Higher Than A Weather Balloon
John Carney wrote recently that he has never let a 4AD record into his house, and whilst I understand where he is coming from, I have to say he’s missed out on a lot of great records both past and present. For a start, 4AD have just released a new Mountain Goats record. But why did I not know about this until an email from John Darnielle arrived offering to send me a copy? A new Mountain Goats record should be the sort of thing that should be front page news, but is instead the sort of thing that gets ignored in favour of… in favour of… actually, you know, these days I have no idea what it gets ignored in favour of. I’m just sure it’s not as worthy, because what possibly could be?

I asked a year ago why John Darnielle was not a household name and no-one has yet given me a reasonable explanation. The new Mountain Goats record, We Shall All Be Healed, on which Darnielle again teams up with Peter Hughes and Franklin Bruno (amongst other mighty Mountain Goat musicians), is more evidence that in the ideal world where wayward tales of Belgian escapades and pigs that run straightaway into the water are more highly feted than those of banal sexual encounters in faraway imaginary climes, Mountain Goats are more famous than Justin Timberlake. Of course in the harsher environment of the ‘real world’, people tend not to relate much to songs that sound like Dylan with a Masters Degree, tend to shy away from songs that blend stripped bare passion with melancholy solitude. Their loss is our gain.

There’s a train of thought that says that between the early post-punk explorations of ’80 to ’82 and the Acid House explosion of ’88 to ’89, the ’80s was a bit of a desolate wasteland where anxious morose kids wielded guitars and winged from behind their fringes. And whilst it’s partly true, it denies the existence of a lot of interesting stuff. I’ve been reminded of this recently with some reissues on the Egg records restoration programme. First on the list is Plaster Saint, a six tracker from The Church Grims. Hauling themselves from the murk of Paisley in the mid ‘’80s, the Church Grims were a gang of street urchins in love with dreams of Rimbaud and James Kirk, and they made a mighty fine sound that left nerves jangling. With a June Brides trumpet and an early James off-kilter skirl, they punched below the belt and kissed above the stars. I loved them dearly, and do so again.

Next up from Egg is a collection of Baby Lemonade cuts collected from their now hard to find Sha-La-La flexi and their sole Narodnik label 7”. It’s all typical fuzz guitar Pop, unhinged and held together with masking tape, but it still moves me, especially on the serene ‘The Real World’ which sounds for all the world like those early Strawberry Switchblade sides of aching sorrow, wandering lost along the sands. Evoking similar thoughts are the Submarines with their eleven track Telegraph Signals collection. Submarines made one great single for the Head label. ‘Grey Skies Blue’ was like Jesse Garon and The Desperadoes in a slightly pouty, put on sulk, and that was always a mighty fine way to sound. It still sounds mighty today, and whilst the other ten cuts don’t move me in the same way, it’s still a welcome reminder that there’s always more to a time than meets the ear.

Finally on Egg is the Pretty Mouth collection by Change of Seasons. I had lost track of the Egg label by the time this Toronto duo released their ‘You Again’ / ‘Soft Spoken’ single in 1991, so this whole album is completely new to me. Whether it’s the delight of the new or something more substantial only time will tell, but this week Change of Seasons sound like one of the great lost groups ever. With a nod to the Wake, Go-Betweens, Stars of Heaven and The Orchids, Change of Seasons are a sweetly soft revelation that you’d be daft to ignore this time around.

Now, any drift back to the 1980s for me really ought to include some mention of The Smiths. The last time I wrote anything about Morrissey and his troupe of Mancunian vagabonds I was swamped with vitriolic hatemail, so forgive me if I’m more than a little wary of mentioning them ever again. It’s inescapable however, in the light of the new Matinee tribute collection Romantic And Square Is Hip And Aware. Slotting this into the CD player and spinning it for the first time was a strange experience. Having avoided playing any Smiths records for a long time, I’d not heard many of the songs for some years, and yet each one immediately felt like an old accomplice. A strange feeling indeed. Even stranger was the feeling that each of these versions felt immediately more bearable than the originals. Maybe it’s the lack of difficult memories, or maybe it’s the fact that most of the songs chosen are late-period Smiths and I’m therefore more open to new interpretations of songs I never particularly warmed to in the first place (Lovejoy’s take on ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, The Young Tradition’s ‘Sheila Take A Bow’ or the Lucksmiths’ glorious duet take on ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ for example all seduce me more successfully than I remember the originals ever doing), but whatever; this is a collection that doesn’t allow admiration (or indeed adulation) get in the way of a good time; is an artful nod and a wink instead of a deferential grovelling. And for this we should be more than happy. Oh, and Keith Snowdrop’s sleevenotes say all that ever needed to be said about The Smiths ever. Full stop. End of story.

Thankfully though the story of Matinee goes on, with an album by The Liberty Ship. A blend of minor chord melancholy and steel toed sharpness, Tide is an album that sits neatly beside labelmates The Windmills’ offerings of bittersweet melodies whilst casting a glance over its shoulder at the bedroom Pop of, say, White Town. There’s also a lovely tray photo of the band name written in the sand which echoes the one used on the Visitors’ mercurial Miss collection of a few years ago and which reminds me once more of winter beach walks lost in the dunes, and you know if I was 17 again the Liberty Ship would surely be providing their soundtrack.

Also on that soundtrack would probably be Detroit’s Pas/Cal, whose ‘Oh Honey We’re Ridiculous’ EP from Le Grand Magistery has been spinning in my head of late. Think bookish Pop with a love of the foppish flourish; think Belle and Sebastian at their perky finest (I heard ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ on the car radio the other morning and it sounded stunning), or My Life Story doing a set of Beach Boys covers. Think World Of Twist with a penchant for the 1940s instead of the 19th Century. Guaranteed to make you want to dress up in tweeds and gyrate across the library floor, glass of fine malt whisky deftly balanced in your hand.

© 2004Alistair Fitchett