Saturday, January 28, 2012

Azure Blue "Rule Of Thirds" (Matinée Recordings)

Around the turn of the century, there was a seam of wonderful indiepop coming from a smallish place called England, which our friends from Matinée Recordings mined for us by releasing fine records from Harper Lee, Sportique, the Windmills, the Would-be-Goods and others. Yet centres of gravity shift, as the tectonic plates beneath them grumble and crawl, and a decade or so on it is the ever-fertile pop breeding ground of Scandinavia which provides the label with some of its blue riband artistes. Following the achievements of Northern Portrait, Champagne Riot, Cats on Fire and - not too long ago, but too long ago, if you get me - Electric Pop Group, the latest ensemble to make their Matinée bow are Azure Blue (the new project of Tobias Isaksson, ex-of Irene and Laurel Music).

Appropriately enough, "Rule of Thirds" parcels Azure Blue's labours into nine sleek little songs. Grant McLennan cover "Fingers" is an astute choice of opener, immediately placing Azure Blue within a grown-up pop tradition, thus informing appreciation of the rest of the album at the same time as paying due tribute to the late G.W.'s easy way with a song. It's followed by "The Catcher In The Rye", which delivers on many counts (one of which is that you can scrawl it on a compilation tape tracklist straight after former Matinée signing Airport Girl's "Salinger Wrote"), but also that it sets the guitar-pop influences hinted at by "Fingers" alongside Tobias' obvious fetish for synthpop, with a result that will have you dancing up the skirting boards. Indeed, "The Catcher In The Rye" is the first of three standout should-be singles which, for our kroner, illuminate the album with its pearliest dew drops (drops) of palpable pop promise: the others are "Little Confusions", which pots a declaration of unswerving romance into less than three minutes, and the neat, poignant and tart "Two Hearts", an unerringly catchy marriage of synths and strings.

Over the album as a whole, Azure Blue switch to more contemplative musical moods too, and manage to flit between sounds as diverse as early OMD, Celestial and Orange Cake Mix, even channelling Pachelbel for good measure on a couple of songs, while still finding time for a liberal use of samples to break up the flow a little. It's clear their devotion to synthpop is sincere, and on "Little Confusions" and "Dreamy Eyes" (which comes into its own during its final, instrumental flourish) there's even some Hook-high bass which brings back memories of 80s New Order or the Cure. And "Rule Of Thirds" ends in just the right way, too, with "Chesil Beach" affixing Harper Lee-like melancholy to those swirling synths as it searches, longingly but hopelessly, for an upbeat lyrical coda: instead of Keris looking out across the Channel in "William Blake", this is Tobias standing on the Dorset shingle, watching his memories float away on the English tide. There could be no better way to say goodnight, Irene.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Hulaboy "Fuck You, We Love Us!" (Milk and Alcohol)

In a world which, mystifyingly, has concluded that neither Boyracer or Hula Hoop are in its pantheon of all-time greats it must come as no surprise that the blended version, Hulaboy (despite a stellar catalogue, including releases on both Harriet and 555) are also strangers to Grammies and platinum discs. Happily, this has not stopped Stewart Anderson and Eric Stoess (for it is they) from serving up superb vignettes of kitchen-sink melodrama over the years, with songs from recent records such as "When Owls Cry" and "The English Mindset" still setting our hearts on fire, even if not the harder-to-melt hearts of the Great Record-Buying Public. And much as the rather off-the-wall names of this EP and of its constituent tracks do their best to throw you off the scent, the good news for those of us that have previously succumbed to their charms is that "FYWLU!" sees Hulaboy as dark and as pretty, as lyrically intriguing and as moving as ever.

EP opener "Western Mark E. Smith" is typical: its story seems slight (this is a conversation about a conversation, a misunderstanding in a bar) but it's as true-to-life and engaging as any Anderson confessional, with a keyboard intrusion into the choruses which recalls the Boyracer of "Punch Up The Bracket", say. Next, "I Find Your Topsiders & Beard Amusing" again belies a seemingly random title by unfolding another touching, skittering lament while guitars gently meander in and out of the chorus, sprinkling a little indie magic here and there in much the way of Huon or the Wedding Present at their more thoughtful ("Saturnalia", say), with Eric's voice always threatening to break down a little, trying to salvage hope from a grey dawn.

The accelerator pedal hits the floor for the crashing "I'm Not From Louisville, I'm From LaGrange Motherfucker!", which could be a stunt double for any of the pacier songs on "Sunlight Is The Best Antiseptic", as Stewart launches into familiar tangles of hurt and miscommunication amid the rampant guitars. A little calm is restored when Eric re-emerges on vocals for another tune, "Oh Lord. CHUKKA!" (see what we mean about the song titles ?) which is, quite literally, a list of regrets - in case you hadn't clocked the Hulaboy ouevre by now - but its whispered candour and eye for an original line makes it as plaintive as anything else they've done. Oh, and secreted amongst the quartet of Hulaboy originals herein described is a fifth track proper, "Not An Orange Juice Cover": it is our solemn duty to confirm that it is, indeed, not an Orange Juice cover. It is a cover though, and of one of our all-time favourite 80s hit singles.

We sometimes wonder whether good "indie" as we used to know it exists at all today. Has the Man redefined it out of existence, or is it still 'out there', but just failing to register, to prick the senses in the way it used to in those days when a new 7" could seem crucial to your life ? But then you hear records like this, which are unmistakably "indie" in every sense of the term, and realise that there *are* still gems out there: it's just that they're hidden, perplexingly, almost beyond discovery. So it would almost spoil the thrill of the hunt were we simply to direct you here to download this, but we will, not least because any donation you choose to make will go to the best of causes.