Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Sugargliders "A Nest With A View 1990-1994" (Matinée Recordings)
 
As we eagerly scoured the latest Sarah Records communiqué, it said something like:
 
"We're more excited by the new Sugargliders single and Blueboy LP than a seventeenth bloody Field Mice album, even if you're not. And it's OUR label".
 
This, we'd hazard a guess, would have been about the time that Sarah released "Letter From A Lifeboat" - the first of half-a-dozen 7" singles that the Sugargliders would record for the label - and so when many of us might have first set our ears on this fine, fine band. It was a marker that there was a changing of the guard at the Garden Flat.
 
And the Sugargliders were very much part of the new breed. Formed in Melbourne's suburbs around a hub of brothers Joel and Josh Meadows, they specialised in gentle-ish, softly danceable, guitar and bass-led indie-pop: their songs were compact, aesthetically pleasing and imbued with a rare lyrical clarity, which gave them the advantage of being the antithesis of basically every wrongly-touted UK music press darling over the course of the early to mid-1990s. "A Nest With A View" captures the best of the Sugargliders' output in those few short years, during which they contrived to produce a towering catalogue comprised, rather wonderfully, of no less than ten three-track, seven-inch vinyl singles. All of which are represented here.
 
The sublime "Ahprahran", one of their Sarah A-sides, is quite a way to start. It's easy and unassuming on the ear, a marinade of fluttering guitars (picked acoustic, strummed electric) seasoned with a soupçon of keyboard. Yet it's desperately touching, ringing with couplets that manage to be original without ever sounding arch, or forced, and it's all the more believable for its self-deprecating humour:
 
"Last Sunday, I heard myself say / "A good day for you is a good day for me" / Can't believe I've sunk this low..."
 
Each of these elements render it, if you like, a *typical* Sugargliders song, although that undersells it rather: the execution is simply masterful. You can see why, as soon as the boys got their mitts on the master tape, they *ran* to Clare and Matt's to play it to them.
 
"90 Days of Moths and Rust", taken from their last 45, is next. A tad subdued in comparison to "Ahprahran", at first it seems a little understated to appear so early on in a "greatest hits" celebration, but when it comes the skyward chorus (from which the compilation takes its title) proves well worth the wait, and suddenly *everything* makes sense. "90 Days" is followed by "Seventeen", which was their second Sarah single. At the time, it grabbed us even more than its predecessor, as well as marking the most Go-Betweensy song yet released on the label. "Seventeen" was ample demonstration that the Orchids were not the only band on Sarah who strived for (the) lazy perfection: charting the emotional rollercoaster of teenage years, it's a mazy mélange of mellow embrace and drama-riven heartache ("never so scared... take me with you"). We were fortunate enough to see the Sugargliders perform the song at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford when we were still (just about) teenagers ourselves. Like many a Sarah night, especially Sarah nights on cold winter evenings, it was one of those gigs which radiated happiness... that, at this distance, prompts *goosebumps*.
 
"Trumpet Play" keeps those A-sides coming. When the Sarah story began to unfurl with "Pristine Christine" back in '87, we feel reasonably confident that they would not have envisaged releasing a single a few years later that opened with nightclub chatter, settled into a relaxed nocturnal groove, sampled the sound of glasses clinking and pivoted on a human trumpet solo: but by now, such things felt almost natural (frankly, after fellow countrymen Even As We Speak's gleeful "Beautiful Day", anything was possible). "Trumpet Play" is joyful, elastic, and jazz-strummingly soulful. The first verse, not for the only time in a Sugargliders song, revolves around an 'all at sea' metaphor, and lines like "there's no-one out here / but the fish and me" could be a cheeky echo of labelmates Brighter's "Out to Sea" (you know, "the fish look up at me...")
 
"Reinventing Penicillin", from the penultimate EP, "Will We Ever Learn ?" ushers us to the quarter-way mark. Starting a capella, it soon installs a winning shuffle-beat over sweetly spiralling guitars, but its narrator is stern, the lyrics tinged with an air of disappointment: "it's a typical mistake that anyone could make / but I'm expecting a lot from you".
 
Talking of high expectations, it's then time to revisit that first Sarah 45, "Letter From A Lifeboat". Quite a coup, in retrospect. For a Sarah single, it felt louche, even funky. It didn't have the cold, hard, electronic sheen of the Field Mice's increasingly pointillist outings. Nor did it go straight for the pop jugular without passing "go", à la Heavenly. Instead, flourishing on a surging bass current and bobbing on a "black, black sea", it was warm, consoling and rewarded repeat plays. Years later, we dug it out when we travelled down from Perth to Cape Leeuwin to see the Southern and Indian oceans meet. It felt like *just* the right tune to listen to as we stared out in awe across the vast waters.
 
Jumping from one end of the Sugargliders' Sarah discography to the other, we find "Yr Jacket", the third track on the last single. The closing number on any favourite band's swansong record can be strangely moving: a sensation compounded by "Yr Jacket"'s stark, sombre and minor-key nature. Adorned only by trills of guitar and trembling voice, it's probably the most naked and honest song the band recorded. By way of contrast, "Fruitloopin'" (from the "Seventeen" EP), *springs* into life: a joyous whoop of "Hey!" transporting us back to (relatively) upbeat indie-pop pickings. It must have been recorded only a year or so before "Yr Jacket", but there's an ocean between them: compared to "Yr Jacket", "Fruitloopin'" is a treatise from happier, more youthful times. The added irony is that "Fruitloopin'" tackles ageing, but seen through a young man's eyes: the juxtaposition of the two tracks tells you just how quickly the Sugargliders grew up.
 
"A Nest With A View" continues with "Unkind", a nugget from "Trumpet Play": recorded in England with White Town's Jyoti Mishra, it's an ode to purity and shyness that clocks in at a mere 53 seconds. It precedes a scenic detour to a couple of the group's earlier 7"s, which were recorded for seminal Melbourne indie Summershine prior to the long flirtation with Sarah. "Give Me Some Confidence" was the lead track on their third and last Summershine single, the "Furlough" EP. It's also the first song on this comp that was completely new to us, and well, what a discovery: eschewing the grooving bass vibes they would later trademark, this is a number more in the traditional, bouncing indie-pop mould (it's hard to hear it now and not think of cousin Tali's Lucksmiths, another legendary Melbourne combo, who would support the Sugargliders a few times on their own way up). In its wake - and taking us into the second half of the CD - comes "Police Me", taken from the Sugargliders' second Summershine single, the "Butterfly Soup" 7". Again, the song is a revelation, brilliant and poppy but also bristlingly defiant:
 
"someone said that 'Flag Day' reads like fifth-form poetry / but I'll write songs about injustice / if that is what I see all around me"
 
It's their "Sensitive", their "if the sun going down / can make me cry" moment, their early statement of positive intent.
 
"Aloha Street" provides a bridge from the Summershine years back to the Sarah days in that it's an early Sugargliders work, but one that came out c/w, and thus completes the selections from, "Seventeen". Its depiction of a relationship born in haste (and repented of at leisure) is rounded off neatly by a strangled yelp and a squall of guitar before "Will We Ever Learn?", another smash-hit Sarah single, takes command. On this doozy, the Sugargliders are fired-up: the stylings are more scratchy than sweet, the guitars clearly mean business and there's palpable anger rattling around. Actually, with its gargantuan hooks, frissons of distortion and vaguely Smiths-ish break it's the kind of song - every Sarah band had one - which even our mates, who generally treated the label with outright derision, would condescend to damn with faint praise. Ironic, really, that it could be regarded a "crossover" song in that way, as of course one of the things it's about is staying true to your school and not touting for a wider market: that's the reason the boys are so exercised...
 
"Why should I swap this thing... for some line as predictable as a tired Mark Seymour lyric ?"
 
That pricks us, just as Brighter did with the lament of "So You Said": "you said you'd change the world... what happened to the things you believed once ?" But it resonates equally with the fierce ideals that drove "Police Me" and "Furlough", that ignited the Sugargliders from the beginning.
 
Anyway. A sense of bitterness carries through to "Beloved" (another Jyoti-produced song from "Trumpet Play"): if the music is more becalmed, the words are quite the opposite ("can't forgive... can't forget... no second chances"). Happily, such sentiments are turned on their heads by "Corn Circles", originally on the B-side of "Ahprahran" (along with the splendid "Theme From Boxville", which is not included here, but isthankfully available on "Gaol Ferry Bridge", meaning you can download it for the price of one-and-a-bit first class stamps, and should). "Corn Circles" is, as you'd anticipate, both blooming (a tale of the kindling of romance) and golden, with dual vocals that dovetail gorgeously, but it's also as tender and wistful as any Sugargliders number, ending with a shout-back to the imploring 'come get me' call of "Seventeen" ("my mind is ripe, so come on, take me").
 
"What We Had Hoped" is up next. It hails from "Letter From A Lifeboat", but unlike the EP's title track, it's sallow, muted, stripped-down and sad, dealing ultimately with the dashing of dreams. As someone whose own memories of Melbourne are bittersweet (a five-year relationship ended by being given the elbow one long, dry night in St Kilda), I confess to my own intimate tête-a-têtes with this song over the years. When the Sugargliders chose to write heartbreakers, boy could they...
 
Ahem. "Everybody Supermarket" is very different; indeed, something of an outlier. Partly, this is because it's the only track not drawn from one of the Sugargliders' own EPs, instead featuring on a 1992 various artists 7". But it's a little offbeat, too - more clumsy than elegant - an engagingly turbulent mix of lo-fi strum, seize-the-day principle, tinny drum machine and spoken word reflection, as if the young Field Mice had fallen in love with Messthetics over a bottle of Bristol cream and a 4-track. More accessible is "Another Faux Pas (In The Cathedral Of Love)", an A-side on Brighton's Marineville Records (Fat Tulips, Confetti, Jane POW), sandwiched in time between the Sugargliders' outings for Summershine and Sarah. It's their "You Be Illin'", we suppose: all bands should have at least one faux pas song. Funny and self-effacing, it may only be skin-deep, but eloquently displays their lighter side. (My own faux pas for these purposes is that I had a girlfriend who was rather taken by "Sway", which appeared on the flip of this 7", so I foolishly gave her my copy of the single. I wish I hadn't now, obviously, but I can only hope she treasures it like I would have done, and hasn't instead sold it on eBay and used the proceeds to buy a house).
 
The song right on its heels - wouldn't you know it - is "Sway". Which, it transpires, was in fact their first single, even though we'd first encountered it as a B-side. Laid-back, sassy, and strewn appetisingly with harmonica, "Sway" sounds a very assured début to these ears. The words are poignant (the sign-off is "when a broken promise stings you badly, you sometimes have to close your eyes / and just sway") and somewhat marvellously the tune gets hijacked late-on by a thrilling injection of noisy guitar (not unlike the way the Field Mice, back then, often threw in a disconcerting new layer of fuzz for extra effect). It's fitting that - in common with the last song on their last record - this first song from their first record floats serenely, shorn of percussion: the focus is all on the jostling guitars and plaintive voices.
 
But perhaps the *very* best (yes, even pipping "Aphrahran") is saved for last. We vividly recall the first time we heard "Top 40 Sculpture", in our student room over Emden quad, and thinking how - somehow - the Sugargliders had managed to ascend to another level. And how, after singing "Saturdays can still provide some comfort..." they sang something that sounded like "lately Allison / carry along my goal", and *that* got us in a further tizzy because we wondered whether they were following Tramway's example and shoehorning-in a Bristol Rovers reference (yes, it sounds barking mad now, but bear in mind that Sarah Records were from Bristol, [Malcolm] Allison was Rovers' boss around that time, the Sugargliders were sports fans, and we were young and stupid,...) and only when "There And Back Again Lane" came out did the sleevenotes proclaim the actual words: "Laidley - Allison - Carey - Longmire - goal!" and that was even better, a shout to North Melbourne and to another code, and that line especially makes us smile every single time, even more than the beautiful overlapping vocals, the tremendous lyrics, the *divine* trumpet sound. And though we'd have *hated* to think it then, it was right that "Top 40 Sculpture" was the last Sugargliders single, because it was probably untoppable. It's been another soundtrack to our own life changes, too:
 
"See the things you thought were ever constant, disappearing fast"
 
And that's it. Some twenty songs - just like the rather becoming Hit Parade retrospective! - that pass by oh-so fast. It's astonishing how Josh and Joel summoned up quite so many storming compositions within such a short window of time. Yes, the brothers and many of their collaborators in the Sugargliders would go on to make oodles of other truly cherishable records with the Steinbecks (off-the-top-of-the-head top five: "1987+1994=2007", "Which Part Of No Don't You Understand ?", "Are You Guys Into Wings ?", "No Strings, No Money, No Worries" and their cover of the Go-B's "Draining The Pool For You"), and one hopes, in future, that the Steinbecks - who were less prolific, recorded more albums than singles and didn't have the caché of having been on Sarah - will get their due, but for the time being we are here to honour the Sugargliders, and "A Nest With A View" does that in spades.
 
"For now we can see dimly, but then it will be clearer..."
 
That it works so well, nearly two decades after their final release, attests to the alchemy that we always suspected, secretly *knew*, was at play. It confirms that Matt and Clare's communiqué - remember, at the time, new bands on Sarah were regarded by some acolytes with a certain fear, even hostility - was absolutely on point. That's a tribute to the Meadows brothers, yes, but it's also a testament to Sarah Records, who were rarely content to rest on their laurels. The relationship between band and label, with their shared worldview, "no sell out" philosophy, and conviction that shyness, heart and melody could sound rebellion as powerfully as any agit-prop, was always symbiotic: and it wasn't too long after the Sugargliders split at the seeming peak of their powers, citing the need to quit while they were ahead, that SARAH 100 marked the not dissimilar implosion of the label.
 
These postcards from the past show how Sarah and the Sugargliders were lucky to have had each other. And, beyond any doubt, that there really was something in the striving that was worth holding on to.

1 comment:

A layer of chips said...

Kieron - you're a genuius, but well know that. Thank you for this, and all the other inspirational writing.

This is a wonderful record, isn't it? Glad you're enjoying it as much as I am.

sam
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