Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Smile, In These Ungrateful Times



"It took ten years / To get from there to here..." - Tracy Lauren Marrow

Words which wisp impishly to mind because it's pretty much exactly a decade since we first encountered a Matinée Recording in the flesh, picking up matinée 005, the double-7" "A Smile Took Over", in Rhythm Records in Camden. It tickles us now that Matinée had started releasing great records a couple of years earlier, around about the same time we decided that we were justified in firing up a website to proselytise inanely about great records, but it seemed an even nicer symmetry that there we were buying this Sarah Records tribute in the very same room, and with the same tremblingly healthy trepidation, that we first picked up "Emma's House", "Sensitive" etc towards the tail-end of the 1980s. And in just the same way, things kinda burgeoned from there.

Slowly but surely getting wise to the label's small but perfectly formed roster of indie-pop bands, many of whom were UK-based, we were able in those distant, blissful early-00s days to purloin further Matinée releases without too much tribulation from central London shops, usually HMV or Selectadisc: the honeyed majesty of the Would-be-Goods, the wowsome low tones of the swirling Windmills, Pipas and their softly-sung bijou pop traces, Melodie Group's twinning of sarcastic entreaties and delicate intricacy, the measured south coast elegance of Lovejoy, the increasingly buoyant post-everything pot-pourri of stop-start art-pop that Sportique became, the scything yet jawdroppingly pretty post-Brighter barbs of Harper Lee, the marginally eccentric but underrated Ego from Montpellier, Simpático's brilliant evocations of yearning, the Lucksmiths' way with tender words and glistening guitar chimes. (It wasn't long, as Jimmy Tassos as always told us we would, before we'd hunted out pretty much the entire Lucksmiths back catalogue: clinching the deal, sweetly enough, in Au-go-go in Melbourne). We were fortunate, too, to be indulged e-mail exchanges with Harper Lee as well as Matinée's ex-Bulldozer Crash outfits, Kosmonaut and the Liberty Ship. And eventually, there would even be a terrific American band on Matinée, the dapper and swishingly melodic Math and Physics Club.

Along the journey, vinyl sadly fell by the wayside - these things happen - but there was never any doubt that new Matinée releases would continue to demand loving scrutiny. We've "archived" a ton of our stuff here. We even got to do an interview with Jimmy, just as the Recordings empire moved from DC to Santa Barbara. And on top of all the new bands, there was a steady trickle of reissues of neglected, even lost, past material: everything from the ultra-obscure Visitors set to a Remember Fun! EP, from the wonderful, rumbustious Siddeleys collection through to the later Brighter reissues (one of which we were privileged enough to have had some modest involvement in) and of course (*genuflects*) "R Is For Razorcuts".

As time passed there were ebbs and flows in the catalogue, and then years where there were hardly any releases at all, but there was always that feeling of quality control, and as with any label we really love it emanated not just from the music itself but from the photography, the art direction, the sense that records were being *curated*, not just released (Jimmy - we assume - having been no less ruthless than Clare & Matt once were in terms of rejecting or refusing material that didn't fit with the label ethos, the label feel). And this fanzine's continued to try to pronounce on Matinée releases for the whole of the last decade: Sportique's "Communique No.9", the Windmills' "Now Is Then", Harper Lee's "All Things Can Be Mended" and "He Holds A Flame", Lovejoy's "Sid Vicious" and "England Made Me", the Lucksmiths' "Warmer Corners" ... not a single one that doesn't still gleam in the cold light of '010.

While continuing to see Matinée bands live (so many warmgrilled memories: the Windmills at the Hope & Anchor, Sportique at the Betsey Trotwood, the Visitors at the Blue Posts, Pipas all over, Tender Trap and the Pines at Toynbee Hall, the Would-be-Goods at the Buffalo Bars, Lovejoy and Airport Girl at Notting Hill Arts Club, Slipslide at the Water Rats) in more recent years we became inclined to leave closer analysis of Matinée releases to others, for a host of reasons (one of which was that there were at last no shortage of punters writing about them). Even then we were forced to make an exception for the two Northern Portrait singles, which pretty much pulled our giddy legs from under us; and we should really have made a more obvious exception for the WBGs' "Eventyr", which didn't find too much trouble squeezing into our top ten albums of 2008. Yet with the likes of the Windmills, Harper Lee and Sportique no longer around (if you can find three better songs from the '00s than "Walking Around The World", "Train Not Stopping" and "Modern Museums", do tell us: we'll be camped out on yr doorstep with a blank tape by dawn) we couldn't help worrying that a golden era might have passed.

2010, however, sees a slew of new CDs: a single, two albums and the label's latest various artists assemblage. And it appears from these that, as the great D-Mob once had it, they're back with a vengeance.

* * * * *

Us being us we gravitate towards the SINGLE first, and it's the new Pale Sunday outing. From Brincando de Deus' "An Evening Out" through to Postal Blue's recent re-entry into the pop stratosphere there's always been something *about* Brazilian guitar-pop for us, and the Sunday have demonstrated in the past their flair for uncloying but faithfully jangle-repping compositions. We rather adored their previous single, "A Weekend With Jane", including "The Girl With Sunny Smile" that turned this reviewer into Boy With Sunny Smile, and later tracks like the fizzed-up "White Tambourine" (on their "Summertime" LP) showed that early promise was no fluke. Now, an overlong silence is punctured by this "Shooting Star" EP, a four-tracker in "360 stereo sound".

The title number is newly confident, a strident, riproaring popsong which combines the necessary "we're back!" feel with a whiff of mid-period BMX Bandits and a pleadingly naive protagonist ("I can prove to you I'm different / if you'll just give me a chance": she'll have heard that before, matey). It's fizzy, instant and satisfying. As good, though, is "Are You Scared To Get Happy ?" which is just as well given that it shares the name of the best fanzine of all time, in the world, ever, BAR NONE. This particular AYSTGH? seamlessly interweaves the coursing indiepop melodies of halcyon days past with a little more good ol' fash fuzzy six-string strum, and the "downhill" section to the end, which repeats the title whilst accumulating some lovely string-like harmonies along the way, is pure gold. Yeah, you can try and get big and clever and say how in 2010 people of our advanced age should have outgrown plain old indie-pop groovery, but in all honesty, if the right ingredients are there, resistance is useless. All in all then, yay. Cubed.

* * * * *

Every great book deserves a great cover, and Matinée marquee signing Northern Portrait's new long-playing record (OK then, CD) is clad in a lush three-panel digipak sleeve clothed in shots of Le Corbusier's sleek white Villa Savoye. The architectural avant-garde doesn't immediately leap to mind when considering parallels to Northern Portrait's rather more raffishly classical indiepop art, but we guess that Le C. and the Portrait share a certain unshakeable *resolve*, and an unblinking dynamism that's expressed by the former in the Savoye's ramps and slopes, by the latter in the ever-effervescing froth of guitars that by this third release is approaching tidal wave momentum.

Yes, I know: as you can tell, "Criminal Art Lovers" (for that is it's name) is a messy blighter to review, not because it isn't brilliant (occasionally it's spellbindingly so), but more that once you've lazily thrown the regulation - but entirely apposite - One Thousand Violins and Smiths comparisons at them (as we felt compelled to when considering their almost-fearsomely promising "The Fallen Aristocracy" and "Napoleon Sweetheart" EPs), there's a limit to how much more you can enlighteningly add, especially when one part of the band's "resolve" is clearly not to be deflected from their chosen path by the criticism that they wear one or two of their 1980s influences a little *too* starkly.

So perhaps the tack to take with this their debut album is to note that it sounds much as you thought and probably hoped it would, a patchwork quilt of mesmeric jangle, of lyrical ache and longing, of masterly song arrangement sugared with generous dabs of knowingly Mozza-esque vox. Happily, nine of the ten tracks are entirely new, with only a reprised "Crazy", from the first EP, looking back to the rather special singles that got the ball rolling. And it says much for the other tracks that "New Favourite Moment", which actually takes the role of album closer, could just as easily be a bolting opener - or indeed a single itself - what with its iridescent powerpop glow and sparkling Rickenbacker hook, a hook that jangles with the brilliance of the Four Brothers (notwithstanding the disconcerting undertow of the drums approximating an early 90s' shuffle-beat). But yer actual first track, "The Munchausen In Me", is of course *fighting fit* for purpose: spry, self-mocking ("fainting... / may be my only chance") and with a keenly-observed storyline, it cuts at the POP! jugular before culminating with a falsetto flourish. Hot on its heels, "When Goodness Falls" is alive with sprightly joy, sharing its veritable rushes with later tune "What Happens Next ?" and in doing so uniting the band's newer repertoire with one of their earliest tunes.

For many, the peak will be "The Operation Worked But The Patient Died": we alone seem to hear some Harper Lee in the crystalline, layered intro and opening verse before the song unfurls like a butterfly about two minutes in and tears the place to oblivion, but there's no doubt that "Operation"'s majesty and ambition provides the perfect set up for the more laconical title track, which vanquishes dreams of a "comfy life" before ending with a valiant coda: "as you walk on by / please keep walking", guitar trills raining down munificently. And if you really want to go a bundle on the Smiths connect, then "Life Returns To Normal" is your cue: the guitars unapologetically canter around shapes worthy of the young Marr while Stefan Larsen twinkingly drawls "I wanna help you" in the manner of "Disappointed"'s "young boy, I wanna help you..."

To be sure, Northern Portrait's sound is a grown-up sound, and that won't be to everybody's taste. After all, debate about the Orchids' rightful place in the Sarah pecking order rages on even now. While to others - those not inclined to listen properly - this will be dismissed as the label's second Smiths tribute LP, following the treasurable, if slightly in-awe of its subject "Romantic And Square Is Hip And Aware". But *our* fears - our only fears - for this album, which were that the first two EPs saw them maturing so fast that a full ten-tracker risked veering into M.O.R., were *completely* unfounded: when the Portrait are in full, crooning flow, there's more than enough excitement to go around. (We tumbled out of the White Swan the other night just in time to catch Northern Portrait playing live at Baby Honey, and it was the best indiepop set we have seen for *years*: and yes, his voice is that expressive in real life).

Maybe there's nothing here that quite set our senses as instantly aflame as much as our favourite NP songs to date, "The Fallen Aristocracy" and "I Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me". But then those were the kind of punches that floored you partly because they came from an unexpected quarter, from a band who'd appeared from nowhere yet already seemed in some kind of easy prime, some kind of higher orbit. "Criminal Art Lovers", on the other hand, was an album that we waited for and wanted and had high expectations of from the very off. One listen was enough to show us it was blatantly up to meeting them. And by the fourth or fifth spin, it had revealed itself as a true achievement. There's lots of talk as we swan into this second decade of the millennium about how the once-trusty album format is dead as an art form, but if "Criminal Art Lovers" is anything to go by, it's a format you're gonna have to forcibly wrest from our cold, dead hands.

* * * * *

Staying on the albums trail, we're currently becoming mildly infatuated with Copenhagen, it being the home not only of Northern Portrait and Mikkel Andersen (NB relatively blameless in this disaster), but also the mighty Aamot brothers, aka Electric Pop Group. Their second album, um, "Seconds", plays in contrast with NP's lavish, widescreen elegance: it echoes Brighter rather than the Smiths, internalising emotion rather than archly deconstructing it.

The Group, of course, are on-the-record in acknowledging Brighter as an influence (which is just as well, because if they weren't you could simply strap them to a lie detector, play them "Summer's Day" from 2008's "Sunrise" EP, and turn the resulting cacophony of endless beeps into an underground techno 12"). However, while that song harked back to the non-percussive whisper of Brighter's glacial "Laurel", most of "Seconds" is driven more by the Brighter of "I Don't Think It Matters" vintage or perhaps even the Brighter of our imagined great lost "Wallflower" / "If I Could See" single: a drum machine at pretty pace anchoring delicately trebly guitar-picking and delicately trembly vocals (see also the Fantasy Lights), while short simple hooks cascade all around.

Which all means that there is no shortage of marvellously toetapping indiepop on "Seconds": the opening "Not For Another", which teems with wistful regret and introspection ("we never turned out to be / the things we set out to be / when we were younger / the dreams of yesterday are no option any longer" genius CHURN awwwww), "The Way You Used To Do", which buttresses its shapely verses with a "Darklands"-style guitar line, and the sculpted, heavenly brittlecore that is "Drawing Lines": an affecting collage of chiming, upbeat hooks (think sunlight reflecting back from the ripples of a lake) but with more positively tearful lyrics. We get former Matinée label comp tune "My Only Inspiration" ("sounding a bit like a more mannered sea urchins or the clouds, with even a touch of the "velocity girl"'s at the end") anew too, and it remains *stellar*: along with their EP lead track "I Could See The Lights", perhaps the band's most enduring song. So the next question for Electric Pop Group will be this. Having given us mini-classics like "Inspiration", "Lights" and er, "Lines", can they follow up what Brighter did and step up their game even further, follow this up with a "So You Said" or even a "Killjoy" ? If so, we've got their back for all time.

* * * * *

And mention of Matinée comps seems as good a time as any to big up their latest label compilation (and 50th album release), "The Matinée Grand Prix". Matinée's v/a selections are always a handy snapshot of the roster at any one time, and have the added attraction that they don't dredge the back catalogue but tend to focus on new & exclusives from said roster. Unfortunately it's just not physically possible for "Grand Prix" to be as invigorating as last time around's "Hit Parade", but they give it a good go, and if you'll just permit us to focus on a clutch of ilwttisott highlights, you'll understand that you might just need to grab it anyway.

The Lucksmiths' swansong, "Get-to-bed Birds", is subtle but superb - lyrically, a synthesis of so many past Lucksmiths themes, touching tenderly as it does on new year regrets and wanders past old haunts - and yet a little like "Drawing Lines", all this quiet, downbeat contemplation is set off by a heartliftingly trilling guitar line that refuses to be bowed. There's almost a feel of something unfinished about "Birds" as it fades out, all too quickly, but that's something you could say about the band's whole legacy. We will forever regret - and bitterly - that the closest we ever came to seeing them live was an abortive trip to their gig at the Metro Club, a trip finished abruptly by a bouncer who didn't want to play ball.

Fellow Melburnian Jason Sweeney also knows longtime how to rock an indiepopkid's world - it was Sweet William's cover of the Sweetest Ache's "Briaris" that kicked off "A Smile Took Over" - but we'd been denied the company of his artistry since The School Of Two's "Party Line" on 555's "Your Cassette Pet": and so the welcome return of his erstwhile Matinée persona, Simpático, comes with "Australian Idle": an icy, existentialist take on pop culture powered by a laidback, softly hypnotic groove that brings distant flickers of another Sweeney project, Other People's Children, to mind. Being lowkey doesn't prevent it being perhaps the true standout, and it would be gorgeous providence if its inclusion here signalled some imminent new record from project Simpático.

Tender Trap, meanwhile, shake the rafters with "Danger Overboard": the verse continues the tilting, reverb-happy crunching 60s guitar sound that lit up recent Fortuna Pop! single "Fireworks", but then there's something almost Marine Research-ish in the way that a crater-sized chorus then emerges. We're pretty sure we recollect the song from their recent Buffalo Bars outing, in which case we can report it's even better when they are literally, rather than metaphorically, rafter-shaking.

There's plenty else here too, don't get us wrong: Strawberry Whiplash's jolly "Boy In The Bubble Car" finally emerges, albeit rather longer than the first, tentative myspace version; there's more from both Electric Pop Group and Northern Portrait (the latter in slowed-down, proto-"Back To The Old House" mode); Clay Hips' "Disappointed", which draws out the slightly queasy early-90s revival to which "Higher Than The Stars" gave a re-up; plus titbits from the Guild League, Bubblegum Lemonade, Math & Physics no less and Cats On Fire. But, as ever, it's late, and we've only a sentence or three left in us.

* * * * *

When we picked up "A Smile Took Over" in north London that winter day, we had no conception that this upstart young label would still be firing releases as good as these out a decade later, or that they'd have amassed a back catalogue that would hold serious comparison to the label the EP paid tribute to. But it is, they have, and, as one of Matinée's current flagship acts put it, we feel ten years younger for it.

No comments: