Release Date: May 28, 2013
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Pop
In the 16 years that elapsed since the Pastels' last full album, 1997's Illumination, they stayed busy with collaborative projects (2009's Two Sunsets made with Tenniscoats), soundtracks (2003's The Last Great Wilderness), and real life (Stephen Pastel established a record shop, Monorail, in Glasgow). During that time, the group's two core members (Stephen and Katrina) gathered many similarly minded musicians (including Gerard Love and multi-instrumentalist Tom Crossley) and slowly changed the way they approached their music. While still extremely melodic and based in pop structures, the (sporadic) work they did over those years grew warmer and more peaceful, the arrangements blossoming into tapestries with each inch filled with voices and instruments.
“Indie” has become a dirty word. Once all sensitive subversion and knowing naughtiness, now, rumour has it, they have “indie” bands at the Olympics. Welcome back, then, The Pastels. The elder statesfolk of British independent music have returned, perhaps not as indie superheroes to rid the world of crimes against guitars, but to remind us of what we’ve been missing.
First things first: The Pastels have never made a bad record. Rewind as far back to 1982's Songs For Children EP and it's difficult to find fault with that or anything they've recorded since. While some might recoil in horror at the shambolic nature of their recordings, particularly during those formative years, there's always been a naive charm associated with the Glaswegian group that's ensured their evolution into indie pop legends.
If we're being technical about things, it's been 16 years since the Pastels released a proper full-length. In that time, the Scottish indie pop legends recorded a soundtrack for a film called The Last Great Wilderness and released a split album with Japanese duo Tenniscoats. With their scrappy indie pop days long behind them, anyone familiar with the band's most recent releases shouldn't be too surprised by what Slow Summits has to offer.
Scottish indie band the Pastels' core members, Katrina Mitchell and Stephen McRobbie, are a graphic designer and a librarian, respectively. Do you consider yourself a regular person with no superhuman skill just trying to carve out a happy corner of the world? You could be a Pastel. Their albums-- from the scrappy noise-pop of 1987's Up For a Bit with the Pastels or 1989's Sittin Pretty, through the subtle, atmospheric sounds of 1997's Illumination-- are almost defiantly intimate.
The 1980s is a decade which most remember as tied up with the monstrous Thatcher-Reagan office, decadent electro, rampant consumerism and unfortunate hairstyles. An actual handful of people will remember it for C86: The sub-genre born from indie to become guitar music’s wimpier, NHS bespectacled sibling. Emblematic of this movement were The Pastels, a Glaswegian ensemble led by Stephen McRobbie with a neat line in sweetly wry jangle pop.
The Scottish group the Pastels is an integral piece of the indie-pop puzzle, influencing UK and American bands of the last couple decades, including some of the last few years. But they have always done a lot of different things at once, been more eclectic than their devotees perhaps. That was true from their start in the early ‘80s. They put cute melodies into rough, noisy detours.
Orange Juice, The Shop Assistants, Close Lobsters, Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura; the list could keep going. For the last 30 years, the Scots have been primary players in a particularly wistful piece of the musical landscape, whether you care to call it indie pop, shambling, anorak, or twee. Scotland's rich musical line can be read about at length elsewhere, but we'll try to sum it up: indie pop is one of Scotland's most precious musical exports, and much of its current prominence can point back to The Pastels.
Glasgow’s The Pastels were one of the better bands to emerge from the Scottish indie-pop scene of the 1980s and the NME’s now-legendary C86 mixtape – though C86 and the associated ‘twee’ genre are labels the band has never really been that comfortable with. Slow Summits is their first album in 16 years, and unfortunately for fans of the band’s sweetly abrasive, jangly ’80s output, this new record very much picks up where 1997’s Illumination left off. Here are nine songs of inoffensive, syrupy indie-pop that are essentially the musical equivalent of a lukewarm bath followed by a cup of weak tea and an early night.
The usual misconception about long-standing acts that continue to release new material long after they peaked is that they either write in a more sophisticated vein or they begin to mellow out. Though The Pastels fall under these two categories, they’re actually in a position where they have nothing to lose. The C86 trailblazers are one of the few who managed to outlive that eponymous cassette, yet inevitably became the kind of band that gets constantly name-dropped by both established and newcomers alike without any celebrated panache.
People had very firm opinions on the Pastels in their 1980s heyday. For their (gently) pathologically devoted fans, the Glasgow indie cult heroes were natural heirs to Orange Juice, purveyors of some of the sweetest, most winsome sounds around. For their more vociferous detractors, the mop-topped, charity shop-jacketed Stephen Pastel was the quintessential twee drip.
It’s a slow climb to the top, and The Pastels know that. Gradually perfecting their gloom-pop since the early ’80s, the Glasgow outfit helped catapult fellow Scottish bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Vaselines, but never claimed their own stake in the mainstream. Even despite the fact that they’ve been creating nostalgia-driven pop for years, making them an evident precursor to today’s trend of self-deprecating indie pop — at least as much as Morrissey was.
Consider the Pastels' early days, the sporadic and awkward initial singles for Whaam!, Rough Trade, and Creation, that air of not-giving-a-fugh - they were immature, ambitious to be unambitious, prone to misplaying chords, positively glacial when it came to the songwriting/recording process. "Hearing our early stuff reminds me of what an effete 20-year-old I was," frontman Stephen Pastel (nee McRobbie) once confessed. Few acts seemed less capable of longevity.
Go back a few years, back through the mists of time into the mid-late 1980s/early 1990s, and you’d find a Glaswegian group who to many almost became shorthand for the shambling guitar-pop prevalent at the time – singing, as they did, exuberant songs about trucks, trains and tractors. Before we should go any further it ought to be noted that anyone looking for the same Pastels should look elsewhere, for those days have long gone. Instead, as a matter of factual accuracy, their recent history deserves a mention, for it’s included film soundtracks, theatre commissions and a collaboration with Japanese band The Tenniscoats.
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.