The Heat Of The Downs
Sub bass rumbles. A guitar twitches like a zombie’s fingers waking in the moonlight. Electronic cricket clicks fill the air. A disembodied voice crackles, saying ‘I really love you’ before all manner of melody and textural noise erupt in a magically monstrous cauldron of heady, humanistic chaos. This is the sound of Sunnyvale Noise Sub-element, an outfit that sounds like some strange cabal of outcasts from The Bronze making charmingly demonic sounds in the AV unit of Buffy’s High School. Freaks and Geeks together in perfect dysfunctional harmony. Did once they call this kind of thing the place where Post-Rock meets electronica? I’m not really sure, and equally, I’m not really sure I care, because all that really matters is the moment, is the noise, is the chiming melodies and the beats crashing like waves on the pacific shore of my childhood dreams like Kerouac’s shefallying words. Whatever. The song is called ‘I Love You Every Time You Smile’ and it’s on a ludicrously limited edition (300 pressing) 7” single shared with the equally excellent Princess on Field Records. If this isn’t on all your summer mix tapes then man, did you miss out.

And on the subject of missing out, how many of you missed out on Hefner? Okay, you young bloods have got good reason, because time skips on so damn fast these days and you know, if you are under twenty now then you’d have been under fifteen when Hefner bowed out with their final album, and only approaching those high school gates with extreme trepidation when their first single eased into the Indie ether back in April of 1997. Jesus, how time flies. It feels just like yesterday. And really, you know, although I didn’t miss out as such, I always think that I should have made more of Hefner. For they had the verve of the Velvets, the arty Uptight tangle of early Talking Heads or Voidoids (there was a lovely nod to ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ in ‘Hello Kitten’) and the gloriously tarnished glamour of The Go-Betweens. They were the kings of barbed, literate Indiepop when it was barely fashionable. Hefner wrote and recorded hymns for alcohol, cigarettes, the postal service, and every damn pure hearted outsider who ever dreamt of the quietly enraged inheriting the earth, and if you did miss out then the Best of Hefner collection should be snapped up forthwith. And if it doesn’t have you gyrating around your bedroom with the wild-eyed beatitude of Dean Moriarty, then you are dead in the heart AND in the head.

All of which should inevitably make you want to investigate further, and what better way to do so (other than buying up their entire back catalogue ­ which is not a bad idea, incidentally) than to snag a copy of the new Catfight double CD collection of 43 (yes, count ‘em) unreleased songs that span their entire career. Not that it’s all scratchy no-fi demos, for the first batch of tracks are songs that were to have been the basis of the never completed sixth album, and are largely gorgeous, mellow, downbeat gems. Released on chief Hefner singer / songwriter Darren Hayman’s own label, this is the real spirit of independence that should be cherished and celebrated from the roofs of city centre carparks the land over.
Now I know for a fact that many of you did miss out on The Orchids and that you all had your excuses. Too young, too old, too wrapped up in nightmares or shady dreams of a million yesterdays with eyes on the gleamy prizes of all the things your mates plucked from the bin marked Obvious Retro Schtick in the local HMV or Virgin. But that’s okay. I’m in forgiving mood, and anyway, here’s a tip right now: go out and pick up the peerless reissues of The Orchids’ Sarah label albums from the LTM stable. You will shower me with kisses of such sweet gratitude or, if that all seems a bit European and overly demonstrative, shower me with anonymous gifts of sweets and Nice Things through the mail. Oh, and whilst you are at it, pick up Volume 24 of the Little Darla Has A Treat For You compilation series, for there, nestling within its luxurious folds, sits a perfectly formed new song by a reformed Orchids called ‘Another Saturday Night’. And guess what? It sounds beautiful. It sounds persuasive, nay seductive in the way it weaves and caresses, with all the perfect Orchidean elements neatly in place. The sweetly strummed guitar opening, the chiming crescendos, the supple rhythm and oh, the eternally glorious just ever-so-perfectly tremulous voice of James Hackett hovering over it all. Of course you know that Pop Groups should almost never reform after years away. It’s one of the unwritten rules. Don’t want to destroy the legend, after all. But the return of The Orchids, like that of Green Gartside and his latest Scritti incarnation, is one that gives lie to the rule, is one of those exceptional exceptions that proves the point.

So now on volume 24, clearly the Little Darla series has been going for some time. I have a fair few of them in my collection, each of them brimful with songs, the vast majority of which are at least intriguing and at most immensely addictive delights. It’s the same on this one, and alongside The Orchids are tracks by Beatnik Filmstars, Boyracer, Mahogany, Manual, Saloon and Voxtrot, to name but a few. The real treasures though are the Make Mine Music contributions from Epic 45, Portal and the sublime July Skies. Of course I don’t need any excuse to add a July Skies track to any mix, and the exclusive ‘Pevsner Broke Our Hearts’ is everything that you would expect. I cannot tell you too many times just how in awe I am to July Skies; how much I adore Antony Harding’s otherworldly compositions of textural, mythical landscape. There has always been a remarkable strain of romantic mystery permeating the music of July Skies. It has always been the sound of being gloriously lost in English country lanes, spying village church spires in the hazy middle distance like beacons of cool stone in the baking surreal heat of spectral summer days. It’s been the sound of ancient barns sitting rag taggled in scorched fields; of tiny, long abandoned railway halts now converted to secret homes hidden next to spindly bridges, the ghosts of proud porters and doomed airmen home on leave wandering the now neatly trimmed platform herbaceous borders.

I remember reading Pevsner when I was a young Architectural student back in the early 1980s. It didn’t appeal, and it certainly didn’t break my heart, but then I was young and stupid after all. Much later I saw Michael Bracewell wax lyrical in a TV series about Pevsner’s guide to Surrey, and it suddenly all made perfect sense. For indeed Pevsner can break our hearts in the way in which he so carefully recorded the minutiae of England’s architectural heritage. He was so full of beautifully pitched admiration and fastidious attention to detail. Very Mod. His words were also very much about the everyday architecture, the architecture that surrounds us and does not shout or make bold pronouncements but which rather quietly gets on with the job at hand. These days, my Pevsner’s Devon, much like my collection of July Skies records, is rarely out of reach.
One suspects that Leeds based iLiKETRAiNS would have a soft spot for Pevsner too, certainly if the frankly rather captivating ‘The Beeching Report’ from their precious Progress Reform mini-album for Fierce Panda is anything to go by. Of course all the hippest hipsters will know about this bunch, and indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if you are already Railcard carrying members of their rapidly growing support. But if you somehow managed to let them slip past your radar, let me take this opportunity to recommend them wholeheartedly. Except if you don’t particularly like majestically gloomy, genuinely Gothic (as in the way Arcade Fire are Gothic and, say, Sisters Of Mercy aren’t) sounds, in which case, ah, best to steer clear. For all the rest of us though, iLiKETRAiNS are a spellbinding treat, like a choir of spooky sixth formers at Hogwarts chanting incantations to keep away the masters of the dark arts. Or maybe to invite those masters into their lives, it’s not really certain. What is certain is that they make a sound that is intelligent and cleverly referential; The Beeching Report itself is a monstrously brooding, restrained piece that says more about the nature of class politics than a million faux-council estate Arctic Monkeys anthems ever will. Mark my words, iLiKETRAiNS will be the sound of the summer’s blackest sun, and we will worship at their feet like scorched souls in search of springs.

Lighter tones are meanwhile supplied by Manyfingers with the track ‘For Measured Shores’ from the Our Worn Shadow set which is given a ‘proper’ release on Acuarela two years after being available as a CDR release. Manyfingers is essentially the electro-acoustic project of Bristol based Chris Cole, who some of you may recognise as the cellist in cult Post-Rock outfit Third Eye Foundation, or as the drummer for Soeza. Here he enlists the help of The Playwrights’ Aaron Dewey on cornet and Hallucinations’ Ida Alfstad on vocals to make a swirling, softly psychedelic gem of a record. Just the thing for lazy sun soaked afternoons soaking up the heat on the Downs.

Much the same could be said for the closing two tracks on this mix, from Monster Movie and The Year Zero. Monster Movie comprise former Slowdive guitarist Christian Savill and Sean Hewson with additional vocals supplied by the glorious Rachel Staggs (Experimental Aircraft and Eau Claire), and ‘Vertical Planes’ comes from their All Lost set for Graveface records (home to the genius that is Black Moth Super Rainbow, in case you had forgotten). All Lost is the follow up to the magnificent and otherworldy Transistor set that softly broke my heart some time ago, and is every bit as fine. Cool and serene, mixing the melodic with the distorted, Monster Movie make sounds of crystalline beauty with just enough jagged edges left intact to keep it interesting.

Ditto The Year Zero, whose Oceania, I Will Return set I eagerly anticipated back in April when I plucked their ‘Moonviewing Parties’ track for my mix. This time around it’s ‘Dreamers Under The Sky’, and really, what better way to end than on this beguiling, breathy note. Out on Skipping Stones, this hypnotic soft-psych-pop set was mastered by the legendary Kramer, which should tell you a lot as he has in his time of course been behind the mesmerising sounds of Galaxie 500 and Low. And if The Year Zero don’t quite reach the giddy heights of those names, well that’s no great crime, for so few have after all. Oceania I Will Return is regardless a gem of a record that glistens like a lost pearl necklace beneath the cool clear waters of the still river. Let your fingers dip into its depths and touch the silvery magic within.

© 2006 Alistair Fitchett