Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sweetheart, I Could Die In Your Arms



Hearing the new Northern Portrait EP, "Napoleon Sweetheart", one's tempted to ask where the bloody hell they were in the late 80s, when we were all crying out for the new Smiths and being fobbed off instead with a plethora of anaemic, uber-ropey carbons. The answer, no doubt, is that the three of them were gurgling contentedly away in their carry-cots, but that's barely sufficient excuse: we were in dire need of a tonic back then and this is the sort of thing that could have delivered. (And yes, secretly, we knew that *actually* discovering a new Smiths was an unattainable object, but it was really a code for just wanting a band with the same trembling combination of insouciance, sprightliness and technique, a band that could play a neat one-two with the legacy of Salford's finest and at least run with it a bit. That's how high we set our sights in those days. And no, Suede never fitted the bill).

Whereas Northern Portrait's first record, "The Fallen Aristocracy", carried echoes not only of the Smiths but also the jangling Walkeresque potency of One Thousand Violins in full flow, this second CD-EP carries undertones of... well yes, the fab four again, but also perhaps some slightly later bands in time. "Napoleon Sweetheart" has the pace, yearning and Morrissey-ish werewolf falsettos of their debut, but also a lilting gravitas akin to classy post-shambling moments like Bradford's "Skin Storm", the Cradle's "It's Too High", the Railway Children's "Brighter", that kind of thing.

It starts, like the last EP's "Crazy", with a pretty solid demonstration that pop songs can be infectious without being inane: it's called "I Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me" and you'll be having it buzz round your cranium 'til the cows come home. Singer & songwriter Stefan Larsen is still pitching deep - "I'm so tired / of the way she's selling out... I want something that's real / and perfectly genuine" - as the song bounds along impatiently, the chiming guitars dancing sympathetically around him. It's a peerless number that screams "A-side", absolutely hollers it.

But the best extended-plays need to maintain premium quality over four tracks, and that's perhaps the most enthralling thing about both Northern Portrait records to date. Here, "Sporting A Scar" sneaks up a little more subtly, a tangle of wiry guitars mourning "the best thing that never happened to me", before "In An Empty Hotel" simply breezes in, palpably borrowing from the heavenly strums of Mr Marr, with melodies to match. Wonderful. The finish line, in contrast to the all-out jangle bombardment of the title track last time round, is the drizzly semi-balladry of "Our Lambrusco Days", a contemplative indie-pop hymn with dark lyrical turns - "life can be such a death-affirming experience" - of which Moz would be proud.

And there are passages on this record, not least the too-short instrumental sections that bring the curtain down on the last couple of songs, where Northern Portrait start doing that Harper Lee trick of making us suddenly feel all soppy with love and unblinking adoration, and rather regretful that we don't feel that way more often. As we get all wrapped up in glistening, intertwining guitars we picture a dark sky suddenly picked through by the gleam of thousands of tiny stars, and wish the world hadn't changed so much that we can't revisit our own Lambrusco days when records like this came on vinyl, when we could gently drop the needle and watch it spin serenely through the grooves.

It's no bad thing, after their super soaraway debut, that NP didn't hang around before releasing this exceptional second single: the longer they left it, the more we'd have had cause to wonder whether "The Fallen Aristocracy"'s polished, sophisticated charm was a one-off. Instead, they're making hay while the sun shines. It's remarkable, for a band that seems to have emerged in an instant, how they've already acquired the poise and grace of a Laudrup or a Simonsen, so our only concern for them now is that they don't 'mature' (dread word) too fully, too fast: after all, we remember how the Railway Children bowled us over with the jab of "A Gentle Sound" and the cross of "Brighter", ultimately to fade into major label malaise while our backs were turned. But right now, Northern Portrait are nigh-irresistible.

So yeah, this is pop deluxe. It's on Matinee Recordings. You might want to buy it.