Monday, May 27, 2013

The Pastels "Slow Summits" (Domino)
Another interesting thing that sprung from the ever-readable pages of "Death To Trad Rock" was Wolfhounds' Dave Callahan acknowledging how both his band, and their friends and labelmates McCarthy, donated somewhat unspectacular tracks to the compilers of C86, not realising quite how much that album would be subject to forensic investigation over the years that followed, or indeed that the likes of us would still be banging on about the record some 27 years later. This meant that the fact those two bands were without doubt two of the most stunning groups of that whole, incredibly fertile period would have been entirely lost on those who investigated C86 as a "one-off", not least the other kids at school or youth club to whom I lent it to at the time.
Incidentally, a reformed and resurgent Wolfhounds are responsible for two of the best songs of 2012/13, "Skullface" and "Security". Wolfhounds aren't totally alone, of C86 stalwarts, in still being "around": as far as we can discern, there are half a dozen bands who appeared on C86 but who are still writing and gigging in 2013. Another of whom, of course, are... the Pastels.
Whereas some of the other present-day survivors from the tape (Primal Scream, Half Man Half Biscuit, the David Lewis Gedge Project) have carried on playing live and releasing new records on a reasonably regular basis, the Pastels have taken a more relaxed approach, in keeping with the increasingly hazy yet magical timbre of their music (an approach far removed from the plaintive, but actually still surprisingly pretty strum of their C86 contribution "Breaking Lines"). This is amply illustrated by the fact that even though this blog has been stumbling on for fourteen years, "Slow Summits" is the first 'proper' Pastels album which has surfaced over that time.
The sleeve credits of "Slow Summits" (a very Halkyn-esque title, to our ears - *we miss Halkyn!*) suggest, fairly remarkably, that no less than 23 musicians have contributed, including Stephen and Katrina of course but also other longtime collaborators like Bill Wells, Norman Blake and the LP's producer, John McEntire. And at first, the task confronted by "Slow Summits" does seem enormous enough to merit two football teams' worth of investment. After all, it's their first LP of the century. There are nine tracks, one of which (the swingingly winsome if insubstantial "Check My Heart") has already preceded it as a 7" single, and two of which are goodwill-sapping instrumentals. That leaves only half a dozen songs with which to really make a mark. And yet... they do, they really do. None of the six left standing are duffers, and no less than four are *very* special indeed: "Secret Music", "Summer Rain", "Kicking Leaves" and "Wrong Light", the latter of which seals the deal, frankly and should really be subtitled "Why You Love The Pastels".
Going back to the score and three musicians point, there *are* times that the phrase "too many cooks" come to mind. The songs here are pearls that, with a couple of exceptions (the strings on "Kicking Leaves" certainly don't spoil the broth), don't need the additional adornment of extra instruments left, right and centre, especially when this drives things suspiciously close to that layer of Dante's inferno labelled "easy listening", and the ubiquitous flautist would probably have been our first choice for pruning. (There is a related, sneaking suspicion that if you played some of "Slow Summits" at 45 rpm, it would come out sounding like Cinerama).
That gripe aside, this is a terrific album of ambling (as opposed to shambling!) charm. There has been no dramatic change of direction in the band's modus operandi since they first hooked up with Domino: "Slow Summits" just takes you by the hand and leads a gentle waltz of warmth, nostalgia and longing. Music at this restrained, refined pace is *so* hard to do well: Kyoko, Brighter, the Jesus and Mary Chain maybe, but even otherwise great bands (the Shop Assistants, the Smiths) didn't work half as well when they checked their normal velocity. So there is no little skill in the way that the Pastels can negotiate wide open vistas of melody at their leisure, without tending to the soporific. Their now-languorous style may not have moved on far from that last LP, 1997's "Illumination", but "Slow Summits" proves how well they've settled into middle-age with a style that suits them.
Right. Can we gorge on some of our Pastels memories now, please ?
So... D'Alma and I blaring "Get 'Round Town" out of wound-down car windows when we cruised around south London back in the day, part of a fairly successful campaign to actively irritate Groove Armada-indulging Claphamites through the medium of 'proper' indie music. The charming first album closer "If I Could Tell You", which I loved and always put on compilation tapes alongside BMX Bandits' "Disco Girl" (as well as Glasgow, I think it must have been the orchestration, the strings, and the head-over-heels lovableness that united the two). The first Pastels records I bought, when still at school, the "Comin' Through" 12" and "Sittin' Pretty" LP, and how my band covered "Not Unloved" from the former as, um, "Not Ndlovu" (er, it was a football reference which, trust me, seemed v. humorous at the time).
Getting "Worlds Of Possibility" while 'studying' in Notts, and marvelling at its space and ambition, yet how it still remained at root a shy and gorgeous pop tune. Making sure that "Mobile Safari" standout "Classic Line-Up" was played at my wedding, although my favourite Pastels tune has to remain the undeniably shambling yet sharply romantic "Crawl Babies" (only a few years ago did I finally grab the 7" of that, from a shop in Ambleside of all places). In my mid-twenties, as a frustrated City professional, my immersion in "The Hits Hurt", a halfway house between the Pastels that once defined "indieness" and their new beginnings as they joined forces with a loftier-inclined, more cognoscenti-favoured Domino roster of the time.
Buying a "Pastelism" badge when I saw them at the Jericho Tavern in the early 1990s: wearing it with pride and still having it now (although "pastelism", being merely an "-ism", somewhat undersells them: I think of them now not so much as an ideology, but more a a lifecycle, a *process* - "pastellisation", perhaps). Seeing them in London - maybe at the Borderline - in the late '90s (it would have to have been around then, as they definitely played "Unfair Kind Of Fame"), when I have no doubt their mere continued existence would have comforted me as I struggled to adapt to that bruising, dog-eat-dog world of "grown-up" work. Andenjoying their set only a few years back at Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown, in a cavernous if sparsely-populated Queen Elizabeth Hall, when they supported East Kilbride's finest export and first let me into gems like "Secret Music".
Yes, the mere existence of new Pastels material, even before we listened to it, was enough to bring all those times flooding back. That "Slow Summits" is such a treat into the bargain is a wonderful bonus. Katrina, Stephen - once again - *thank you* for being you.

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