A New Pop Renaissance
A chance email last week had me digging out my old Everything But The Girls records. They still sounded terrific, but what struck me most was just how much the songs had been etched on my memory. I’ve said such things a hundred times in the past, and will continue to repeat it in the future, but even though I had not listened to, say, Eden much in years, I could still recall every word and note, knew exactly where all the songs were going. It was both comforting and strangely distressing; all of the fine moments encased in those songs surfaced again, delicately kissing my eyelids open whilst at the same time arose the bleak curtain of years passed and connections lost.

There is certainly something about the songs we hear in our teenage years that refuses to leave us, that sits deep in the heart and soul waiting to ambush us with sweetness and barbed wire kisses, and it is a delicious curse to be sure. These days though it often feels like I have no time to get emotionally attached to records or to groups, and this saddens me.

Having said that of course I now need to back-peddle and say that there are in fact several groups around at the moment who make me more excited, more delighted by the magical possibilities of Pop than I have been for a long time. It should be no surprise to hear me say that two of those groups are The Pipettes and Smoosh. It seems to me that both of these groups have the most natural grasp of what makes for addictive and sparkling Pop. Both groups understand implicitly that it’s about more than just music but is rather about a whole puzzle of inter-connected elements each of which shimmer with an intangible essence. If you don’t understand that then it probably means that you wouldn’t like either of those groups and should probably stick with your dull Rock records.

In a different camp, but one which is in effect simply a suburb of the same core, are another bunch of groups who similarly fill me with impetuous delight every time I hear them.
First up there’s Pants Yell! I have spoken about this band of beatific Bostonians before, and will doubtless speak a great a deal about them in the future, but for now I want to tell you that for me they conjure the spirit of the greatest bittersweet guitar pop ever and that if this were 1981 Alan Horne would no doubt be sticking out a 7” on Postcard Records, same as he did with Go-Betweens. So do Pants Yell! sound like the Go-Betweens? I said in the past that they did, and I stand by that still although I’ll also add that whilst they do, they also don’t. That’s an important point to make and I hope you understand. Because the best artists take vital elements from their inspirations and distil it to something new. Sometimes, as with, say, The Pop Group or A Certain Ratio, the astonishing newness comes as a result of what could be perceived as of ‘failure’ to reproduce the source texts. But that’s the whole point. Failure as success and vice versa.

So Pants Yell! tap into a source where the texts might be from the early Go-Betweens, The Pastels, Orange Juice, TV Personalities, Jonathan Richman, ‘60s Beat and Soft Pop, Simon and Garfunkel, early Creation (they have a song called ’83 in ’05 for heavens sake! How cool is that?). Belle and Sebastian, even. They are a group in thrall to the possibilities that lie within the perfection of the Pop song; the way that it can make two minutes last forever and can break your heart and mend your soul simultaneously in the blink of an eye. No surprise maybe then that they choose to cover Jens Lekman’s divine ‘Tram # 7’ on the Asaurus Records EP Club # 10. Limited to just 50 copies I guess this is all but sold out now, so apologies for whetting your appetite only to let you down and all, but it really is a gem. In fact, it’s to Pants Yell!’s immense credit that their own two original offerings are at least the equal of their cover version. Elsewhere on the EP the band back Ryan Doyle on another three cuts, each of which glistens like the morning dew. That said, it’s Doyle’s haunting solo offering ‘Claire’ that really hits me between the eyes. It opens with a line that goes ‘I framed the picture of Claire’ that has me recalling a film, a half-glimpsed smile, a heartache invented in daydreams, scent on Bauhaus books and roses and candy hearts decaying on sketchbook pages. Potent stuff.

And speaking of sketchbook pages, how could I write about Pants Yell! and not mention Andrew Churchman’s fantastic artwork? His drawings are ace comicbook PopArt and when they are hand screened as on the brilliant set of posters for recent shows, they are pure Pop artefacts in their own right. Oh, and did I mention that they have their own glorious Lindy Morrison on the drum stool? These details are so important.
Now, there are links here between Pants Yell! and another Boston area act that I’ve mentioned before on these pages. When I first heard Soltero’s The Tongues You Have Tied album in August 2004 I made some passing comments about Elliott Smith and Yo La Tengo. Really I should have given it more space because it was a lovely set, and a noble precursor to their excellent new Hell Train album. So the The Pants Yell! connection on Hell Train might only be explicit in that Andrew helped out with hand screening the sleeves for this first pressing of 500 copies, but there is definitely a sense of a shared aesthetic in sound as well as visuals. It’s an aesthetic of sunlit decay, of peeling paint on abandoned grand staircases and of the ghosts of well respected men and women fallen on harder times. At times it bursts forth with buds of Soft Pop colour like on the delectable ‘From The Station’ or ‘A Single Good Evening’ (which at times might be a scuffed up treasure that the Shins lost on the studio floor in a moment of carefree carelessness), whilst at others, for example on the penultimate track ‘Ghost At The Foot Of The Bed’ it twists around its core of introspection into a harsh psych indulgence that spits acid at the sun. It all rather reminds me of the glories once served up by East River Pipe, and that’s no bad thing, since F.M. Cornog is one of the finest purveyors of introspective Pop ever. And like those great East River Pipe records like Poor Fricky and Mel, Soltero’s Hell Train is definitely one of those records I’m going to keep wanting to come back to as the years go by. Checking their website it seems there are a couple of older albums from before Tongues, so that’s something else I need to check out. Similarly it seems I missed the 2003 Garbageheads On Stun set by the aforementioned East River Pipe. My bank manager is going to hate me.

I mentioned the connection between Soltero and Pants Yell! but there is also a link out to the excellent Ponies In The Surf via Alexander McGregor, and really if you haven’t already checked out the Camille and Alexander set I mentioned back at the end of 2004 then you have missed out on some beautiful brittle bittersweet sounds that will melt your heart. You might also consider getting hold of their new four track EP on I Wish I Was Unpopular. Now I admit I’ve got a conflict of interests here, and I don’t want this to sound like some PR bullshit, but it can’t be helped: Ponies In The Surf are a modern day brother and sister Simon and Garfunkel who should be clutched close to our hearts and never let go. So now you know.

Now, everyone knows about the NYC infatuation with the old New Wave, No-Wave, Post Punk, whatever, and whilst that’s fine of course, the really interesting noises are being made out in Brooklyn by a Pop obsessed scene coalescing around groups like The Metric Mile, My Teenage Stride and The Pathways
I wrote about the new My Teenage Stride album Major Major a couple of months ago, and naturally everything thence written still stands. Let’s just add here and now though that Jed Smith should go down as one of the great new breed of songwriters keeping alive the flame of Brill Building Pop in contemporaneous music. Who needs H.P. Lovecraft reissues when we’ve got My Teenage Stride?

The Metric Mile, on the other hand, are more in thrall to the kind of sounds washing in on the waves of time with an epicenter around early ‘80s guitar and electro derived pop and refracted down the years through the likes of The Wake and The Field Mice. Their self-released How To Beat The SAT CDR (also available as a 3” on I Wish I Was Unpopular) is rightly considered by those in the know to be gem of understated sweet melancholia. The Metric Mile sound like earnest and vaguely troubled young men brooding over the vagaries of life, love, science and art, with one eye on Simone De Beauvoir and the other on Truman Capote. Which sounds pretty damn good to me. And if ‘Isn’t Almost So Much Better’ isn’t a classic moment that taps straight into the very core of what the entire Pop experience is all about, then I’m a Dutchman. Which I assure you I’m not (nothing against the Dutch, you understand). The fact that they arm themselves with a blue Rickenbacker held high and proud and have a cover of Strawberry Switchblade’s classic ‘Trees And Flowers’ in the armory of their history only adds to the appeal.

Then there’s The Pathways. Their magnificent ‘Productivity’ single, with its genius ‘Blueboy’ homage was a spectacular introduction (whaddya mean you haven’t bought it yet!?) that set the bar ludicrously high, but I have to say that their Boat Of Confidence debut set (like the single, available on RiYL Records) doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. This really is the sound of a new Pop renaissance; is the sound of a Pop that glances over its shoulder at Pavement and early Sea and Cake and that dreams of finding lofts full of Postcard records in mint condition. So there’s a hint of Orange Juice, a dash of Go-Betweens and a sprinkle of Josef K in The Pathways, but it doesn’t get in the way of them blending something awkwardly new. Guitars are like pinpricks of light, etching out effortlessly simple drawings on the skies, whilst the drums and bass rattle and tumble away like teenagers caught in their first embraces. At times it’s all faintly reminiscent of Felt’s filigree, or to take it back further, to the Television of Adventure, whose ‘Days’ still sounds to me like a blueprint for Pop perfection that was cruelly passed over by the masses of guitar wielding new-new-wave of post-post-punks in favour of the more obvious Rock angles of Marquee Moon.

But back to The Pathways, and their edgy, shadowy Pop that exhales clouds of Kafka and Camus cigarette smoke in Noir lit corridors. Like the criminally forgotten Eggs a decade or more before them, The Pathways sound like being caught in the throes of an eternity spent in the body and soul of a seventeen year old, and you know that’s a heaven and hell situation if ever there was one. And do I really have to say again that the embrace of those extremes, that the enveloping disconnected cohesion of working with contradictions is inherently Pop, is what makes it so damnably infuriating and so utterly enthralling? Probably I do, yes.

The Pathways make a glorious complex simplicity of a racket that’s the match of anything you care to throw in the ring. Ignore this record and this band at your peril.

In fact, take that last sentence and apply it to any one of the aforementioned groups and records. Get with the New Pop Renaissance and prepare to fall in love.

© 2005 Alistair Fitchett