Northern Portrait "Pretty Decent Swimmers" (Matinée Recordings)
The winter may not have hit hard - not yet - but the branches remain bare, the sky startlingly bleak. We won't fret, because there are always consolations. Still beautiful birdsong in January midnight, from the London planes that rise above these Georgian townhouses. Still the little tempests of the FA Cup Third Round, the brightest day of the domestic football calendar. Oh, and from Denmark via Santa Barbara, the first classic single of the year.
In April 2008, when Northern Portrait's first EP, "The Fallen Aristocracy" appeared, we punned on Northern Uproar, invoked One Thousand Violins and first fell for this great pop band and their "breezy, lush instrumentation with debonair vocal".
A few months later came a second EP "Napoleon Sweetheart", which also had us *completely* sold (and raging incoherently at the vicissitudes of history):
"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 "pop deluxe" of tunes like "I Give You Two Seconds To Entertain Me" made us long for Northern Portrait on wax:
"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."
That prayer would be answered, but first came the album we'd looked forward to, "Criminal Art Lovers", an "ever-effervescing froth of guitars... approaching tidal wave momentum".
While you may justly counter that the real gushing was coming from us, not the band, we don't feel remotely guilty for spilling words of praise over them so, because two full years later "Criminal Art Lovers" remains a mature, impressive album, one that blends sparkling music with languid narrative tones over the course of ten unflaggingly pure pop songs. Our excitement was only intensified by the sheer joy of seeing the band in London N1, where their onstage smiles and shapely Scandinavian grooves captured our hearts with somewhat disturbing ease: little wonder we hailed the LP
"a patchwork quilt of mesmeric jangle, of lyrical ache and longing, of masterly song arrangement sugared with generous dabs of knowingly Mozza-esque vox".
Perhaps the most Smithsish song from "Art Lovers", "Life Returns To Normal",
"another clever, slick, melodic, smart piece of poppermost post-J. Marr jangle from this terrific discovery of a band"
then became "the needle drop": that first, treasured slab of NP vinyl, part of a new wave of Matinée 7"s that brought our memory scampering back to the exciting days of discovering "Dry Land" or "360 Degrees" in (two different shops on) Berwick Street, Soho. But that, for a while, was that.
Now comes their newest, a four-track fifth release going by the handle of "Pretty Decent Swimmers". The gossip down our local, months ago, suggested that it might be a further 7", but in the event, connoisseurs of imperial measurement will note that this gem (on Highbury Pool-blue vinyl), has a ten-inch diameter, snugly ensconced in a water ballet-depicting sleeve. We've "done" some of our favourite 10" singles before, I know. "English Electric Lightning", "Two Kan Guru", "Darklands", "Slates", "So Said Kay". Last year's Red Shoe Diaries EP. But this is up amongst the best of them.
Much Northern Portrait critique to date has focussed on the ever-imposing shadow of the Smiths (and to our, incidentally unrepentant, ears, the more modest silhouette of the Violins) but such influences are no longer overt, suggesting that Northern Portrait have continued to evolve. Theirs is still *not*a groundbreaking sound: despite the group's relative youth, to those of us of a certain age this EP is incontestably rooted in the tune-led guitar-pop sensibilities of those sadly lost 80s / 90s British bands who ended up too slick for the indies, yet too hard for the major labels to package effectively (we're reminded of our friend Nick's comparison of the band, after that Buffalo Bars gig, with the Trashcan Sinatras). But "Pretty Decent Swimmers" proves once again that it's the arrangement and execution of the songs, not the mere style of them, that sets Northern Portrait apart.
The opening "Happy Nice Day" is instant: it's a tumbling travelogue, high-velocity jangle ringing out from every pore, dripping with a sweetness somewhere between sherbet fountain and champagne fountain (and just as fizzing). On vivid display is just what makes Northern Portrait click: Stefan Larsen's rich voice rising and falling as an elegant introduction elides into towering bursts and powering rushes of shimmering guitars. It's quite a way to start the new year, quite a soundtrack to taking down the tree.
The second and third numbers, "Greetings From Paris" and "Bon Voyage!", while just as refined, are chatteringly Parisienne, a touch more whimsical: a further sign of growing away from the templates set by earlier recordings. The former concludes with Stefan leading a "la la la" singalong, while the latter - launched by a brief *sample*, of all things - triumphantly pivots on spring-in-step shufflebeat and looped chords, coming on like the Sugargliders covering Brighter's "Next Summer" (and deserving of every ovation that suggests). It also contains Northern Portrait's first waterbed reference. "I kind of like it", Stefan riffs near the end, and we do too, we really do.
In many ways, though, the standout of the whole EP is its denouement, "I Feel Even Better". In amongst the lilting, flitting, flirting, flickering Rickenbacker strings, it introduces a brittle layer of keyboard to underline a lyric full of yearning: when Stefan sings "I'm tired of standard life, so tired of this uninspiring life" it could almost be Harper Lee at their most heart-tanglingly dastardly (and uptempo). "I Feel Even Better" might not quite boast the same, thumping *presence* of "Happy Nice Day", but it lingers long in your head after listening.
Yes, "Pretty Decent Swimmers" is a tonic for these long dark evenings, some compensation for Christmas tidings having faded away with Twelfth Night. But this EP is not *just* a winter warmer: it alternately teems with the vim of spring, swirls with the sizzle of summer and - especially on that last track - drapes before us a melodic palette of the purest autumnal hues. A band for all seasons.