Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Older, Wiser, Better



The Wild Swans "English Electric Lightning" (Occultation, 10"): Socialist Leisure Party "Turktown Saints" (Cloudberry, 7") and "Tactical POP! for Coffee Cadets" (Shelflife, 7" and CD): Beatnik Filmstars "Slow Decay" (The Satisfaction Recording Company, 7") and "Broken Bones" (The Satisfaction Recording Company, download only)

Ah, the English Electric Lightning. My first ever Airfix model. Actually, my last ever Airfix model. Nothing to do with the fighter itself, more my utter inability and impatience, taking months to construct a model aeroplane that couldn't better have resembled a Lightning made on a Friday afternoon production line after a liquid lunch at EE. For a while, as a tribute to all my blood, sweat and tears, I hung the botched fighter on a string from the ceiling, somewhat relying on being a dabber hand with Blu-Tack than with Airfix glue.

The Wild Swans were originally in business about the same time the nine-year old me was struggling with modelmaking, but like my Lightning, they were way over my head. I did eventually get to hear of them, but only because they were immortalised in my teenage mind for being one of the very first bash of Peel sesh reissues back in '86 (in the enviable company of New Order, the Damned, Screaming Blue Messiahs, Sudden Sway and SLF, fact lovers). Ashamed to say that I knew nothing of their lineage, their part in that early-80s Liverpool scene that tumbled Merseybeat and the sepia nostalgia of the Cavern Club into the proverbial cocked head-apparel.

Still, all that is now water under the bridge, because after a 20 year exodus these Swans have returned and with this wonderful, wonderful single, lovingly packaged on deluxe 10" by some bods called (unpromisingly) Occultation but who've done a grand job. Swan-in-chief Paul Simpson is hardly the first singer from the last couple of generations to put together a song about England at once wistful and defiant, nostalgic and modern, plaintive and sad, but this one ticks all the boxes, helped immensely by the way it builds, the deft piano and touches like the unexpected backing vocals, all topped off by Simpson's elegant yet distinctly vulnerable voice. Flip it over and you get the remarkable poem "The Coldest Winter In A Hundred Years", where Simpson, backed by swells and trills of guitar, piano and brush, fills in the uninitiated (us) on some of the prehistory to the Wild Swans' beginnings. An unexpected, but complete, treat.

If there had been any doubt that Cloudberry Records is turning into a bona fide pop singles label, with a sweet aesthetic and some great vinyl releases, there isn't now. Once you've got past Roque's admittedly tangential laying open of the Brooklyn 'scene', which welcomely reminds us of Sarah Records rants in day (we first heard of Oasis, believe it or not, through Matt slagging them on a 7" insert), "Turktown Saints" reveals itself formally as the swashbuckling debut(ish) of Socialist Leisure Party, the post-Action Painting! sextet (btw if any band in the 80s or 90s boast a better run of A-sides than "These Things Happen", "Classical Music", "Mustard Gas" and "Laying The Lodger", they are lying), a song that just floats along, giddily semi-drunk on a layered combo of fluttering rhythms and breezy flute motifs, but never lacking energy or pace. Andy Hitchock's vocals and guitar strums will not sound unfamiliar to students of SARAH 28, and you'll remember from the sleeve of that that AP! hailed from ("Waking Up To Nothing"'s address in) Gosport (aka Turktown of course) but otherwise it's fair to say SLP here are musically some distance from their illustrious forebears, not least given the near-complete absence of the punkish lairiness that characterised AP!'s last three singles. True SARAH 28 fanboys will also be quick to point out that only one, rather than two, of SLP were in the *original* AP! line-up, SLP's Kevin House having joined them from the heavenly scree of "Classical Music" onwards. And whatever became of "Dan" and "Chris" ?

Ahem. As if that weren't exciting enough, there's "Tactical POP! for Coffee Cadets", too. Immaculately-clad in artwork by Andrew Holder, the 7" barks into life with the admirably original uptown 'A', "Head In The Hay", which ramraids straight melodic indie pop with nicely skewed post-AP! exclamation. The accompanying CD rates too, the combination of uplifting pop (sorry, POP!) and more cynical / throwaway lyrics, a cut above yer boy-meets-girl shtick, making for something rather refreshing all told: "Scented Crowbar" nicks in first, a cheeky quick kiss before things take off with the excellent "No Tattoos", a collage of spinning strumathons, of spiralling indie-licks. And after the studied shambling of "Mondayland", an inst. of which appears on the single 'B' for any Cloudberry-karaoke heads out there, the spirited "Down With The Kids" nods, at least, to AP!'s rockier past. (Oh, and it's these three songs which also make up a CD-EP release on Berlin's Edition 59, too, nailing the SLP discography to date). Props must go to Shelflife for putting this delectable package together.

Next, yes, the BFs. Who have been knocking out largely left-of-centre pop hits from their Bristol centre of gravity for decades now, but continue to mature like the finest of wines, and their latest slinky 7" ranks - but of course - with most of what they've done since "Maharishi" first crossed our path around the time of the Great Reform Act. We gave it the most cursory of big-ups in April, wittering on pathetically (if correctly) about it being "delicate... pained... rewarding", but it deserves further attention.

"Slow Decay" is the 'A', a fantastically depressing lyric about the inevitability of disappointment sweetened - no, leavened - by the kind of vintage indie-folk that grows and grows on you until your record player is buried under creeping pop ivy. Or something. Yet "Crushed" on the other side is just as marvellous: a little bouncier, with the subtlest of c&w undertones and a feel for Americana that intrudes into its words - "trying to work out what it would cost / to cross America by Greyhound bus / another romantic notion / crushed" - AND a little guitar piece 2/3rds in that makes you feel everything *must* be alright with the world, however much Andrew Jarrett's so-weary lyrics tend to the other. The natural follow-on from the mellow harmonics of their brilliant "Fez 72" album last year, this is another very special single.

And then there's this year's mini-LP, "Broken Bones". A shame that this is download only, because like "Fez 72", it's a record shaped in the classic tradition, starting with the glorious six minutes of "Back Up Plan" on which, after pre-empting the lazy reviewer - is there any other kind ? - by describing himself as "singer in asmalltown lo-fi country rock band"), Jarrett lays into an almost gleeful expose of how your heroes will always let you down ("they were in it for the money"). The downbeat tone now seems to be where the BFs are at their best, with second tune "Let The Good Times Roll" also profiting massively from their newfound acceptance that a modern West Country take on country & western can pay handsome dividends. "The Old Fool" is an almost spectral lament, once more invoking the ghost of past side-project Kyoko with its measured, weary beauty. And in the middle is another outstanding song, "Throwing Punches", that hinges on a switch of pace but reversing all the old tricks to good effect by the switch being a slowing down, rather than a speeding up, coming out of the verse. The clincher is the way that "Lucky Sevens" reprises the sarky "good times" theme but with a knowingly weighted playground chorus that would let the thing cross-over largestyle if only radio play ever ensued. God, if the Wonder Stuff had pulled a tune like this off in the 1990s, you'd never have heard the end of it.

So there you go. More bonzer examples of the fact that - at least as far as splendid guitar music goes - many of the leading lights are *not* down-with-it teens, but respected venerables who've taken a turn or two round the block, who roll with class, and for whom style's now something to revolt against, rather than into.

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