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The Pastels - Slow Summits

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Artist: The Pastels

Album: Slow Summits

Label: Domino

Review date: May. 23, 2013

The Pastels - “Check My Heart”

The video for “Check My Heart” starts with young girls shimmying, lost in the sun-through-showers lyricism of The Pastels’ first single in 16 years. Hedonism gives way, a little later in the film, to a more studied air, as band members flip through stacks of old vinyl. The video is kind of perfect in the way it encapsulates The Pastels’ appeal, half blind pleasure and half knowing reference. The band is history, one of the main instigators of a Scottish pop scene documented on the NME’s C86 cassette, but the past sits very lightly on its fifth studio album, Slow Summits. No pressed flowers here drily document past glories. These songs are fresh, ephemeral beauties, still beaded with dew.

The Pastels formed in the early 1980s, learning instruments on the job and — like Beat Happening and The Modern Lovers — valuing emotional expressiveness over musical prowess. Noisy early singles like “Crawl Babies” gave way to jangly pop tunes (‘I’m Alright with You”) and rough-edged ballads (the gorgeous C86 entry “Breaking Lines”), as The Pastels came to be associated with an “anorak” pop movement that spliced the Velvet Underground’s fuzzy drone to girl group, Motown and post-punk, all filtered through a doe-eyed, amateur-embracing lens.

Slow Summits reconvenes the late-1980s songwriting duo of Stephen McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell. Their voices — Mitchell’s warm and full of pop buoyance, McRobbie’s flatter, wryer and more melancholy — express the band’s shifting emotional palette, which can turn from joy to heartache in an invisible instant. They are joined by former band members and frequent collaborators Aggi Wright, Gerard Love and Tom Crossley.

During the years between albums, The Pastels have experimented with film soundtracks and theatrical accompaniment, an experience that prodded them toward more elaborate arrangements. Even the more indie-rock songs feature Crossley’s flute and occasional string and horn arrangements. The instrumental “Slowly Taking Place” sounds like a jazzy 1960s movie soundtrack (or possibly Stereolab), with its bossa nova rhythms, its surging brass and its flickering flute lines.

The music is a lot more accomplished here than on, say, Up for a Bit, but still loose, unpremeditated and a little bit straggly. McRobbie explained in a recent interview with The Quietus, “Within our music we tried to reflect a community spirit of musicians playing together in a room and the negotiated sound and mistakes of people playing together with different levels of ability. We go for quite a warm and imperfect sound.” He added that, although everyone involved has gotten more proficient at their instruments, the band is, intentionally, no closer to a virtuoso sound. “There is a struggle in what we are technically capable of and the type of music we want to make now. The kind of music we play isn’t particularly complicated but it is at the limit of our capabilities.”

The Pastels, then, are as charmingly amateurish as ever, but at a higher level. Songs like “Summer Rain” with their droning organs, their casually strummed guitars, their wavery, just-over-a-murmur vocals, their rickety drum rhythms are perfect because of their flaws. They are fresh, because The Pastels are still working through the knots, trying on this or that idea, and making pristine pop sound both effortless and a little beyond us all.

By Jennifer Kelly

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