Sunday, 3 September 2017

Indie Top 20 Vol 20 - Stereolab, Drugstore, Cranes, Pale Saints, Frente!

16. Stereolab - Ping Pong (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

It's somewhat absurd yet fitting that Stereolab's most known single is a chirpy paean to the flaws of capitalism. To a series of almost easy listening organ chords and a skippy melody, Laetitia sings observations such as "It's alright 'cause the historical pattern has shown/ How the economical cycle tends to revolve/ In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop/ A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more". It's like a melody from "The Sound of Music" retooled to teach the kids about Marxist principles.

I have to confess that despite its ubiquity (certainly compared to other Stereolab tunes, anyway) it's not my favourite piece of work of theirs. Whereas other singles they issued were often pieces of sprawling minimalism with subtle details emerging listen after listen, the first impressions you get from "Ping Pong" are really all there is. That said, as a piece of subversive political pop, it's a deeply sarcastic and scathing piece of work, slowly burrowing Marxist earworms into the brains of innocent teens and children everywhere.

17. Drugstore - Starcrossed (Honey)

Drugstore were an astonishing live band I frequently caught live during this period. They were fronted by the strangely spacey, starry, charismatic singer Isabel Monteiro, who on one occasion mopped tears from her eyes while the audience applauded, and I wasn't entirely sure if she was joking for effect or not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Drugstore's music was frequently slow, woozy and delicate, but her vocals ensured that every song packed an enormous punch too. "Starcrossed" is filled to the brim with fuzzy guitars, stripped back drum patterns, then topped off marvellously by her dreamy yet somehow piercing voice. On vinyl the intimate, emotional pull of what they managed to achieve as a live band could occasionally be lost, and I don't think this track is any exception - but it still feels like being smothered by a beautiful, soft sonic duvet. Albeit one whose colour scheme possibly makes your eyes go a bit funny.

Isabel relocated to her home country Brazil in early 2015, effectively finishing the band, who had otherwise remained a going concern until that point. However, she remains active as a singer and musician over there.

18. Cranes - Shining Road (Dedicated)

Portsmouth's finest returned with something which was as close as the group came to sounding full of beans. Filled with fuzzed up guitar lines and galloping rhythms, "Shining Road" sure as hell isn't Britpop, but it's closer to pop than the band usually stepped. The faint sense of unease that usually seeps through the band's music overpowering any other intentions is also gone, replaced by something almost optimistic.

Not quite, though. Alison Shaw's parting lines, after singing about seeking out bright city lights and travel, are "And is it all because of you?/ Every time I look at you/ If I look back never mind/ Just don't worry, I'll be fine". I lived in Australia for a year myself - leading the "blogosphere" to get very confused when I first launched "Left and to the Back" and assume I was Australian - and the people I met on the way were mostly a joyous bundle of drunken energy, but there were always a few who didn't like the question "What made you decide to come here?" I nearly caused a woman I met to burst into tears when I asked this innocent question, and after that, never asked anyone again.

The road is frequently a very tempting and, in the modern world, simple response to disappointment, mourning or heartache, the "shining" alternative to dealing with the immediate mess around you. In the novel "Billy Liar", the main character is warned by his mother "You can't run away from your problems, you know. You just pack them into your suitcase and take them with you". In the end, he chooses not to take that way out, although he has very little to lose. "Shining Road", though, is one of the few tracks I can think of that genuinely spells out the doubt and personal anguish behind that route taken and the dazzling fantasy of a relocated city life.


19. Pale Saints - Fine Friend (4AD)

Pale Saints purists tend to reject this era of the group as being almost an irrelevance. The original lead singer Ian Masters had upped sticks, and Meriel Barnham was now fully in the spotlight. Gone were Ian's frail choirboy vocals, and Meriel replaced them with something richer and more self-assured. 

Not only did this did have an impact on the group's sound, but the psychedelia of their previous work had now been largely replaced by a much moodier, more organic sound. It hasn't escaped the ears of many listeners just how similar "Fine Friend" is melodically and stylistically to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You", and that really can't be disputed. This sounds like the work of a group who had absorbed a lot of new influences and undergone a total reinvention.

Much as I do find this single genuinely haunting and beautiful, and perhaps unfairly overlooked as a result of the purists, I can't say that I prefer it to their earliest work. It's not surprising that they disintegrated not long afterwards, having moved on to something which failed to ignite the imaginations of most critics or indeed fans, nor resulted in any improved commercial standing. 

20. Frente! - Bizarre Love Triangle (Mushroom)

Australia has always been filled to the brim with groups who have managed to make enormous waves in their home country and in New Zealand, but failed to create much of an impact further afield. Some are truly wondrous - the situationism and satire of TISM (aka This Is Serious, Mum) doesn't always translate easily to British shores, but is hilarious and effective. Then there's the likes of Master's Apprentices and their sixties/ seventies blues rock, or er, Lubricated Goat who released the album "People With Chairs Up Their Noses".

Anyway, Frente were something of an alternative folk-pop sensation in Australia in the nineties, producing one platinum LP over there in the form of "Marvin The Album" in 1992. We British were first introduced to them via the wonders of the soap opera "Home And Away", where they seemed to be crowbarred into the script for weeks on end, with endless declarations of "Heeeeey, are you guys going to see Frente toniiight?" while their latest single also played on the Summer Bay cafe radio, just to really hammer the point home about how hip and happening they were. 

Asides from snatches of music on "Home And Away" and a guest appearance, most people in this country didn't really pay the group much heed until they issued this skeletal, quickie cover of New Order's single. It's brief, sweet and a pleasant listen, but really no more than that. Clearly not everyone agrees with me, however, as it reached number 76 in the UK charts and number 49 in the US Billboard Hot 100, a truly astonishing achievement for such a niche idea. 

In retrospect, it's entirely possible to look at this cover of "Bizarre Love Triangle" and see it as pre-empting the acoustic or ukulele inflected covers which have saturated television advertising in the last 5-10 years. It's a very similar approach - take a known, credible track and turn it into something homespun and folksy with sweet, heartfelt vocals on top. Sadly for Frente, nobody wins any prizes in pop for being the first through the thicket, and the track didn't even break through in a significant way in their home country, remaining a fringe concern for sad indie kids. 

1 comment:

  1. That third Pale Saints LP is definitely worth a purchase - unfairly maligned. Love Fine Friend. I too remember the Frenté plugs on Home and Away - hilarious:)