Friday, June 18, 2021

Can't-Miss Release From the Catenary Wires

I'm interrupting my family vacation, quite happily, to remind you indie popsters today marks the official release of 'Birling Gap,' the third album from the Catenary Wires. If you're here, you no doubt already adore Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey in all of their musical incarnations, from Talulah Gosh to Tender Trap and everything in between. The Catenary Wires began as just the two of them, bedsit style, with 2015 mini-album 'Red Red Skies.' I fell hard for this melancholy stripped-down approach, at the time calling the duo indie pop's answer to Johnny and June. I say without an ounce of hyperbole "When You Walk Away" is my most listened to song of the 21st century. I know every strum, syllable and sigh. What I really like best about the album, though is Pursey emerging from the shadows to share the spotlight with Fletcher.

It would be four long years before follow-up 'Til the Morning,' and this time there would be a full band pulling out all of the stops. There is an array of instrumentation on the album, including even brass, and top-notch production would come from Andy Lewis. Lewis plays quite a bit on the album as well, and he, along with Fay Hallam and Ian Button, hit upon something, a chemistry that is palpable to the listener in much the same way as Heavenly at the band's peak.

Lucky for us, this core has stuck together, and they have grown immensely as a unit on 'Birling Gap.' All it takes is one listen to the singles "Mirrorball" and "Face On The Rail Line" to hear the Catenary Wires are going to take us on a vast and varied journey this time around. If you know this place, the album title and cover alone tells you this will be an ominous and distinctly English adventure but with universal messages. There is still a moment or two that may remind you of 'Red Red Skies,' but most of these songs sound more complex and worlds away from lo-fi. Don't expect this one to be a grower either. The harmonies will give you goosebumps right out of the chute. In short, every note and word works, from the mostly sad and anxious to the occasionally sweet and amiable. As we near the halfway point of 2021, in a year chock full of impressive releases, 'Birling Gap' is the best album I have heard so far.

In America, pick up 'Birling Gap' on the always reliable Shelflife label. For the UK and the rest of the world, purchase your copy on Amelia and Rob's own recently launched Skep Wax Records. In case my fawning hasn't been enough, here are a couple of videos to give you another nudge. Oh, and here's yet another... Don't miss more on the album during one of those famed Twitter listening parties of the great Tim Burgess coming up on June 21st.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

'The First Year Plan'

Time for another vital label compilation from my youth. With the advent of deluxe editions and such, I suppose FAST Product's 1979 collection 'The First Year Plan' isn't looked at in quite the same way, but these FAST releases used to be tough to find... especially if you were a kid growing up among the cornfields of Illinois. Take, for instance, FAST alumni the Human League. If you lived close to a cool record shop, maybe, you could find FAST singles. Today, you can pick up a CD reissue of 1979 album 'Reproduction' and get the "Being Boiled"/"Circus of Death" and "The Dignity of Labour Parts 1-4" releases as bonus tracks and, at least where I live, have it delivered to your home same day, all for about $12. Progress? I guess so, but not nearly as fun.

As usual, I'm off the subject. If you haven't seen Grant McPhee's 'Big Gold Dream: The Sound of Young Scotland 1977-1985,' the documentary featuring Edinburgh's FAST and Glasgow's Postcard labels, you really should. FAST founders Bob Last and Hilary Morrison feature prominently, as well as many of the other major players.

I found 'The First Year Plan' in a used record store in the mid-'80s. Inexplicably, my copy came from Australia, and it doesn't even say 'The First Year Plan' anywhere on it. What I didn't know until years later is there was a similar sampler for the North American market that came out in 1980 on the Passport/PVC labels called 'Mutant Pop 78/79.' The only difference between it and 'The First Year Plan' was the addition of two songs from Edinburgh post-punk band the Flowers and the omission of the second single from the Mekons. I think the cover is so well done if I come across it on my travels, I will snag it in an instant.

The bands on FAST hailed from Northern England and Scotland. Many of them on 'The First Year Plan' would go on to bigger and better things. I'll let you opine on the bands that actually peaked on FAST. I am of the opinion FAST-era songs "Love Like Anthrax" and "Damaged Goods" improved significantly (especially the production) on Gang of Four's album 'Entertainment!' In my younger days, I was never all that chuffed about Sheffield band 2-3, but when I ripped this album the other day it was as if I had never heard them before. Now I can't stop listening. Unfortunately, for them, they are known more for their role in introducing the Human League to Last than their own music. And what can you say about the Human League that hasn't already been said? Even Last knew there was something there and took the band's offer to manage them when they moved to Virgin. He knew when to give up the position too. Scars came and went in a heartbeat, but they did leave us with 'Author! Author!' post FAST. I picked up the deluxe edition earlier this year after reader Jonder mentioned its release in the comments section late last year. Highly recommended. Then there is the Mekons. The band took quite a turn stylistically in the mid-'80s, but their new sound worked for me. I enjoy it all.

Let's listen to some of this "difficult fun," as FAST used to describe the music. Starting with the Mekons "pissing out the noise" on their debut single is a must.

The Mekons - Never Been In A Riot
Scars - Horrorshow
The Human League - Being Boiled
2-3 - All Time Low

I'm going to be out most of the rest of the month, but I hope to check in on Friday with a quick reminder about a new release you really should pick up. Until then, be good, popsters.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Dig Deep for Doc on Lasses of Scottish Pop

Light bulb. Genius. Director Miranda Stern envisions a "feature-length documentary celebrating the songs, stories and journey of Scotland's all girl-bands from 1960 to 2010." Stern has a hell of a start on this thing already, but she needs more cash to see this one come to fruition. C'mon. You know you want to see it. The Ettes. Sophisticated Boom Boom. Strawberry Switchblade. There's still time to kick in for 'Since Yesterday: The Unsung Pioneers of Scottish Pop.' Click here for Kickstarter, whet your appetite with a little video taster of things to come, then click on the button marked "back this project." Easy. Think how those buttons on your jacket will pop as you watch the documentary on a screen near you.

Strawberry Switchblade - Secrets (Peel Session, 1982)
Sophisticated Boom Boom - The Only One (Live)

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Early Edition of The Times

A new pal of mine mentioned the Times to me the other day. In 12 years of blogging, I have never had a post on Ed Ball's band. Time to right this blatant wrong. Unfortunately, my record collection is limited to Ball's work on those early albums with Dan Treacy in Television Personalities and, at about the same time, his first few albums he recorded as the Times.

Both the Television Personalities and the Times have had a mess of 21st century reissues that have had me pulling out these relics. One in particular, a 7" reissue of "Red With Purple Flashes" that came out last year, had me obsessed. I loved watching the Whaam! label spinnning 'round on the turntable, and it stayed on the platter for weeks. If you're new to the Times, those early records are mod, share traits with your favorites from the Jam and the Creation and, to these Yankee ears, sound about as British as you can get. If you're from North America and love the Kinks, you'll understand what I mean about that Brit feeling.

Confession time. I have an ulterior motive in bringing up Ed Ball. There are really two chapters to The Times. After '86, Ball went on a sabatical of sorts by shuttering his Artpop! label (for a while) and taking a job at Creation Records. A couple of years later, Ball resurrected the Times on Creation with a different sound. It seems Ball decided to "go with the times" and record synth-driven dance-floor fillers. Is this an apt description? Too simplistic? I don't really know this era, but my friend mentioned "Manchester," and that's a song from the Creation years that has me investigating. I need some help, indie-pop fans. Should I be looking into these later years of the Times? What about some of his other bands, such as Teenage Filmstars, 'O' Level, Love Corporation and Conspiracy of Noise? I know there are some releases under his own name too. Where should I start? What's vital? There are a couple of comps out there covering much of Ball's career. Are these any good?

While you're pondering those questions, let's listen to some of my favorite songs from chapter one of the Times. Here are two songs from each of my three favorite albums. I have a particular affinity for 'This Is London.' A couple of things to know: Dan Treacy was in the band for 'Pop Goes Art! It was released on Whaam! This was the first LP release, but it was not the first album finished. 'Go! With the Times' was released in '85 but recorded in '80.

Biff! Bang! Pow! (from 'Pop Goes Art!' 1982)
I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape (from 'Pop Goes Art!' 1982)
Goodbye Piccadilly (from 'This is London,' 1983)
Whatever Happened to Thamesbeat? (from 'This is London,' 1983)
Red With Purple Flashes (from 'Go! With the Times,' 1985)
My Andy Warhol Poster (from 'Go! With the Times,' 1985)

Friday, June 4, 2021

The Spirit of Radio

While in the car, I heard these two songs back to back on KEXP the other day and thought for sure I knew where the DJ would be going as the trifecta. Alas, I was wrong. He started with "Glorious" from grossly underrated shoegazers Adorable, led by Pete Fijalkowski. Not sure why this wasn't a single. If you lived in the UK or Japan, the song kicked off debut album 'Against Perfection.' Came out in '93 on Creation Records. Some people hear "Bone Machine" by Pixies. Do you hear that? I don't, but I do think Interpol, in the early days, may have been into this song. The following version is about 30 seconds shorter than the album version. The intro is taken out and gets right to it. Can be found on band comp 'Footnotes 92-94.'


Next up was "I Don't Know Why I Love You" by the House of Love. This is probably their best known song on this side of the Atlantic. Still gets played quite a bit on nostagic alt radio stations. It came out on their first album for Fontana. No, not as good as that brilliant debut album for Creation, but it does have its moments. By this time, cracks in the band were showing, and Terry Bickers would leave the mess behind after this one. Opening lyrics still make me guffaw. "I don't know why I love you, your face is a hammer in my head, I remember every word you said, I just don't know why I love you, I don't know why I care, I never even liked your hair, I feel like a seventh heir, but I don't know why I love you..."

I Don't Know Why I Love You

As I was listening, in my mind, I was anticipating something by the duo Pete Fij & Terry Bickers to follow these two great songs. I have never heard anything by them together on a radio station, and I was pretty excited at the prospect. I thought for sure the DJ would come on after this trio of songs and tell us all about what these two have been up to in the 21st century. It really stuck in my craw. I'm here today to right this wrong. Please imagine the following in a DJ voice: "From the 2014 album 'Broken Heart Surgery,' here are Pete Fij and Terry Bickers, addicted to love by the sound of this one, with 'Betty Ford.'"

Betty Ford

Ah, that's better. Note to self. Look for their 2017 album 'We Are Millionaires.' Several years ago my pal (and quite possibly yours too) the Swede sent me a note about 'Broken Heart Surgery' being up my alley. He was so right. It's the type of recommendation that would have never happened without our little community here. For that, I am thankful. As for any bad feelings toward KEXP for missing this golden opportunity, I'm exaggerating, of course. Hearing Adorable and and the House of Love back to back was the best six minutes of radio I had heard in a long time.