Final Day
There’s a great line in The Orchids’ ‘As Time Goes By’ that talks about realising that summer’s over. And with the countdown until the start of term into the final day, there is a hanging sense of defeat in the air, that feeling that summer has indeed spread it’s wings and flown. It’s a feeling that in many ways prompted me to kick off my start of September mix with the sound of July Skies. For July Skies are often, paradoxically, not the sound of July skies at all, but rather of those of late August and early September, bristling with wood smoke and dotted with clouds that weep droplets of apologetic rain. I have written about July Skies at length in the past. I have written of how their aching landscapes are populated with the ghosts of past times, and of how the spectral presence of lost airmen and steam trains meander through the forests and beaches of their souls. All of this you should by now accept in good faith. What you should also accept without argument is that in the course of the past six or seven years July Skies have quietly assembled a body of work that is the match of any at capturing the peculiar gentile pace of the mythical English landscape. It’s no accident that July Skies compositions variously soundtrack imaginary documentaries about deserted RAF airfields, abandoned coastal defences and maps coming alive in soft hallucinatory warmth. No surprise either that the Where The Days Go retrospective collection of hard to find vinyl, out-takes, radio sessions and live recordings is dedicated to the memory of Harry Wingfield and Ronald Lampitt, a pair of artists who illustrated the Ladybird book series in the UK. There was a time when such a dedication on a record would have been seen as an affected naiveté, but in this context it is utterly charming and poignant, for more than anything July Skies are the musical evocation of the small, innocent hopes that hatched in a post-WW2 England and that were often encapsulated by those slim children’s books. July Skies rightly eschew the world of Rock’n’Roll and instead hark back to a time before Pop music went off-course. July Skies re-enter the timeline at a moment long forgotten by the petty peddlers of whatever new flavour of Britpop happens to be in favour this week, and re-emerge with a sonic aesthetic that owes as much to the echoing cool of Cathedral evensong heard faintly across fields of ochre as it does to the crystal clear guitars of Vini Reilly or Maurice Deebank. And whilst the sound of July Skies has echoes and threads of both Electronica and Folk, it is essentially neither; is instead something altogether more special, more spectral, more heartrendingly otherworldly and yet strangely rooted in the soil of ages. July Skies are one of the most beautifully strange and strangely beautiful of any artist you will hear this century. Do not let them pass you by.

There is a similar feel to the sound offered by God Is An Astronaut and Musika 77. The former are a much-lauded Dublin three-piece and offer up their five track A Moment Of Stillness EP in advance of the All Is Violent, All Is Bright album for Rocket Girl. And whilst God Is An Astronaut sound suitably fragile, atmospheric and otherwordly, they do to my ear have a tendency to over-egg the moment by stretching things out just too long, and hence it’s the three and half minute ‘Elysian Fields’ that keeps my attention best. With rumbling drums (played by Lloyd Hanney who was trained by the late jazz legend Johnny Wadham), God Is An Astronaut certainly play more by the Rock rules than do July Skies, and in this they veer more towards the likes of iLiKETRAiNS, though the Leeds band win for me simply because they invest their songs with a sense of epic storytelling.

Musika 77 are another three piece, this time from Gothenburg, and their Brave You Free May album comes out here in October on Stereo Test Kit. It’s a great end of season set, and will light up the Autumnal air with a spooky majesty not unlike that of, say, Low, Will Oldham or Red House Painters. Recorded quickly in their self-built studio as 2005 turned into 2006, the sounds reflect the low-key, first-take attitude and are brittle beauties of spotlit cobwebbed corners, shivering in the draught of cool breezes. Not that these are cold recordings; there is a warmth that glows soft like the embers of wood stoves dying in the night or the crinkling autumnal warmth of piles of fallen leaves.

Speaking of piles, there is a sizeable one of re-issues on my desk this month, but I could find space for only one on my mix. The lucky lady is Susan Christie, with the title track from her Paint A Lady set which Finders Keepers release at the start of September.  This is a sensational record that dates to the early 1970s when, as legend has it, a handful of vanity copies were pressed up after it had been unsuccessfully pitched around the record company big wigs of the time. Just shows how stupid record label bosses were at then, or any other time, for the tracks (recorded between 1966 and 1968 in legendary Philly studio Sigma Sound) are awesome, making connections to wild psychedelia, garage, folk-funk and glorious left-field Pop. With succinct and evocative sleevenotes by Keith Darcy, Paint A Lady is one piece of sonic archaeology that you should pick up as soon as you can. Essential listening, and no mistake.

An odd connection between that past of the late 1960’s and today is offered up by Winter Flowers, whose eponymous set is similarly due to be unleashed on the world very soon. Look out for it, because it’s a delicious treasure that shines magically with a Pacific Ocean blue thrill. Winter Flowers have been around since 2001, moving gradually south towards the sun from Seattle to San Francisco to LA. There’s certainly a So Cal feel to the sound, and if there is a Grateful Dead echo, it is gratifyingly that of American Beauty, and you can’t say finer than that. There is a clear connection out to the new folk sounds of the likes of Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart which is cool and fine, but I like Winter Flowers more than most of that scene because they do not sound overly concerned with setting that scene, but rather drift along at the edges, dipping in and out as it suits them, all the while blissfully entrenched in their own path, dreaming their own madcap dreams. It doesn’t come much more madcap than on their cover of Donovan’s ‘Isle Of Islay’, where they manage to make it sound like the island was sprinkled in soft Californian sunshine, and anyone who’s ever been to Islay will know just why that sounds so strange.

Danish duo Camilla Munck and Moogie Johnson meanwhile emerge from the ashes of slow-core, country tinged Wynona to make a sound similarly filled with longing and loss, damage, despair and the sweetest dereliction. Their Count Your Blessings set (Ponyrec) is the sound of rural daydreams sketched by an angel’s voice through frosted snow bound windows as electrical wires hum and crackle and ghosts thrash electric guitars in the attic.

Now there has been a lot of talk around recently about C86 and indiepop revivals. It’s understandable. The twenty years gap is like some kind of Pop cultural touchstone (probably the fault of the fuckin’ Beatles and that damn Pepper song. Goddamit.) and rather a revival that looks back at, say The June Brides and Jasmine Minks (well, we can wish) than whatever the hell was topping the ‘real’ charts back in those times. And whilst it’s neat to look back and explore the past, let’s not get too carried away. And anyway, who needs C86 revivals when you’ve got bands like Pipas? Pipas launch off from a mid ‘50s land of innocent hopes and wonder (think a world of the Chordettes, Keeley Smith and Doris Day), neatly side step the rock’n’roll path and emerge just in time to pick up on likes of The Marine Girls and Young Marble giants in the early ’80s, before dipping into the bedroom electronic Pop renaissance of the ‘90s. Their Sorry Love (Long Lost Cousin) is an Angel Delight mix of sweet indiepop threaded with an undertow of soft darkness. Pipas are way ahead of the bunch without even pedalling.

And on the bike theme, next cut up on my mix is the fabulous ‘Boys On Bikes’ by Marching Band. This comes from their self released ten track EP 3 (following on from, yep, EPs number 1 and 2) that clocks in at 35 minutes of glorious New Pop that shimmers with the gold of Hidden Cameras smooching with an armful of Feelies, Velvet Crush and Sea and Cake singles. I’m at a loss to explain why this group are not signed to a label capable of catapulting them into the limelight, for that it is for sure where they belong to be. Rough Trade, if you are reading this, sign this band now. Make them stars. They already sparkle with more delicious lustre than most of the favoured acts du jour.

Marching Band in fact kick off a bunch of Scandinavian treats on my mix, most of them courtesy of the fine people at Hybris, which threatens to become my most favourite record label of the moment. First and foremost, they offer us Montt Mardie, whose Drama album and Science EP have been constant companions all summer long. Particular delight is to be found in the splendid ‘My Girlfriend Is In The Grand Prix Finals’ which stars a chant of “Monaco Grand Prix” alongside samples of what sounds suspiciously like the dulcet tones of John Watson (non motor racing fans, go Google), and in the sheer unadulterated upbeat teen angst of ‘Prom Night (Dancing By Myself)’. Yes, think the Prom scene from Pretty In Pink and you are right on target, for seldom has there been a contemporary sound that so perfectly captured the sensibility of John Hughes movies. And when I say that Montt Mardie drips with the essence of the finest teenage Pop aura, you better believe I’m thinking that means the Shangri-Las, Orange Juice, My Favorite and Girls Aloud. David Pagmar (for Montt Mardie is he, and he is Montt Mardie) surely dreams of the Big Pop Prizes, the glittering vistas of screaming teenagers and creaming your underwear. Not for him the goals of the indie underachiever. Oh no. Montt Mardie rightfully belongs at the peak of the Charts, burrowed deep in the depths of our hearts, with his name bejewelled on the back of Nudie suits. This is the sound of a modernist glamour, of a splendidly imagineered futurepast that drips with never ironic iconic reference. Not that any of that really matters of course, particularly if you are sixteen and falling breathlessly in love with the thrills of Pop. And I swear if I was sixteen again (quelle horreur!) I’d be penning the name Montt Mardie on my books with fevered pride and writing gushing love letters to anyone who’d listen. But since I’m not, this will have to do.

There’s something of Montt Mardie that also reminds me of the great long lost Baxendale. Maybe it’s the sense that really the indie ghetto is not where they belong, but whatever. There’s even more of a Baxendale sound recalled in the antics of Biker Boy, whose ‘You Got Me Wrong’ single is a rare treat. With its synthetic strings and a pounding disco beat, this is the sound of St Etienne when they were thinking nothing could stop them; of Pet Shop Boys doing Sophie and Peter Johnson covers. Or maybe vice versa. And sure, there are no doubt more contemporary comparisons to make, but I’m an old fart so I’ll let someone else make them. I will add that there is a remix of the song by Le Sport which is all squelching electro keyboards and oscillating House beats, by which I mean House circa the early ’90s when it was being made by old codgers who had come up on the underground guitar scene of the ’80s. Hello Love Corporation and all those great Creation records that tumbled out post-Screamadelica. Man, that was a vibrant time for sure. And in fact, thinking about it, a lot of the fine Swedish electropop that’s coming out seems to recollect those times, at least in terms of sound, and that’s just fine by me. I mean, who remembers Hypnotone? Whatever became of Hypnotone? ‘Dream Beam’ was such a classic track. And what of Sheer Taft? ‘Cascades’ anyone?

But I digress. On a different tip are Hell On Wheels. Their The Odd Church is still perfectly infected by Pop charms, but the edges are rawer and more rock inflected. Think the first Legends album if they had been infatuated by Pixies and you are maybe getting close. Hey, I said maybe. Pick of the pack for me is the sparkling ‘As We Play’, which by rights ought to be a single and by rights should be playing from radios all autumn long. It’s better than Maximo Park. And I like Maximo Park.

Elsewhere we find The KID and their La Société Nouvelle album, and Kalle J with the Some Old Friends And a Glimpse Of the Future EP. The KID sound like they need some Ritalin, and that’s probably a compliment. Certainly they have the good sense to reference Dan Treacy with a song called ‘Part Time Punks’ that’s like Bis doing Velocity Girl doing a cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Smart. And Kalle J have the temerity to do a take on prime Magnetic Fields, circa Get Lost or Charm of the Highway Strip. Well, with Merritt off playing at Showtunes, I guess somebody has to, right? And thank goodness for that.

Speaking of Merritt though, watch out for the imminent arrival of the Gothic Archies’ Tragic Treasury collection. It’s the best Stephin Merritt record since 69 Love Songs and is more than a match for the sublime The New Despair. Yes, ten years has been a long wait, but man, it’s worth it.

There’s an air of the Merritt’s (and of the Jens Lekman’s) about Andreas Mattson’s fantastic The Lawlessness of The Ruling Classes set, also for Hybris. It features one of my very favourite songs of the summer, hell, of the year, in the beguiling ‘The Summer of Speed’. Six minutes of lush end of the season blues, it’s the sound of cool evenings watching sunsets in the park, the sky bleeding tears of soft regrets into the flickering towerblock fingers on the horizon. With this as a soundtrack the end of summer has rarely sounded more beautifully blighted; the approaching onslaught of autumn never more acutely appealing. Now I wonder, is this the same Andreas Mattson who is referenced in the IMDB as being an extra in the exquisite Fucking Åmål (or Show Me Love, if you would rather) movie? That would be sweet. What’s even sweeter is the connection out to Espiritu, for Andreas collaborated with Vanessa Contenay-Quinones on the wonderful Vanessa And The O’s Ballade D’O album, which is right up there with the best of Broadcast and The Concretes. And lest we forget, Espiritu recorded initially for Heavenly, who also published the legendary Something Beginning With O. Something about the O’s indeed.

I mentioned earlier about the C86 revival schtick going down these days, and there are certainly more reissues and retrospectives appearing from those times. Pick of the crop have been the Stars Of Heaven reissues on the Irish Independent Records label. I can’t begin to tell you how sweet it is to finally have Sacred Heart Hotel available again, and I swear, to hear that plangent guitar chime out at the opening of the record, man, my heart skips a beat and melts in my mouth. I’ve written about Stars Of Heaven at length before, and now there really is no excuse not to investigate. In fact I wasn’t aware of the Sacred Heart Hotel and Speak Slowly reissues until I was prompted to search them out after hearing the cover of the Stars Of Heaven’s gorgeous ‘Smalltown Reel’ on the Long Ball Into Nowhere collection by their compatriots Hey! Paulette. I have to say I remember Hey! Paulette only vaguely from those times, but it’s been a delight to check them at length now. Clearly at the time they would have been in with the likes of This Poison!, The Wedding Present and maybe The Chesterfields when they were thrashing the guitars in their baths. I’m also reminded of the Close Lobsters, and hey, what about someone pushing out a reissue of their epic 1989 Headache Rhetoric set?

There’s something of the Close Lobsters in the new Seachange album too. I remember being scratched wildly by their excellent ‘AvsCo10’ single a while back, and at the start of this year enjoyed their offering for the Sink And Stove label's Flash In The Pan compilation. I said then that they recalled the mighty Wolfhounds in their Bright And Guilty phase, and I’ll say it again, for on their On Fire, With Love set they really do sound magnificent. I don’t understand why they are not huge, for if we must talk about Rock bands, then they sound to me everything an English rock band should sound like. And if at times that veers a little close to Blur, let me say it is the Blur of Modern Life Is Rubbish, and I still aver that you will struggle to find a finer Pop / Rock crossover moment than that album. I know some will recoil from such a statement, but I don’t care. But Seachange: Expansive enough to suggest big September skies, but nervous enough to convey suburban frustrations and the rapid-fire passage of city movement, this band should be stars. But then I thought that of Wolfhounds and Spearmint, so what the fuck do I know?

Well I know that Sprites’ ‘I Started A Blog Nobody Read’ is addictive and cruelly amusing. There are some great lines in there, including a reference to Another Sunny Day’s cult classic ‘I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist’ which clearly wins it bonus marks. The track comes from their Modern Gameplay set, and other cuts on the album include ‘Overclockers of the World Unite’ and ‘George Romero’. And if those kinds of cultural references and the nods to Smiths song titles make you think to yourself ‘oh yeah, I know exactly what that’s gonna sound like’ then, hey, guess what? You’re probably right. That’s assuming you’re thinking they sound fucken ace.

And whilst that Sprites song is in the running for the best song title, I think in the end that honour goes out to My Darling You; another bunch of Swede’s who wrap up my mix with their brilliant ‘Please Don't Talk To Me I Fall In Love So Easily’. This comes courtesy of the 16 Major Problems collection, which curiously comes out on the Plastilina Records label out of Peru. I think this may well be my first Peruvian label record, and that is totally cool. What is also totally cool is that My Darling You sound spectacularly fine. I don’t think anything has quite come this close to capturing the sublime brittle sugar rush of the first Small Factory singles in quite some time. There is also a nod to early Cure records, and that’s no bad thing, for they were not always goth dullards. I also can’t escape thinking about Action Painting!’s glorious ‘These Things Happen’, and that’s more obviously no bad thing either. So if you are young and falling over yourself to pick up on the likes of The Young Knives, Holloways, Pigeon Detectives or whatever other mediocrity has emerged in the wake of Arctic Monkeys, then do yourselves a favour and give it up in favour of My Darling You. You’ll thank me in the end.

© 2006 Alistair Fitchett