Satanic Picnics and Technical Difficulties
Another weekend, another pile of CDs. Today though the sun is shining and there is warmth in the air and in my heart. Kind of… Actually the warmth in my heart has been tested this morning by an aggressive hairdresser (not my usual, I hasten to add) and the arrival of the wrong sized Chelsea boots that were destined to complete my Andy look for next Friday. Add in a wasted trip to Habitat to pick up a table (the electrics had failed in the store so they couldn’t get any light in the store nor open the loading doors), and it would be possible to start feeling a bit pissed. Thankfully I have some great sounds to lift my spirits, none more so than those provided by the very wonderful Satanic Picnic In The Attic by Of Montreal (on Track and Field). Stuffed full of soft pop inflected sounds of early summer, Satanic Picnic is a magical May treat indeed. Like Ray Davies with a sack full of obscure ‘80s electro pop records, Of Montreal make sharp, smart Pop that inhabits the same kind of orbit recently illuminated by the likes of The Shins (and you know, it’s meant as a huge compliment when I say that in places Satanic Picnic sounds like the songs could be extras from the last couple of Shins albums). I guess it’s mostly down to the sound of Kevin Barnes vocals, but it’s also in the fact that the songs are so downright infectious, stuffed with gentle psychedelic moods and memorable melodies that you want to hum for hours as you ride out into the sun of summer afternoons and relax in the haze of sunset evenings.

Now I know it’s a pretty lazy music journo thing to trip out the Brian Wilson card when talking about anything that sounds remotely like it was made me anyone influenced by the West coast soft pop sound, but at least the Wondermints can claim a bona-fide connection, having formed the backing band for Wilson’s recent triumphant tours. No surprise then that Brian himself crops up on backing vocals on two of the tracks here, nor that a lot of their Mind if we make love to you album (on the now sound of Rev-Ola in the UK) bristles with the spirit and sound of prime Beach Boys. It all means that there are some sublime slots of soft pop perfection on there that can’t fail to make your day feel a whole better.
It’s good to see a label like Rev-Ola bringing out new sounds as well as being a treasure trove of unearthed treasaures. And if the sound of the Wondermints is wholly in keeping with the kind of West Coast archaeology that Joe Foster has been undertaking this past decade and more, then the one made by Glasgow’s Tibi Lubin on their I Don't See You As A Dead Girl album throws a lasso around the breathy French aesthetic of the likes of Claudine Longet and marries it to a sparse backing that recalls the delights of the Marine Girls, Young Marble Giants or Slumber Party. And of course you could take a line back from Slumber Party to the Shangri-Las and you would be bang on target for joining the dots to Tibi Lubin, which is some mighty recommendation, the Shangri-Las being one of the greatest of all groups of course. It all makes for a deceptively gentle sound that camouflages razor blades in its folds; like being seduced into sleep with promises of hidden pleasures only to experience surrealist dreams of Joseph Cornell assemblages come to life - dead eyed birds and limbless dolls singing lullabies of death and loss. Which, in case you were wondering, is just the kind of wonderfully off-centre sound you need.

Similarly off-centre are Les Mouches. Recording for the fabulously strange Blocks Recording Club of Toronto, Les Mouches are the noise of angular traumas wandering emptied streets in search of the first bus home. They are the noise of roaming lost in dislocated factories gathering dust, hearing the rumble of machinery burst through fractures in space and time. Or, to put it in terms you might understand better (or not), they are the noise of June of 44 doing a moonlit dance with the Young People and a host of long forgotten Jazz, Blues and Folk players; shadows of broken windows speckling their faces like disfigurements from a dream. Their five track ‘Blood Orgy’ Ep (with hand stitched sleeve, red threads hanging off like streams of blood) is a fine starting point, whilst the wonderfully titled You’re Worth More To Me Than 1000 Christians album comes with a paper heart insert with the apt single word ‘merde’ and fills in the gaps with some fine post-folk noise that ought to be on everyone’s stereos as the sun starts to bake our rooftops.

Also from the Blocks Recording Club comes the It’s True album by Bob Wiseman, the legendary Toronto artist who can claim connection to Edie Brickell, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Jane Siberry, Wilco and Bruce McCulloch (of Kids In The Hall infamy) amongst others... like The Hidden Cameras, but you already knew THAT, right? And that’s got to be worth something. On It’s True Bob teams up with Steven Kado (of the very wonderful Barcelona Pavillion, from whom a limited edition single will shortly be available on the Meccico label in the UK) to deliver a deliciously eccentric record full of down at heel folk interspersed with occasional outbursts of madcap electronic noises. It’s wayward and unclassifiable and all the more enjoyable for it.

Now, as you no doubt are aware, I’m a sucker for Projects. I like it when people undertake any kind of large project spanning time or distance, documenting personal progress… whatever. It’s the kind of thing, however, that in the realms of music can lead to horrible things like that spectre of prog-rock, the Concept Album. Of course in recent times some have reclaimed the notion from the depths of prog nightmares, most notably Stephin Merritt with his 69 Love Songs undertaking. In fact of course the idea of a theme running through Merritt’s albums was nothing new; all Magnetic Fields albums are ‘concept albums’ to a point, but it certainly made the point more visible than ever. sufjan Stevens is similarly making the Concept idea visible, with his Michigan album (Rough Trade) being the first instalment in a project in which Stevens intends to present a record themed on each US State. It’s the kind of quirky project that could work really well. There is a solid thread to tie it all together, yet enough potential variety in the individual albums to break any kind of possible monotony. Certainly the Michigan album is a fine start, would be a fine album regardless of the larger context, filled as it is with splendid songs that blend influences such as Nick Drake, Elliot Smith and Stereolab into a fine texture of 21st Century post-folk. I have to say I’m really looking forward to seeing (and hearing) how this project evolves over the years ahead. And if the rest of the albums live up to the promise shown by Michigan, it’s going to be some mighty rewarding journey.
Also on a rewarding journey are D.W. Holiday, whose Technical Difficulties, Under The Influence… (Three Ring Records) album dropped into my post box a few weeks ago. I have to admit it sat unplayed for most of that time as I dipped into old Who records and new Magnetic Fields, but listened to now, it’s really rather astonishing. Starting up with a marvellously spacious post-rock reverberation, the album lopes sideways through dramatic canyons of guitar and down into inky wells of quirky electronic texture that recall the echoes of the folk-electro made by the peerless Black Moth Super Rainbow (only without the infatuation with childhood which makes the BMSR sound so peculiar and special). It’s like a psychedelic journey through the landscape of eclectic record collections that takes in Wire, early Pink Floyd, Flaming Lips and Squarepusher… And as such it’s of course highly recommended.

Similarly unknown to me and similarly recommended (although for entirely different reasons) are The Metric Mile. Out of Brooklyn and eschewing that burgh’s already stereotypical Rock sound for a gentler electro pop sound, The Metric Mile breeze in with the self-released How To Beat The SAT EP. Recalling the kind of almost-not-there sound of early Wake, Orchestral Manoeuvres or The Field Mice when they were effectively a duo with a drum machine, the Metric Mile possibly dream of girls in polka dots and of writing songs about telephone boxes. Which means that they make the kind of sounds that make me recall afternoons sitting on hillsides below the abandoned radar station, gazing at ferries crossing the sea to Arran and dreaming of mythical kisses… A pleasurable curse to be sure.

Oh, and in that’s not enough, they have the nerve to attempt a cover of the Greatest Single Ever (Strawberry Switchblade’s ‘Trees And Flowers’, since you ask) and not fail utterly, which is akin to saying that they’ve done the scabby witches from Glasgow proud. It’s not on the EP but I know someone who would love to make it one side of a split single with the flip being a cover of the other Greatest Single Ever (April Showers’ ‘Abandon Ship’, and did you really have to ask?). Anyone who thinks they are up to the challenge should get in touch. Anyway, How To Beat The SAT has five cuts of almost unimaginably brittle beauty and you’d be mad not to get in touch with them with offers of undying love and recording contracts. Or at the very least an offer of a couple of bucks to get your hands on a copy of the EP yourselves.

© 2004 Alistair Fitchett