Review: The Pastels – Slow Summits
Published on May 30th, 2013 | Theo Gorst
Good news for those who cherish The Pastels: there’s a line in “Night Time Made Us”, track two of their long-awaited fifth album Slow Summits, that has Stephen McRobbie warmly intoning “I could never say goodbye”. Had the frontman been fonder of farewells, then this studio LP – the band’s first in sixteen years – may never have happened, and that would have been a great shame indeed.
The 2013 incarnation of The Pastels is certainly a different band to the one who pioneered a ramshackle brand of shambling pop in the late ’80s. Traces of the Television Personalities-esque innocence that characterised Up For a Bit with The Pastels are still present, but the instrumentation now conveys a maturity that juxtaposes this with the C86 movement.
A similar emotional pallet may still be in use, but now McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell achieve so much more with their Pastel shades. Pop songs are painted with much grander strokes; the band now expresses themselves in a rich melancholia tinged with hopefulness and nostalgia. An example of such comes on “Night Time Made Us”, where bursts of flute construct a deeply enthralling dreaminess.
Vocally, Mitchell glides over the mix, suggestive of optimism; McRobbie’s, however, lull the listener into a state of sorrowful reverie. Together the two contrasting voices work as another texture in a record that slowly reveals its ambient, jazz-infused soundscapes. Indeed the production allows the couple to play to their strengths; where once one associated McRobbie with the David Berman lyric “All my favourite singers couldn’t sing”, now his voice laments with a unique sombreness.
McRobbie recently spoke of the role John McEntire had on the record, highlighting the producer’s penchant for drums. On McEntire’s other 2013 album, Yo La Tengo’s Fade, started with the distinctive shuffle of “Ohm” and here the percussion is equally prominent. The album’s first single “Check My Heart” begins with bass drums crashing amidst a flurry of cymbals, the tone deep, seductive and signalling a path into Pastels pop perfection.
“Check My Heart” is the sonic equivalent of having a glorious ray of sunshine catch your face: the instrumentation exudes a comforting jangly warmth, the melody illuminated by Katrina Mitchell’s glimmering vocals. Her voice is light and airy as she implores “ch-check my heart” and the track allows excitement to build around her stuttering delivery until the expansive chorus arrives. Panoramic in its heart-stopping beauty, the song could well be one of the best the band has ever released.
McRobbie alludes to his soul in the lyrics of “Check My Heart” and later on he shows it to be in alignment with the dancehalls populated by the soul revivalists of the late ’60s. Northern soul influences shine through especially on “Wrong Light”, where a bluesy riff is accompanied by a gently throbbing Hammond organ. The track slows down the bustle of classic Northern soul, yet includes sweetened backing vocals that echo the tranquil chorus.
Elsewhere, nods to the band’s 2009 collaboration with Japanese pop practitioners Tenniscoats are identifiable on “Secret Music”, a track that revels in an ethereal, textured, folky tone; indeed, the inclusion of woodwind suits the prominent subject matter of nature. Imagery of the idyllic is referenced throughout, whether that’s “kicking leaves”, “rain on a European street” or “oakleaf flickers”.
Slow Summits is a record that seems perfectly in touch with its subject matter in a way that reminds of the music of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. It works cohesively as a set of tracks, each further illustration of an intricate whole. Unlike on second LP Sittin’ Pretty, there’s little here that is abrasive; rather, the instrumentation has a natural tone, creating a record that is quietly immersive from start to finish.
The inclusion of sweeping strings on “Kicking Leaves” seems to sum up the album, insomuch as it’s like emerging from a sixteen-year winter into the most perfect summer’s day. Like the British summer, a record from The Pastels is both a rare and beautiful thing.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
Slow Summits is out now on Domino.
For more information, please visit The Pastels’ official website.