Sunday, July 11, 2010

Six-Six-Sixties: the number of the angel?

God Help The Girl - God Help the Girl (2009)
The Magic Theatre - London Town (2010)
The School - Loveless Unbeliever (2010)

While 1960s pop of the kind pioneered by Phil Spector with African American girl groups brought to England’s shores the brash and brassy Lulus, Cilla Blacks and Sandie Shaws, to my mind it was at its finest in the more melancholy fragility of a (vastly underrated) Twinkle or a Marianne Faithfull. But this isn’t to say that these two tendencies can’t be profitably combined.

I’ve recently become enamoured of a number of groups doing just that – the revival of the English brand of sweet orchestral 60s girl-group pop. Revivalism, as I may have written before, is a double-edged sword – on the one hand, I might prefer to listen to something more original (whatever that might be), but, on the other, given that historical material is ultimately limited (even if the quest to unearth entire genres is more than a lifetime’s work), why not enjoy yesterday’s sound today? And if it’s done well, a self-consciousness and quality control can be brought to styles which may have been somewhat lacking in that regard during their heyday – a latterday perfection of the essence of the sound, so to speak.

The first of these is God Help the Girl’s self-titled album, essentially a side-project for Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. But while I’m a big fan of The Boy With The Arab Strap (which itself is deeply indebted to Nick Drake’s 60s masterpiece Bryter Layter), I haven’t been particularly taken with the rest of Belle & Sebastian’s work, or with their performance as a live band. This album, however, while certainly not without its flaws, crystallizes some of my favourite aspects of their work – the gorgeous melodies, sense of vulnerability and a barely perceptible edge of darker melancholy. When I first listened to the album I thought that it was all a little too much the same, with no standouts except the title track (a perfect pop tune which remains by far the finest moment) but the other tracks reveal themselves more gradually as the plot unfurls – the story, which is outlined in the accompanying booklet, is a ‘musical film’ which Murdoch plans to shoot in 2011, though there is no clear narrative arc that I can ascertain. Catherine Ireton’s vocals are gorgeous, smooth but by no means devoid of personality (compare her version of Funny Little Frog to Murdoch’s own from 2006’s The Life Pursuit), and bring a freshness to the music itself – so, while the album suffers from flaws including Murdoch’s tendency to insert himself vocally a little too much into a project which is ostensibly not Belle & Sebastian, as well as a lyrical habit of straying into an irritating faux-naivete which is not always held as well in check as it could be, this is nonetheless a work which is undemanding and pleasurable in the best possible sense.

The concept album theme continues with The Magic Theatre’s London Town, a fascinating album of chamber pop which owes its existence to a strange story of market capitalism, the music industry and the struggling artist. When Ooberman, the previous band of Magic Theatre duo Dan Popplewell & Sophie Churney, failed to sell enough copies to pay their wages, despite support from John Peel and other indie luminaries, the band split up and Popplewell found another way (of the very few remaining) to make a living from music creation: library music. Ultimately, this became a career, and one in which he could explore new musical directions (hence the involvement of the Slovak Radio Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on this album); but at the same time, the pop sensibility began feeding back into his work, until he was writing library pieces which were also backing tracks for the London Town album songs.

From these extraordinary beginnings comes a narrative, according to their website, is “a time-travel love story set in 1968 and 1888, where the young 60s hero falls through a hole in time in The Magic Theatre in the Old Victorian Steam fair, to find his one true love in 1880’s London.” Even if the music is entirely different, I can’t help being reminded of Momus’ awe-inspiring track London 1888 – one which strikes the same lugubrious note as the conclusion of this story (which, however, is by no means so throughout, but rather follows a quartet of seasonal moods). While the band suggest that the sounds are chosen from the 19th century as well as the 60s, it is undoubtedly the second which predominate. Standouts include the hooky opener, Steamroller, and the subdued rush of the title track.

The pick of this endearing litter, however, is without a doubt The School’s addictive and flawlessly realized Loveless Unbeliever. Packed with bittersweet, upbeat 60s-influenced indie pop gems, and without the nagging twee ingenuousness which haunts God Help the Girl, there’s little to say about this album but to praise it. A point of reference might be Saint Etienne’s Good Humor (my personal favourite of SE’s work – and indeed the album is produced by Ian Catt of both SE and the Field Mice), but here we are in more straightforward territory genre-wise, and in a milieu which is much less enamoured of the atmospheric panoramas of American leisure. The lyrics, dealing with themes of love’s vicissitudes, are completely appropriate while never clichéd or unintelligent. Highlights include Let It Slip, Valentine and the 50s-bop Hoping and Praying. As The Essex might say, ‘they’ve got everything.’

All of these albums work with a joy/melancholy musical dynamic which I must confess is one of my favourite registers, and all recapture – or create – a nostalgic 1960s England of kitchen-sink dramas and funfairs, bright skies and sudden showers, one which thus far has existed mainly in the imagination of Morrissey, but which is certainly worth a (re)visit.

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