Pony Tales
Traditionally I don’t much like December. Usually I consider it a horrid, cold, dark month punctuated by the forced light of festivity. Usually of course this view has me deluged with accusations of ‘bah humbug’, and that’s usually fair enough too. In a break with tradition this year, however, I’m rather enjoying the month. It hasn’t been as cold as I remember it being in the past, and whilst it is still seasonally dark and dank, it’s been brightened considerably by the arrival of several great records.

First of all there’s been the return of Antony Harding with his much anticipated second July Skies collection The English Cold (Make Mine Music). Now really I ought to have written about this album before now, not least because it has been in my possession for several months, providing an understated and ghostly backdrop for much of the difficult and tiring term. And in fact ‘ghostly’ is a fitting adjective, particularly since the album has a dedication ‘for lost airmen’, is subtitled ‘1939-1945’ and has song titles like ‘farmers and villagers living within the shadow of aerodromes’, ‘the mighty 8th’ and ‘death was where your sky was’. All give a good idea of what this album is about, namely the distillation of ghosts into the gently glowing filament of music; about dreamy imaginations playing tricks on the daylight; about the metamorphosis of landscape and time. Naturally The English Cold sounds every bit as fragile and utterly mesmeric as its predecessor Dreaming Of Spires, with the haunting memory of Virginia Astley, Vini Reilly and Maurice Deebank floating through the vapour trails of Lancasters and B17s. More evocative than a million History Channel documentaries, more touching than poppies on a cenotaph,
Similarly, I really should have written something about the Pants Yell! Songs For Siblings record (on asaurus records)months ago when it landed in my lap. It’s the kind of spare, honest and pure Pop music that’s echoed all the way down through my life ever since I first stumbled on a solo Tracey Thorn record way back in the mists of time. Or the early ‘80s, at least. Pants Yell! don’t sound like Tracey Thorn, but they do sound like the share an aesthetic with the Marine Girls, and naturally that’s worth more than anything. If I was the kind of person to do end of year lists then I’d be putting Pants Yell! up close to the top of my list of low-key finds of the year; close to the summit of the pile marked ‘songs that cracked and melted my heart’. At times this record reminds me of how the early Go-Betweens sounded: full of rough edged melodies skewed at odd angles, with the brown paper Postcard bag highlighted by flickering neon. At other times it reminds me of the Pastels hopping on the magic bus up Hope Street, and at others still (okay, on opener ‘Go Big Blue’) it reminds me of the day I came home with Clem Snide’s The Ghost Of Fashion and that’s a sweet memory of course.

Pants Yell! probably belong to a whole new sub-genre invented by gangs of cooler than me indie kids, and that’s just fine. In many ways I would be disappointed if they didn’t. They probably sit around talking about how much they love those old Beat Happening records and have field trips out to thrift stores looking for old Country and Folk records. Man, how I wish I was a part of that gang… Instead, I’ll have to content myself with hitting the Play button again and falling in love. Yeah, sometimes life’s pretty good.
It’s made even better by the arrival of the Ponies In The Surf set by Camille and Alexander. Like Pants Yell!, Camille and Alexander cast a shadow that sounds to me like it is at least in part projected by the flame of those early ‘80s Cherry Red records by the likes of Marine Girls, Everything But The Girl and Jane. That it also reminds me of the genius Lispector is of course another reason to fall in love. Now it might be pushing the brother / sister parallel to suggest that Camille and Alexander are in the mould of Chuck and Mary Perrin, but they certainly make a sensual and sweet folk-pop sound that appeals to the same side of me that dissolved as soon as I heard The Last Word, and certainly in the past few days Ponies In the Surf has been queen of the kitchen stereo; and you know that’s a tough trophy to carry off. I’m eager to hear more in 2005.

I’m also eager to hear more of Psapp in 2005, because their Tiger, My Friend set on Arable is the kind of sublime analogue electronica collage I’ve dreamed about for years; a place where adventurous and eccentric sounds come and cuddle up to Soft Pop vocals under melancholic winter skies. Psapp are Broadcast in an ice hotel, wrapped in faux jaguar jackets, pointing microphones into cracks to record the creaks and drips of living architecture. Psapp are Stereolab on an autumn forest walk, unearthing strange colourful fungi and gazing disconcerted at the branches arching overhead. In the far distance the factory bells ring and the smoke belches. More than anything though, Psapp are Psapp; the sound of deliciously fun, often fragile and lovelorn, glitch infected folk music for (sub)urbanites. A strange and sweetly eccentric gem to be sure.

Speaking of sweetly eccentric, what about The Boy Least Likely To’s great The Best Party Ever on the Too Young To Die label? The sleeve has a drawing of assorted animals bashing colourful drums, guitars and xylophones, wearing jaunty paper hats and clutching red balloons. They look like they were drawn by a six year old. Isn’t it great when albums wear their hearts on their sleeves? The Boy’s three essential 7” singles are all collected here; from the purring Dexys (think ‘Because Of You’) meets Badly Drawn Boy of ‘fur soft as fur’ through the Brian Wilson acid-laced soda-Pop of ‘Paper Cuts’ to the acer than ace ‘Be Gentle With Me’. Sublime summery sweetness charged with an edginess that’s all coy fringes and cloaked switchblades: The Boy Least Likely To is the Boy most likely to make me believe in magic.

Then finally for now there’s Norway’s Tribeca with their Dragon Down set on Labrador. If you like the idea of Future Bible Heroes remixing old Cure singles, or maybe Conor Obrest pretending to be Howard Jones (or vice versa) then I suspect you may like the sound of this duo. There’s also echoes of Momus in his disco clone threads, and perhaps The Gentle People slumming it under Gothic Archies; and in case you were wondering, this means that the sound of Tribeca is the sound of gurgling and bleating analogue synths pirouetting on thin ice. The sunlight glints off icicles and frosted lips but under the frozen expanse there is a deathly void waiting to swallow the brightness. All of which is by way of saying that this album is the perfect accompaniment for helping you through these cold dark days of night’s encroaching fingers. Someone wake me when Spring arrives.

© 2004 Alistair Fitchett