Just Waiting
The Pastels, Electrelane and The Royal We, Glasgow CCA and Edinburgh Bongo Club, 28th & 29th April 2007
It’s frustrating being a Pastels fan. Certainly in the last decade, which has seen a continuation of the great paraphernalia which has always surrounded them (records recommended / sold, posters, slogans, spin-offs, cameos. Now you can even buy mugs), but a severe lack of actual music. It wouldn’t be so bad if they’d put the band on hold to pursue their other projects, but there’s been a steady-ish stream of gigs with rather too little new music attached. As though they can’t let go of their legacy, but can’t quite summon the spark to continue it these days. They’re so immersed in the great and the odd music of others it’d be almost impossible for them to make a bad record (‘This isn’t as good as Beat Happening’, they’d think, and scrap it), but that doesn’t make making a good one any easier. Lately it’s seemed that things were looking up, with two fantastic appearances on other people’s records (Stephen’s joyous duet with Sister Vanilla, and Kama Aina’s ‘Millport’, for which Katrina joins him and a seaside town closes around their ears) and some lovely two-chord gentleness for a play. Also an announcement on the festival website that ‘this rare live appearance at Triptych will premiere brand-new material from their forthcoming albums (one a collaboration with Tenniscoats) set for release on Domino later this year’. That’s what really got me going. I’d love it to be true.

There’s not much evidence of creative stumbling in the Electrelane camp, and they rip through their sets – three of them over two days – with an infectious abandon. I love Electrelane, more than any band I’ve heard in the last few years (what a record The Power Out is!), and it was great to get to see them. Mia on the left, cool as fuck, rocking like Bernard Albrecht behind a curtain of shoulder length hair; Verity on the right, goofy as… Randy Newman? Carole King? Some ’70s pianist, anyway, with a voice as unfettered as a German Patti Smith (somehow she’s only English when she speaks); anchored in the centre by Emma, one of the best ever speeding-up drummers, and bassist Ros, who finds that note, the one which suggests millions of others but still fits perfectly, more often than is quite decent. Lately I’ve been listening to The Clean, and the elements of their sound are not a million miles from Electrelane’s. The same vivid guitars, enthusiastic drums, sprinklings of pretty keyboard drones. The Clean make fairly conventionally structured songs out of this noise, whereas Electrelane speed up, slow down, build, fall, and generally change stuff many times in the same song, which is a large part of their appeal: that they can do this without losing a basic pop charm. What they play ought to be math-rock, it’s so much about disrupting the listener’s expectations; but it’s so damn fun, it’s pop through and through.
I’m not too good on Electrelane song titles, but can safely say that they played ‘Long Dark’, ‘One, Two, Three, Lots’, ‘I’m On Fire’ and the one (I should know this) about being ‘Busy, busy all the time / Still I can’t stop thinking about you’. ‘Birds’, that’s it. (We walked in as they were playing this, the best bit of their best song.) Mostly it was stuff from their last two albums, with some songs from the new No Shouts No Calls, one of which was lovely and long and brooding, another – the single – more like ‘Oh Sombra!’ without the chorus, but still plenty catchy (‘The East ain’t so far away / But it could be home / It could be home’, I’ve been singing all day at work). The new ‘After The Call’ is so upside-down melodic that I’m sure I’ve know it for years. Quite a lot of the new LP sounds upside-down – is that possible? During ‘One, Two, Three, Lots’, the three front-women turned to get visual cues from Emma, as you’d really have to for the stop / starts. For ‘Right Steps’, the piano breakdown was kept tense with impatient scrapes on the guitar from Mia. Everything depended on this kind of interplay, there was no sense whatsoever of a singer with a backing band. After the Edinburgh show, Chris, delighted by the revelation in Plan B that Ros used to be in Lesbo Pig, went over and, pointing with both hands at her chest, exclaimed ‘Itchy nips!’ Then by way of explanation, ‘We like both your bands’. I’m reasonably sure she smiled. Wish I could get away with stuff like that.

In Glasgow, we were treated to the full-scale Geographic experience that spoils people like me every few years. They’d taken over the CCA on Sauchiehall Street, making use of two performance rooms and a cinema. There was also a shop, where you could acquire this season’s ‘Geographic Styles’ (mugs, T-shirts). I bought a book of Ivor Cutler sticky labels (of the sort he would carry at all times and distribute whenever he found somebody who didn’t expect it) called ‘Befriend a Bacterium’. Some examples: ‘Upside Down’, ‘Kindly Disregard’, ‘Don’t tell ME what kind of day to have!’, ‘Obtuse Angles Go Home’ and ‘See me! screamed the old woman and tottered off the cliff. The sharp wind up her coat revived her interest in life for a few bitter-sweet seconds’.

In the cinema a couple of This Is Our Music films were shown, with an introduction by one of the makers, explaining that they’d been allowed to make the programs largely because MTV wanted shows about the Next Big Thing. ‘We have never had any interest in finding the next big thing’, he told us, before showing a sad but engaging film about the Television Personalities. Dan talked a lot about his Catholic education and generally disparaged his own talent, saying how insignificant it was in comparison to the news reports of deaths in Iraq, and how he didn’t give a fuck about music, he’d trade it all for a normal life with a nice girl. Then, ‘Oh, a squirrel!’ and off he went into the undergrowth of the beer garden. Watching him wander the streets followed by a film camera, reminiscing between outbursts about his childhood, was made almost unbearable by the imposition of ‘No More “I Hate You”s’ on the soundtrack. Is there a sadder song? It’s so beautiful, and while it and most of the rest of My Dark Places (the current album at the time the film was made) sounds semi-improvised, not laboured over (certainly not by Dan), you can feel the chunks it rips out of him to sing this stuff. But he can’t resist. Creativity, folks: just say no.
We narrowly avoided missing the whole of Pierre Bastien’s set, catching just enough to see what he was up to: he had what I think was a 303 encased in Meccano, and he was using this and other gadgetry to create mechanically automated music. Just above the keyboard and parallel to it was a metal rod, constantly rotating, so that the specially placed protrusions (more metal rods, welded in place) would play a bass line as they brushed past the keys. The same way a music box works, I suppose. Off to the right was a stack of similar looking rods, presumably used to play different bass lines. I didn’t hear enough of the music to get much of a feel for it, but the idea is certainly engaging in a nostalgia-for-old-technology kind of a way.

The Royal We’s set was exactly 18 minutes long (by my minidisc’s reckoning) on both nights, a non-deviating, tightly scripted excursion into glam geekery that, visually at least, recalled The Yummy Fur (the glam part was apparent from the ‘hey hey hey’s nicked from ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’ for the second song). Because those had to have been wigs, and does the guitarist really hold himself with that upper-body stoop in real life? It was slightly as if Kel from Kath & Kim had decided to moonlight on the Glasgow indie scene. The singer with the insane hair (black, back-combed left and right to make Mickey Mouse ears) shrieked and fell down at the end of one song, testifying to the nonsense of it all. Highly entertaining.

And so to The Pastels. I have really mixed feelings about this. Their first set, at the beginning of the CCA proceedings, was lovely: to come in out of the world, out from the work and weariness of the week, out from Saturday where the sunshine split the buildings and there was nothing to understand, into the half light of CCA Room 5 and the welcome of the soft and subtle shifts of some ‘quiet music’, as Stephen introduced it. We got some of the music they did for the play, and some Tenniscoats songs (The Pastels’ line-up for these two gigs included both Tenniscoats, two Teenage Fanclubs and an International Airport). No actual new Pastels songs as such, but maybe, I thought,  they’re saving this new LP’s worth of material for the second set? Or... not. Set number two turned out to be almost identical to the one they touted in 2003. Until I looked it up I’d forgotten I concluded a review of that set of concerts by saying: ‘Hopefully this, after a lull like that which separated the band’s ’80s and ’90s output, is a beginning and not an end, ushering in the undreamt of heights of The Pastels Phase Three.’ Yeah, you got me, I have a chip on my shoulder. But come on guys! We love you! Why do you keep giving us the brush off? I know you’re big on My Bloody Valentine, but it was Loveless that was great, remember, not the ballad of big nothing which followed.

Well. Read the earlier review if you want an opinion on the first three quarters of the set. Near the end we did get new song, sung by Katrina, with breezy pastoral lyrics and catchy as spring. Lovely stuff. Then a cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘About You’ – bit of a safe choice perhaps but with an imaginative backing based on a nagging backwards two note sample and some fine ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s from Katrina and Saya (and once you’ve heard Melody Dog’s ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ you never underestimate an ‘ooh’ or an ‘aah’ from that quarter). And then something pretty great: ‘Nothing To Be Done’, dusted off and roaring from the garage, bringing a welcome change of pace and a reminder of what great pop songs The Pastels can write when they try. There was a palpable sense of relief in the audience, many smiles and much jumping around. In Glasgow we got a terrific ‘If I Could Tell You’ as an encore too, finishing on a high. An incongruous high, though: in a way this is the bleakest song in The Pastels’ catalogue, not because it wrestles with demons (they’ve never been that kind of band) but because it sees a bad situation and just lets go. It’s about the end of the possibility of communication, as ‘each ex-lover forgets your face / And the end has not justified the means’. Shit happens, walk away. And that can be liberating, too (the song feels wearily triumphant, despite the lyric). It seems like The Pastels themselves are in need of some liberating at the moment. Where are the new songs? The new ways of seeing, hearing, being? It’s a lot to ask, but they’ve done it before. If they could tell us, I’m pretty sure they’d let us know.

© 2007 Chris Fox