded at just that same time. Which is just fine by me. Kevin, I'm sure, would hate it.
Also seemingly on a bit of a retro-80s trip are Sweden's Aerospace, whose The Bright Idea Called Soul is out now on Summersound records. The '80s of Aerospace however are instead those of what some used to call, and call still 'jangle pop'. If Aerospace had been around in the '80s they'd have been checking out singles by Fantastic Something and the Suede Crocodiles, eschewing all those synths in favour of semi-acoustic guitars, tambourines and brushed drums. Which is also just fine by me. On songs like 'Summer Still Reigns Supreme' or 'I Should Have Stayed Asleep' Aerospace bring to mind the Razorcuts at their prime, all '60s harmony fed through Buzzcocks punk, although here it's those '60s shimmies that come through clearest. On 'All Fall Through' meanwhile the band sound like Another Sunny Day circa 'Rio', chiming slowly and sadly through the days and nights, making some kind of sense of their world of crushes crushed and smiles fading in the mist. They also have the good wit to blatantly reference Belle and Sebastian's 'Is It Wicked Not To Care' on 'Better Days' and get away with it. Like similarly B&S inspired Antipodeans the Lucksmiths, Aerospace sound like the reflections of several pasts, all layered and refracted through frosted windows, stacked up indie-pop references overflowing from their eager mouths and instruments. In your dreams, The Bright Idea Called Soul was released on Sarah records, and that's no unreasonable dream to have every once in a while.
Flare vocalist LD Beghtol similarly says that in dreams their recent '3-song Maxi Single' Definitive would have been a vinyl release on Factory or Sarah records. I can imagine this being so, since in some respects Flare recall the serene calm and cool of the Wake, who released records on both those labels. 'Definitive' is a great lead track, full of cello, contra bass, violins (partly played here by Ida Pearle of Ida and Low infamy), maracas, tambourines and handclaps. On top of which LD and friends sing harmonies about doomed love triangles. Someone called Matthew seems to be involved, and seems destined to be the one left with the most hurt, if the sorrowful (but also slightly cruelly mocking) refrains are to be believed.
'Definitive' sees Flare at their most upbeat to date, which means that it sounds like most Pop bands in those moments they assume are dreamy and melancholic but which usually sound like more of the same old tired 'ballads' that have become a clichéd staple of the past thirty years of Popism. You know the score: it's the third single, after the first two hits have been storming upbeat dance numbers; the ballad that shows the band/artist has got FEELINGS. Proving that hey, sometimes they are sad too.
Flare, on the other hand, sound so far deeper down and far gone that the kind of sweet melancholia that Blueboy once so wonderfully sang just isn't in it. Flare are more like a spectral hallucination, a filmic memoir laced with a bottle of gin. Particularly on the string laden beauty that is the seven minute 'NYC Eagle Memorial Mix' of 'Course'. Here the skies are pregnant with the tears of aching lost souls, skimming the Manhattan skyline, chasing figures to the quay, watching them disappear over the horizon. And so on and so forth.
And the third song, for those of you wondering, is a rather odd two minute take on Gene Autrey's classic cowboy ballad 'You're the only star (in my blue heaven)' which features lovely harmonies from LD and Jon De Rosa over a lone ukulele and sounds like the recording was beamed in right from the plains via a 1920's radio set.
The sleeve of the Flare single gives thanks to one Tracey Lee Jackson, which is something we really all ought to do, because Tracey is responsible for the aptly named Dreamy records, who in its short existence has already given us such delights as the aching slow-mo pop of Arco and the quirky neo-swing of (The Real) Tuesday Weld. Dreamy's latest release is a showcase compilation, A Wish On A Star, and it really is rather a treat. (The Real) Tuesday Weld gets things underway with 'the return of the Clerkenwell Kid', and later (after 18 tracks in between) ends the collection with 'The Birds and the Bees'. (The Real) Tuesday Weld by turns makes a sound that is full of chopped-up swing refrains and (s)weepy orchestrated, silky soft breathy vocals. Like Momus meets the Gentle People meets early Adventures in Stereo, (the Real) Tuesday Weld is watching archive '40s movies through a broken pink kaleidoscope. Which, if you're really not sure what that means, means it all sounds rather lovely.
The Clerkenwell Kid, having returned, proceeds to stroll through the rest of A Wish... meeting all sorts of odd characters along the way. Like the very wonderful M Ward who's 'I'll Be Yr Bird' is a gorgeously rough-edged gem of tingling acoustic guitar and a gently cracking vocal, like Elliot Smith before he got himself a band and became like any other anonymous folk-rock artist. Then there's Dudley Klute, who many will know from the Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs set, here serving up a terrifically peculiar cover of the Pixies 'Caribu', one of the highlights of their first (and some think best) album. Dudley Klute, as I've said in the past, sings like an angel with nicotine stained wings.
I've never been particularly taken by Graham in the past, but here his 'Jezebel Blue' sounds rather fine in an almost silent early morning Pop-blues way. Piano strolls wayward down the alley to the railway station in the rain (naturally), past the occasional cymbal tinkles of street lamps. Guitars join in on the platform, and the train pulls in, pulls out. And you kiss the window on your way home. This suggests that Graham's album Never, and Not Even Then should be worth a listen after all.
The Witch Hazel Sound meanwhile trawl around the outskirts of a town called Nowhere, pondering the story of 'The Man Who Invented California'. On the evidence of the song it's someone with a wickedly deadpan, downbeat sense of humour; maybe Sam Spade or John Fante in a morning after a night before.
There are loads more highlights of course, lots more characters and scenes to sink into, and if it's all pretty much resolutely slow and sad, then so be it. This is pretty much all Pop that falls softly from the skies; Pop that lifts its head from the pillow only to gaze at the rain on the window pane; Pop that has internalised thirty years of ache and nods at the world with a tear in its knowing eye. Which sounds pretty good to me.
© Alistair Fitchett 2002