There’ll Be A Time For The Nice Guys

If I had to pick one record that I’ve been playing more than any other recently it would probably have to be Esiotrot’s Schmesiotrot set. Now I saw some of this Brighton based bunch down in London recently when they played on the same bill as Pants Yell! They sounded pretty good on that occasion and I’m pleased to say that the album is every bit as good as I had hoped it might be. Everett mentioned something about them in Plan B recently, and his comments about them having links back to the Postcard bands were spot on. For me there are those references of course, but also a host of others. Hefner are maybe the most obvious connection, but there are hints of The Pastels, The Orchids, The Visitors (from Sidmouth not Edinburgh), Ballboy, Hidden Cameras and, most intriguingly, occasional nods to the supple rhythms and edge of The Sea and Cake. And what about The Gist? Or The Feelies… or indeed Del Amitri when they were the best band in the world (no, really, they were, they were!). What’s hilarious of course is that these kids are so young they have likely not heard of many of those groups, and their list of influences or inspirations would probably leave me looking blank and confused. This is as it should be. A two way street of learning.

But I really do love Esiotrot with a large chunk of my heart. They have a song called 'Sally Loves The Beach Boys’ and really of course every Pop group should have a song about loving The Beach Boys, if not girls called Sally. Nothing against Sally’s the world over, of course… some of my best friends are Sally’s. Ahem. There’s also one called 'There’ll Be A Time For The Nice Guys’, and you know I’m a sucker for great song titles like that. Key line is “I wish you’d stop going for stupid pretty boys who treat you like shit and don’t know as much about music as you do” which is so great, and almost as good as the lines about men loving skateboards too much. If this song was around when I was seventeen it would have been my anthem. Possibly. And did I say they had a man with a horn? Reminded me of Greg from the mighty Church Grims if you really want to know. And did I say they had a kid on guitar and singing who reminded me of Jonathan Richman circa the first Modern Lovers album, and that’s mighty fine, mighty fine indeed. And did I mention the Beat Angel on drums? Lindy Morrison meets Anna Karina. Classy.

I swear if I was younger and more tremulous I would have a plethora of their lines etched out on the covers of my English books. In blood. I’d be falling over myself to pledge undying adoration for this group, just as I would be falling under buses in striving to cover my love for the individual who goes for those pretty boys in the first place.
But hey, that’s the magic of Pop. Isn’t it wonderful?

And speaking of The Church Grims, they crop up on the excellent Souvenirs From Egg Records collection, proffering the wonderful ‘Seen It All’ and ‘Mr Watt Said’; two songs that were constant companions in my first year back at the Art school, when my friend Andrew and I made badges of drumming cats and leaping blue dolphins out of wood and tin, and I made a strumming Brian Superstar windmill from the plans in Juniper Beri Beri. The Church Grims are just one of many forgotten bands of the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s collected on this set, and they share space with the likes of Remember Fun (with whom they played regularly around Glasgow and Paisley as I recall), the madcap Bachelor Pad, Baby Lemonade, The Prayers and This Poison! (whose singles on the Reception label were incendiary guitar explosions of the first degree). There are also several bands that I was not aware of, like The Hardy Boys, Change Of Seasons, The Pallisades; all of whom presumably came on the scene when I had moved onto other things, but who now sound like rare treasures I am delighted to discover. And really that’s the essence of this Souvenir; rare treasures from a time when Indie still felt like it meant something to do with independence from a dominant scene or culture. With the resurgence of interest in all things C86-tinged and jangle friendly, and with the sound of new Swedish Pop in particular harking back to something of the aesthetics of those times, this Egg collection is as fine a reminder of the noises some were making, and is as good a starting point in your historical excavations as any.

There’s another piece of sonic excavation sitting on my desk in the shape of The Disco Students’ I Beg To Differ collection. Now I admit to knowing little about this bunch other than that they formed in Aylesbury in 1978 and that they released a string of 7” singles that, at their best (as on the neatly titled ‘A Boy With A Penchant For Open Neck Shirts’) could sound like a skewed collision between Scars, Talking Heads and early Feelies. I can’t say I am as convinced by their later and recent recordings, though a song called ‘Tina Weymouth’s Smile’ has to be worth something, right? Oh, and I kind of like the fact that those early 7”s have clearly been recorded straight from crackly vinyl rather than being remastered from original tape. It retains a flavour of the times, which is something to applaud.

Coming bang up to date now, and what about another hit of Swedish Pop? Well everyone and their dog seems to be talking about I’m From Barcelona, and for sure their Let Me Introduce You To My Friends set is a delight of fresh sounding Pop confectionary. Someone recently suggested that I’m From Barcelona were the result of The Cardigans manager deciding to create a band that mixed equal parts Polyphonic Spree and Arcade Fire. It’s an understandable link to make, but personally I think the connections are less obvious, and I hear more of Hidden Cameras than either of those groups, and of course the magnitude of the band (29 strong!) would also suggest Lambchop, something that a track like ‘The Saddest Lullaby’ does nothing to dispel. Emanuel Lundgren of the band suggests that I’m From Barcelona are Punk in spirit, are very much of the DIY ethic. I think this is very much something that ties them to the spirit of Hidden Cameras and reminds me of how, back in the mid to late ‘80s there was much talk about Punk Rock in the indiepop fanzines of the day. I’m sure at the time it was seen as an attempt to reclaim the idea of Punk from the corporate stereotyping that was already ingrained, but of course it was a doomed move. Similarly, no-one is going to ‘get’ that I’m From Barcelona are immeasurably more Punk Rock than, ooh choose a ‘Punk’ band flavour of the month, any flavour… But they are. And they deserve to be massive.

Also from Sweden, but without the same amount of hype and pomp, comes the five track Cats and Travel EP by Don Agbai. But then the Vapen and Godis label that this comes out on doesn’t exactly the same financial clout as Mute, so go figure. And actually this is even more up my street than I’m From Barcelona, being all sweet synthpop and sparkling glitter balls on the empty dancefloor. They have a song about Barcelona too, in the Fosca-esque ‘Barcelona 2002 (all I wanted was a postcard)’ and it’s as sharply addictive as Refreshers or Baxendale.

Meanwhile David And The Citizens’ Stop The Tape! Stop The Tape! is all set to confuse CD players and iTunes alike with its twelve songs stretching over eighty nine individual ‘tracks’. Insane. Mind you, it’s all guaranteed to send them straight to the top of many a Last FM chart with just a couple of plays through the album. Shrewd marketing. Musically though it’s pretty run of the mill Powerpop stuff that sounds sweet enough but fails to leave a significant mark, on me at least. Ironically this probably means that the Rock loving UK indie fraternity will lap it up.

Not from Sweden, but rather from Iceland, come Dýrdin with their 11 track self-titled set for Skipping Stones. Dýrdin have a long history, stretching back to the mid ‘90s when, after a few concerts and some cuts on compilations, they promptly decide to take a seven year break. Since their resurrection they’ve made something of a reputation for themselves in their homeland after supporting the likes of The Raveonettes and Blonde Redhead, both of whom, you will be pleased to know, Dýrdin eclipse with stylish ease. Instead for reference points think All Girl Summer Fun Band, Talulah Gosh/Heavenly. Icicles, Language Of Flowers and their labelmates The Besties. See? It all starts to make more sense now, doesn’t it? And when you consider that they opened for Trembling Blue Stars’ farewell shows in the North East USA then more pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Dýrdin are laughing and smiling, falling and laughing, splashing along… singing songs about falling in love with Mr Spock, kissing enchanted frogs and escaping the earth for galaxies far, far away. That nearly all of it is sung in their native tongue matters not a jot, for the sheer exuberance and joy of the sounds cross language barriers with sweetness and light. 

Pittsburgh based Sort Of Records sent a trio of releases recently, and all are well worth tracking down. Shrinking Islands are my favourites, and their In The Black Carpet resonates with the spirit of The Feelies circa The Good Earth, or Mitch Easter era R.E.M. which is more than good enough for me. Elsewhere David Bernabo’s Word Roses is avant-garde country no-fi folk that demands investigation (be quick though, it’s a limited run of 200 sweetly packaged copies), whilst Pairdown’s eponymous six song EP filters Bill Callahan, Ray and Dave Davies and Fred Neil into a contemporary singer-songwriter mix that’s captivatingly sparse and evocative. The releases are now available from Asaurus Records on-line shop too, which should tell you a lot; Asaurus being one of the finest purveyors of DIY pop and home of course to the glorious aforementioned Pants Yell!

From Pittsburgh to New York now for Animal Collective and Oneida. The feted Animal Collective give us Hollinndagain, a reissue of 2002’s ludicrously rare set of songs that they recorded whilst touring with the equally feted Black Dice and snuck out as a 300 copy limited edition with hand painted sleeves. This is a world where glitch electronica mixes with gothic urban paranoic psychogeographic ambience and raw rock’n’roll from the veins of the ghosts of the Noo Yawk or LA No-Wave bands of the late ‘70s. It’s a crazy mixed up sonic world that throws all kinds of scary shapes that fall through floors and seep through walls like mottled damp blackness. Like the soundtrack to a long lost Gordon Matta-Clark artwork, it isn’t easy or pretty, but it’s still beautiful if you know how to look. You could say the same of Oneida, though I must admit that I find their Happy New Year to be their most easily accessible set to date. Certainly it’s a long way from Secret Wars, and much closer to being a logical development from last year’s fine and undervalued The Wedding, which means it’s the sound of vaguely unhinged folk music immersed in a vat of electronics that run on rusty circuit boards and shorting circuits. The repetitive insistence of the likes of Can or Faust are still present though, and I’m often reminded of the sorts of sidestreets Ui were peering down some years ago, or of Tortoise at their early eerie best. This is psychedelic music for the downbeat inhabitants of the underworld; psychedelia for those who understand that The Rain Parade, The Millennium or 18th Day Of May made better psychedelic sounds than Hendrix ever did. The trouble is such people are in the minority, and by making the kind of quirky gentile psych that they have on Happy New Year, one can’t help think that Oneida might have pushed themselves further into obscurity than they might have wished. Which would be a shame.

Meanwhile, Rough Trade labelmates The Veils offer us up their second album in Nux Vomica. With a wholly different lineup to the outfit that recorded The Runaway Found debut, Finn Andrews here shows himself to be a talented singer-songwriter with a clear vision on what he wants. There are echoes of a young Johnny Cash singing the songs of his later years, which is no mean feat. Obviously. Andrews also reminds me of a fledgling Nick Cave or of The Triffids when they were recording in wool sheds in the middle of nowhere, doing their own Basement Tapes adventures. Fine reference points one and all, and ones that should certainly have you investigating further. 

Now, finally, we watched the Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events movie again last night. I think I enjoyed it even more this time around, although I couldn’t help but expect to hear something of The Gothic Archies cropping up in the soundtrack. For anyone familiar with the talking book versions of the thoroughly addictive Series Of Unfortunate Events best sellers will know that each instalment has featured an original song by The Gothic Archies, Stephin Merritt’s self-styled ‘bubblegum Goth’ group. Now I have to say that the first Gothic Archies collection The New Despair remains one of my favourite of all Merritt records, up there on the top shelf with 69 Love Songs, Get Lost and Holiday. And surely ‘City Of The Damned’ is one of the greatest dark Pop songs ever to be painted in shades of pink.

It’s fitting then that, a decade later, the forthcoming collection of Unfortunate Events songs The Tragic Treasury should be effortlessly joining it in those upper echelons of my Merrittocracy. With strange squelching noises, runaway analogue synths, delicious melodies and Merritt’s appropriately dark Johnny Cash meets Ian Curtis in Eyeore’s gloomy place voice, this is the sound that made me fall in love with The Magnetic Fields all those years ago. For anyone mildly disappointed by Merritt’s other outings since the epoch defining 69 Love Songs (and as a set of imaginary showtunes it effortlessly eclipses Showtunes, for example), this collection is an essential reminder of the naturally strange genius that dwells amongst us.

Of course in all of this it is too easy to ignore the equally important genius of Daniel Handler. For Handler’s books have been constant companions over the years, and I always felt that there has been a fine sense of synthesis happening between his Series of Unfortunate Events and the post-modern knowingness and reference filled music of The Magnetic Fields. There is a kindred spirit of aesthetics and intelligence between the two, which is no real surprise of course since Handler wrote the fine interview notes to 69 Love Songs as well as offering up accordion and hand-claps on the record and accompanying shows. And hasn’t Handler also performed with The Three Terrors along with Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol of Flare infamy?

In my parallel universe The Gothic Archies are chart-topping stars and The Baudelaire Orphans as famous as Harry Potter. Oh hang on, part of that is almost true, and with a ukelele-led Gothic Archies touring with Handler and Lemony Snicket on their promotional junket for The End from Sept 28th, who’s to say the other half isn’t set to follow? Stranger things have happened, surely?

© 2006 Alistair Fitchett