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Friday, March 1, 2013

Pure pop suss

Second part of the fantastic piece at Caught In The Carousel.  This deals with the first half of the new album...

The Distractions Interview

By Dave Cantrell

The most oft-quoted factoid about The End Of The Pier is the gap between the 1980 debut and this follow-up. As a marketing meme it has the advantage of being both winkingly amusing and utterly true. But in truth, all the basic math of that particular detail succeeds at underlining, and with some emphasis, is the remarkable extent to which …Pier feels, in almost every effortless way, like nothing so much as simply the logical next step, the album that was meant to follow no matter the year.

The gap, in effect, melts, and melts immediately. There could scarcely be a more ringingly appropriate choice to act as a thirty-two year segue than “I Don’t Have Time.” Chimed in by a strummed electric layered on a subtle bed of Nick Garside’s B-3 organ, by the time those are joined a couple measured steps later by an acoustic, by Perrin’s melody lead and then the rhythm section literally blooming into being, it’s instant pop magic in that inimitable Distractions way of creeping under your skin with a warm saline shiver. This is human music, human pop, a notion only seconded by the soulful vulnerability and defiance of Finney’s voice. It’s rather hard to quantify, that voice. There’s a kind of raspy shimmer to it and it seems to magnify every word it touches. There’s a sizable clutch of slow songs on this album, each quite beautiful in its own right, but it’s Finney’s voice that transforms that ‘slow’ into mesmerizing, the ‘beautiful’ into sublime. By the end of “I Don’t Have Time” it’s risen to a delicate roar, putting the final, clarion flourish on a song that, in the aggregate, is every bit the unabashed classic as “Time Goes By So Slow” – to which is seems a fitting and brilliant bookend – and “Lost” off last year’s Come Home EP. Smitten from the off then, who’s surprised?

Clearly not me but at the same time, the more I listen to …Pier, the more this notion of gaplessness begins to seem a tad facile, oversimplified. Sonically, structurally, in terms of hooks and craft, it is indeed the case that the only factor that argues against a seamless leap over three-plus decades is the production, almost impossibly lush with the studio and mastering possibilities of the 21st century. And again, the quality of the songwriting, the concise charm of the arrangements, well, those are nothing new and will shock exactly no one. However, spend enough time inside this record, letting the songs soak in good and deep and you’ll find ample evidence of an album well aware of its graying profile. No matter where you drop the needle, you’ll find yourself barely more than a groove or two away from a reflection, a regret, some wry observation steeped in acknowledgment that, yes, a fair passel of seasons have fallen off the calendar since last we met.

Second song “Wise,” aside from sharing its title with the one adjective that rises to the rescue as a sort of consolation prize for those of us whose primes keep passing further behind us – a built-in ‘life achievement award,’ if you will – eases in with a couple of doleful minor-key chords that in themselves have the flavor of the advancing autumn outside my window as I write this, a quiet Sunday morning amid the fallen leaves. One of two tracks here credited solely to Nick Halliwell (bit of a relief, that; would have been awkward had Perrin asked Finney to sing a song addressed to the front man of a glory-days band that includes lines like “Time has been gentle to me/ you have not fared so well”), it’s as cast in the amber glow of recollection as anything on this record and in that sense somewhat sets the mood. The tone rather glistening with resignation, the sound sumptuous, “Wise” tackles the long simmer of resentment with the gentlest of hands, imbues it with the utmost tenderness. The key to the song’s luminous melancholia may well be the deftly picked acoustic running in and out and underneath much of the track like some errant madrigal plucked from a leftover pocket of Elizabethan air, but whether it’s that or the pop chorale background vox cosseting the chorus, when Finney’s  forcefully quiet croon [actually a rare Perrin lead vocal] lets slip the line “I think we’d best get back to our wives,” the effect is such you want to offer not just the singer but the song itself a warm coat and a fresh cup of tea.

This is what The Distractions do as well as anyone, rivet you with what might best be described as a vivid murmur of emotion. Nothing flagrant, never too florid, mind, but over and over again the band manages to strike that magic balance between the maudlin and the cynical (nuanced, I believe is the word). In a sense, The Distractions produce not just songs but quick, revealing snapshots strung along the spectrum of human dalliance and folly. If your heart were an eye these flashes of emotion would be burned – subtly, glancingly – on its retina. As odd as it sounds and debatable as the syntax might normally be, these are songs complex with simplicity.

It is, of course, the case that such a teasing oxymoron, spot on as it is, couldn’t stand but on the strengths of the arrangements – mature, classic, drawn from the canon – and how intuitively produced/mixed this record is, as sympathetic to the pathos at work here as, say, Tony Richardson was to that of Alan Sillitoe. There’s a humble grandeur to the sound, meticulous but in no way fussy. No matter the tempo, Nick Halliwell’s production ensures an LP that’s of a piece, encasing every track in a kind of solid liquid warmth (Oh will the paradoxes never end, you’re asking; well, no, probably not, since all the best pop records inspire them). Such is the wholeness of this record you could extract any one song as a single – and really, any one will do, …Pier is chock full of them – and, once its run was done, it would be absorbed seamlessly back into the fold as if it never left. ‘Nothing stands out’ is as true as ‘The whole thing stands out,’ surely the definition of a complete, true and proper long-playing album.

The quality of the mix – and the fidelity of the vinyl may very well make you cry – gets re-emphasized here to lead us back to the autumnal nature of the material, which wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without it. Songs as bathed in anamnesis as these require at least that level of care and embrace. We’re lucky they got it, as it allows us to luxuriate in what, by today’s standards, is that rarest of waters, basic elegant songcraft, the kind that doesn’t trumpet itself and is all the more startling for it. The tidy ten songs on here (five per side on the LP, just as God planned it) are, in a phrase, modest and sublime, and in that sense remind of the crop of canny songsmiths that dotted the landscape in the mid-80s, Jasmine Minks, June Brides (no coincidence that Phil Wilson and Co. find themselves under the Occultation banner), Weather Prophets et al. Come to that, …Pier could be the after-the-fact masterclass in that type of pure pop suss. Example? Well, that’s the problem. Try to spotlight one and the others all tug at your sleeve with deserving, ‘No, no, listen to me!’ urgency. But here’s a go.

Ending side one of the LP, “When It Was Mine” slips into the world with a pair of sustained guitar strums, a brushed drum and a plumbing bass going straight for the bottom of your throat that might suggest heartbreak a la AMC, which is to say loneliness and ache. Finney’s vocal, of course, only reinforces that impression – full of anomie however brightly sung – but the killer here is Perrin’s five-note, reverbed guitar figure underlining the chorus, a short, rather heartbreaking jolt that recalls nothing less than the gut punch delivered by a certain Mr Reid in “Just Like Honey.” The fact that that’s almost certainly the first time ‘AMC’ and ‘JAMC’ have ever been brought together to reference the same song should give an idea of what a pearl of a song it is.

[to be continued]

(c) Dave Cantrell. Caught in the Carousel

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