Jewel Case Towers

It's Tuesday, and there's snow on the ground. By the stereo there is a jewel case tower; a large pile of CDs that has been endlessly growing for a month or more. And with the pile tilting precariously towards Little Enid I figure it's about time I actually wrote something about the contents. So, attempting to arrange the releases broadly into sub-piles (sorted by record-label) that offer no danger to knocking Enid's handbag from her pale pink hand, here goes nothing.

I like Acuarela Records more and more with each release I hear. The most recent two have been by Thalia Zedek and Vitesse, and both are terrific in their own very different ways. Zedek's six track 'You're A Big Girl Now' EP is indeed titled after the Dylan song that is covered so terrifically therein. There's also a peach of a version of the Velvet's 'Candy Says' so I guess by now that you know pretty much where we're coming from here... Joined on the EP by David Michael Curry of Willard Grant Conspiracy and Daniel Coughlin, Zedek turns in six marvellously downbeat gems that will of course appeal to fans of Come, the band to whom she provided those distinctive vocals, but also to those enamoured by those bleak, darkly romantic songs of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Patti Smith and their ilk. It really is that good.

Completely different but no less compelling is You Win Again, Gravity!, the third album by American electro reverse-engineers Vitesse. Vitesse are so fine at summoning a sound that is evocative of early '80s synthpop, it's uncanny. They really do seem to have it sussed. Sounding for all the world like a wonderful memory of, say, very early New Order or Depeche Mode, Vitesse have made an album that has sunk its hooks into my psyche these past few weeks, and won't let go. It's joined the great under-valued Chapter 13 album The World From Heaven as the contemporary electro-pop sound to relish, and I just can't get enough. Of course too they sound so remarkably like House Of Tomorrow / Holiday era Magnetic Fields it's scary, and if you wanted to be critical you'd say that really Vitesse don't do anything except ape their influences, but hey, who cares about that when the influences seem to be so great and the results sound this fine. And to cap it all, there's a stunning cover version of Dire Straits' 'Tunnel of Love' which had me playing it over and over just to be sure that this really was the same song I remember hating all those years ago. It is, but here it sounds wonderful, a complete reinvention, which is to be applauded of course.

On a not dissimilar, though more stripped bare, tack to the Thalia Zedek is The Creek Drank The Cradle by Iron and Wine. On Sub Pop, this is most certainly music for the early morning; Blues for that 3am dark spot where downbeat, stumbling folk music drifts in on the scent of Shasta daisies. Think Elliott Smith when he just accompanied himself on an easily strummed guitar perched on a knee, or Nick Drake if he wasn't such a mediated pitiable forlorn soul - which actually when you listen to a lot of Nick Drake records, he wasn't.

I'd almost forgotten about Dreamy records, the label who gave us among others the delightful Arco. 2002 was a quiet year for the label, but they're kicking off 2003 in fine style with I, Lucifer by (The Real) Tuesday Weld. The soundtrack to a novel (if that makes sense) by Glen Duncan, this is more of Stephen Coates' slightly unhinged techno-dance hall swing that won him such praise for his When Cupid Meets Psyche album. If you wanted to be a bit mean (or a bit out of date, and never let it be said that I am nothing if not out of date...) you might say this is a bit lounge-core, but that might miss the point because really it's just off-centre pop with a penchant for the glamorous, the seedy, the slightly twee and fey, the feel of red velvet curtains. And there's nothing wrong with that. Oh, and it's miles better than the book it accompanies, incidentally.

Now, a clutch of releases by the wonderfully named (after a Close Lobsters song, for those who didn't know) Firestation Towers label landed in my lap the other week (or it might have been the other month to be fair because time is kind of like that these days), and they've been rather unfairly left in the pile of 'I'll get around to these when I get a minute'. I say unfairly because you just know that I'm never going to have that minute. Not when there are so many other things to take up my time. And when it comes down to a question of 'shall I play this Pretty Nonsense CD or shall I listen just one more time to the Augie March album?' I'm afraid there really is no contest. Pretty Nonsense (by the 05) has prevailed in the end, however, and a quick spin cycle later I'm sitting thinking that this is kinda like Sportique, only not as funny or witty, which lets face it is pretty much the appeal of Sportique. We're talking early Wire without the smarts, or Buzzcocks without the charm or, really, the tunes. Okay as far as that goes, but that's only as far as the end of the street. Then there's Avocado Club, with a three track single that actually sounds rather sweet. 'Too Much Space to Walk Away' is gently swaying indiepop with one of those vaguely yearning vocals that daydreams of being a Sarah single, and there's as much room for that in these days as there ever was. Which is to say the amount of space roughly equivalent to the cupboard under the stairs, but hey, have you seen the cupboard under my stairs? It's lined in silver foil and has a mirror ball dangling in front of the electric meter. It's pretty cool.

Finally on Firestation Towers is a compilation titled, rather optimistically, These Are The Songs We Always Wanted To Hear. Not sure who the 'we' in the title refers to; probably the label owner and his mates, and you know that's as it should be. What other reason could there be for running your own label after all, if not to release the songs you always wanted to hear? Bravo to them. To be fair, some of the songs on the collection actually do sound like songs I would want to hear too. Maybe not always, but certainly at some point in my life. Seaside Stars for example would have thrilled me back in, uh, whenever the hell that was when I was enchanted by groups like The Technical Jed or Ultra Cindy, and actually still do to an extent: the joy of unbridled electric guitars and drums doing just what you expect them to at the moment you expect them to do it is always a simple treat. Lifestyle's 'Are You Coming On To Me?' has a great title, but sadly sounds too much like a refugee from the mid '80s when people thought it was cool to prance about on-stage with keyboards slung like guitars. Or to wear stone-washed jeans with jumpers tucked into waistbands. To some, of course, such a description will sound incredibly tempting, and to these I say... actually I don't say anything. I just leave them to their misguided notions and move on to Slipslide who prefer to wear their suede jackets frayed and their guitars held high. Slipslide remember Hurrah!, East Village and The Bodines and that's of course better than thinking you remember Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw. The Cherry Orchard meanwhile remember the Go-Betweens. So much so in fact that they turn in a very pleasant rendition of 'Streets Of Your Town'. It's one of those cover versions, however, that sounds so similar to the original you kind of wonder why they bothered. Better, surely, to challenge expectations and do like Vitesse did by covering a song by someone hated and horrid and bedevilled and in the process make it sound so spectacularly unlike the original you have to play it a half dozen times to ensure your ears aren't deceiving you. But The Cherry Orchard: yes, top marks for taste, but zero for originality. I'm a mean marker, I'm afraid. Sad to say the rest of the compilation scores similarly. These are groups whose record collections, one suspects, are pretty cool affairs, but when it comes to transferring those influences into something special and new, it just doesn't come off. A couple of songs I'm quite pleased I heard would be a more accurate title for me.

Next up are a couple of new releases on Shelflife. There's A Hiding Place In The Arbor by Artisokka, who are a Finnish band who do a fine take on the kinds of subdued sounds made so eloquently by the likes of The Clientele. This is isn't up to those standards just yet, but is good stuff nonetheless. Soundtracks to eventide suburban strolls, the songs of Artisokka are genteel strums with strings attached, and are occasionally (as on the lovely 'Imprint' or 'Cold Winter') really quite enchanting. Certainly ones to watch.

Less convincing are Glasgow's California Snow Story. Glasgow seems struck with the dreaded Belle And Sebastian disease these days, and indeed has done for a few years now. Too many pseudo-fey souls with a professed love of '60s music who don't, on the face of it, have much of clue really. It's all somewhat depressing, and this 'One Good Summer' EP doesn't fill me with any great hopes it's going to change anytime soon. Nice sleeve though.

Who's next? It's Foxy Boy records who hail from, uh, I haven't a clue where they hail from to be perfectly honest, but somewhere in the USA is a pretty good guess I think. First off there's two retrospective collections, one by Tree Fort Angst, about whom I know a fair amount, and the other by Sleepy Township, about whom I know bugger all. I knew Tree Fort Angst back in the '90s courtesy of their 'Trampoline' which cropped up on a Brilliant label compilation whose name escapes me but which played a lot in the decayed days when I was rather worryingly emptying a bottle of Jack Daniels down my throat of a Friday night. Not something I'm proud of, but hey, that's rock'n'roll for you, right? As I say, nothing to be proud of. But 'Trampoline' as far as I can recall used to have me bouncing around the room, cracking my head on the ludicrously low ceiling. (Thurston Moore, and other tall folks, if you ever read this, don't buy a traditional cottage in Devon if you want to party in it). I knew too that they had connections, through Terry Banks, to St Christopher and to the sublime Glo-Worm, and of course to the very fine Saturday People. Having said that of course, I didn't actually know too many of their songs aside from the aforementioned 'Trampoline', so this hefty thirty track collection came as a bit of a treat. Not that its sound is excessively interesting to me in the here and now, but still, there's always a place in my heart for anything that sounds vaguely reminiscent of prime-time Postcard, or even of mid '80s guitar indiepop with a sweet '60s infatuation. All of which Tree Fort Angst sound in spades.

Sleepy Township on the other hand sound more like The Cannanes. Maybe this isn't so surprising, as they shared a split single with them back in 1997, and hey, they're Australian too. The All These Records compilation collects 'singles and rarities' from 1994-2000 and is pretty fine in a heart-warmingly ramshackle way.

And finally, again from Foxyboy, there is a five track single by (the sound of) Kaleidoscope. Not the '60s Kaleidoscope, naturally, but rather a kind of contemporary homage to that '60s psych made by ex-members of, amongst others, The Ropers and Lilys. On tracks like 'Havent Got The Time' it's not unlike the Primal Scream of the 'Ivy Ivy' era, whilst on 'Sleep Plenty' it's maybe 14 Iced Bears with slightly less mystery and a bit more punch. And whether you think that's a good or bad thing is up to you of course.

© 2003 Alistair Fitchett