Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fast Forward to the Past

Puro Instinct - Vapor Girls

I am sitting on a coach. I am 14-years-old and have never lived anywhere except a small market town. There are three cassettes on my lap. They are: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, Countdown to Extinction by Megadeth and Precious, a 20-track compilation of popular indie disco songs. The cassettes, satisfying their geometrically determined potential for metaphor, each represent a door.

Sgt Peppers is a portal to a permanently sun-drenched solarium. Growing up in a non-Beatles playing household, I have just acquired the keys to the door through a sheer act of will, a downhill physical effort that somehow initiates a transformation of everyday life. In a week’s time, I will be threatened with a knife at a disco and later dance with a girl, sporting underwear outside of jeans, to Wet Wet Wet. It will be amazing, as though simply owning the tape is a passport into new realms of giddy experience. It will soundtrack its own luminous existence like a perfect, wheezing Dansette, on a Muppet bedspread, on a boat, on a river. But that’s another story for another time. Fast-forward.

Countdown to Extinction is a grubby door, slavered with many layers of paint. It opens onto the north-facing, six by ten box room, rarely aired and with a smell somewhere between burnt matches and old pornography. It gets a couple of plays. It will be the last heavy metal album I ever buy. But that’s another story for another time. Fast-forward.

Precious is a more complicated door. Made from good wood, parts of it are in decent shape, whereas elsewhere it looks like it’s been forced a few times, and split from the effort. There are a couple of boltless locks still attached. It opens with difficulty onto a garden filled with many plants and flowers, but also red ants and some partially concealed cat faeces. Play.

Anyone who grew up on Now! albums knows that all music, as long as it is popular, is equally valid, so owning these three tapes at once is perfectly acceptable, as if it needs verifying. But, equally, anyone who grew up watching The Chart Show knows that some territorial demarcation is required, at least once every three weeks. I had always felt at home watching the rock chart — the videos were expensive and inappropriately fogged in dry ice. Men with beautiful hair took an infantile delight in pyrotechnics and arm waving. The songs were simple and memorable, and women appeared, mostly as a kind of decoration, wearing different types of highly ornate bras. Built on fantasy and bluster, it spoke to my limited experience of the world.

The indie chart by comparison was unfathomable. Half the groups didn’t seem to make videos, their blunt grayscale photos at odds with the on-screen graphics. Most of the songs were muffled and fuzzy and played at clattering pace. Women were not only in the groups with bedraggled men, playing instruments, but wearing t-shirts over their bras. It was confusing and weird. These people didn’t look like they cared about being popular at all. But the obscurity proved to be compelling—homing beacons from an adult world far more oblique and interesting than the comical posturing of the rock chart. (As an aside, I’ve checked various clips on Youtube, and Michael Bolton is apparently always in the rock top ten, regardless of the year—a synth-toting spectre in blue tinted warehouses like Banquo’s strange uncle. Fast-forward.)

Evidently, it was time to go shopping, but I needed a shop window. So I bought Precious, and it dominated a summer. The anthems were an easy sell, as expansive as anything Iron Maiden could think up; it just took a while to refocus to a lyrical content of “feelings” instead of “murder”. And if at first Planet of Sound and The Drowners didn’t make sense, didn’t sound as universal and urgent as Sit Down and There’s No Over Way, then after a few plays it fell together. They weren’t a huge stretch from metal anyway: Pixies seemed like a surreal take on its dynamics, and Suede were a bit like the Quireboys.

A few tracks wouldn’t stick, though, those by Lush, the Pale Saints, My Bloody Valentine, the Sugarcubes. These weren’t noisy or anthemic — they were strange and light, distant, inscrutable. Nothing like chart pop music, and nothing like my basic conception of “indie”, they hung around in a breathy trance for a few minutes before fading away. No amount of close attention could break through that watery, reflective surface. I chased them around a bit, like trying to grab hold of one of those dandelion clocks that somehow drift into the room, then gave up.

Which is a long way of saying that I’m back at the door again, staring at Puro Instinct, and trying to shift the tangible sensations of an unseasoned, uncomprehending youth getting in the way. This isn’t to say that Puro Instinct directly replicate an early-1990s, lysergic indie pop sound — their press release for this album points in the direction of 1980s Fleetwood Mac and Sade, and makes much of their connection to Ariel Pink, who guests on Headbangers in Ecstacy. I don’t want to be dismissive of this, or of the quality on offer here. But it’s not what I hear — I hear the same dreamy aesthetic as those songs from Precious as I heard them 20 years ago, perched between pop songs and subconscious slithers. The result is that I can’t stay focused on the present when my mind goes dancing through the past. It’s even harder when the chorus of No Mames apparently has the phrase “kinky love”, which is the actual name of the Pale Saints track on Precious. I’m not sure it definitely does, but it’s what I hear, as though they’re mocking me across a chasm of time.

Because, just for the record, I like the past to stay in the past, so on the brief occasions that I can get a clear listen, there are some gems on this record. Somewhere between soothing and disquieting, Everybody’s Sick is a Lynchian earworm, while the perfectly titled Vapor Girls breaks the flashback spell, for a moment, with uncertain harmonies, and through the cracks I hear a woozily funky and afternoon wine-drunk California that I imagine exists. But it can’t sustain itself, and the past comes lumbering back in with its heavy burden and my younger sniggering self for unwanted company.

Sea Pinks - Oh London

It’s fitting, then, while I’m trying to dig the grit of the past out of my ears that Belfast’s Sea Pinks emerge from their garage, and make noise at me like one of those other non-video sporting bands on the indie chart. The odd ones, the ones that sounded like they hadn’t thought their songs through at all, like they just wrote them and put them onto a cassette the same day. Their sound is, on last year’s Youth is Wasted, rushing and blurred, not angry but urgent, with no notes in their guitars, and the words dispersing into the tin-pot din. Evidently, they’ve forgotten to move the microphone into the room they’re playing in. The songs flash by, caught up in their own momentum, all in the mid-range, reveling in their lack of relevance. No video.

The only change the new album Dead Seas seems to make is to move the mic a few feet closer, so that words are occasionally discernable. On that note, please enjoy Oh London, where the lyrical content is as amusingly bitter as you would have hoped for.

So what can we learn from this? That the past, like a leaky pipe, is always dripping in the kitchen? Yeah, alright. Rewind.

Graham White Noise

Headbangers in Ecstasy by Puro Instinct is out now on Mexican Summer
Dead Seas by Sea Pinks is out now on CF/Recs

Buy Headbangers in Ecstasy by Puro Instinct from Norman Records
Buy Dead Seas by Sea Pinks from CF/Recs
Puro Instinct blog
Sea Pinks at Bandcamp where debut album Youth is Wasted is available as a free download