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The Pastels
Slow Summits Ryan Foley , May 29th, 2013 11:29

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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.

Yet here they are, releasing Slow Summits, the first studio album since 1997's Illumination and only the fifth overall since debuting with Songs For Children back in 1982. The Pastels have surprisingly persisted, navigating through three decades of cultural and industry change. When fledgling artists loaded 500 copies of their freshly-pressed 7" into the boot of dad's Austin Maxi, zipped down to London, and doled out copies to neighborhood record shops, fanzine creators with Pritt-stained fingertips, ghoulish wordsmiths from weekly music papers, and - if the courage could be mustered - the ever-subversive John Peel, the Pastels were there. And when the term indie no longer identified a subculture that was willingly and stubbornly disparate and became a brand name for artists who were commercially appealing yet masqueraded as being pure and marginalized, the Pastels were there.

The Pastels persist - and at the same time, forever delay any sort of widespread acceptance largely on account of their frontman. Stephen Pastel can be a polarizing figure - as much as a gentle-mannered, mussy-haired, eternally-fresh-faced frontman is capable of being polarizing. Similar to 80s indie pop contemporaries who emerged during the tail end of punk (Television Personalities, Beat Happening, the Vaselines), Pastel mimicked that movement's raw energy, but did so by swapping anger for melancholy, social skirmishes for personal struggles, confrontation for rumination. The timidity and gawkiness that he ducked behind, as well as his willingness to play the role of the casual wallflower, slyly drew attention to both himself and his music. (I'm reminded of a quote from Peanuts creator Charles Schulz: "I suppose I'm the worst kind of egotist: the kind who pretends to be humble.") Pastel never took himself seriously - or acknowledged just how determined and industrious he really was - because such an admission would have sabotaged his ability to pointedly contrast his itty-bitty, flyspeck self with the vast and ever-cold universe. In a way, it was Pastel asserting his presence by going unseen. It was clever, really, but many listeners were understandably turned off. (And let's be frank: Pastel's trembling, tuneless vocals and overly self-conscious lyrics didn't help.)

On the other hand, if Pastel's approach made your hair stand on end or your knees wobble or your mouth turn dry just once then you were eternally hooked. Artists who are adept at chronicling life's brief epiphanies and stabbing regrets, who speak on their own behalf yet convince listeners they are hearing their own personal inner voice - artists who sound so inescapably human - always seem to attract the most committed and fanatical following.

Which brings us to Slow Summits, an album that isn't as immediately arresting as previous releases yet is still honest and spirited. Sixteen years of dormancy has done nothing to dull the Pastels' emotional sharpness, even if the entire effort feels a tad cautious.

The first thing listeners may detect is Stephen Pastel's conspicuous absence. (While they possibly notice the glut of other musicians: Katrina Mitchell, Tom Crossley, Gerard Love, Alison Mitchell, John Hogarty, original member Annabel Wright, Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake, To Rococo Rot's Stefan Schneider and Ronald Lippok, and Tenniscoats' Saya and Takashi Ueno.) The album features a pair of instrumentals and four other tracks sung by Mitchell, the group's longtime drummer and vocalist. She smolders with passion on opener 'Secret Music', delivering her vocals in a tender whisper. On 'Kicking Leaves', elegiac violins and watery guitar serve as the backdrop to Mitchell's straightforward pleas: "When we're standing still at the head of the hill / Won't you kiss me? / Won't you kiss me?"

Mitchell and Pastel share the limelight on 'Check My Heart', an energetic number featuring bouncy rhythm guitar and drums. Pastel is at his most candid and clever: "I was my own black hole / You shine a light in my soul / I wanted a lifetime not just a fall-in-your-arms." On 'Night Time Made Us', Pastel sounds just as devoted, though his words have a bit less bite ("I move into / The rapture of you"), the scenes slightly hackneyed ("I walk through my favorite cemetery").

'Summer Rain' is Pastel's most poignant number on Slow Summits. In between frequent evocations of the song's title, Pastel sings of touching his beloved through their clothes, of holding them close. Then he tosses in some murky imagery - broken lights, tennis courts choked with leaves and dust - before getting so honest it will elicit a cringe: "Nothing will save us / From us."

It's a reminder of how Pastel's best work is always equal parts sweet and sour, of how his most genuine declarations of feeling perfectly summarise life's most awkward and alluring moments. Slow Summits doesn't rank with the Pastels' best work, but it will subtly remind the group's committed, fanatical following of why they fell in love in the first place.

Ellen McGillicuddy
May 29, 2013 5:29pm

A lot of words, lad, about the little nothing that is this album. No reason ** anyone ** should care, or listen, except at least it's not motherfucking high gloss banality like National or Savages. Still, to pretend Mr. Pastele has anything to say or the tools to communicate as composer is just silly. We'd all be better served with well-done reissue "Sittin' Pretty" from 1989... Mind you too, I think Monorail is a fine store but being an ace stockist does not a compelling musical career make.

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May 29, 2013 5:30pm

THESE are quotable lyrics?!??! What pish! "I was my own black hole / You shine a light in my soul / I wanted a lifetime not just a fall-in-your-arms."

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May 29, 2013 9:56pm

In reply to :

You shine a lot in my hole/ I lick your arse like a bowl/ I'm wasted in Dunferline smoking pot with a whore

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survivalbag
May 29, 2013 10:47pm

What about the track that Craig Armstrong did the strings on? Any good?

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May 30, 2013 11:03am

Sadly, nothing about this record is good. 16 years to make a 6th rate ersatz Bacharach lite rock album? And one without Hal David lyrics? At least a knucklehead like Elvis Costello gets his shit over with quick, in and out and on to the next tedious failed dead horse resurrection. The Pasties are cock teasing a nation of dozens for what? At least offer us a 10% coupon at the store, Stephen!!!

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May 30, 2013 11:36am

I love this album. Kicking Leaves is the song with the Craig Armstrong arrangement and it, like the rest of the album is just a joy. Warm, human, beautiful. The only two things I would say are that I wish it were a bit longer - 9 tracks after a 16 year wait seems a bit stingy - and I'm not sure if I prefer the version of the title track to the one on the Marc Riley session a couple of years back.
I don't really understnd what the writer is trying to get at in paragraph 3 of the review. To accuse SP of having some kind of Machiavellian plan seems absurd; he's always struck me as being a genuine and honest man. I'm also rather surprised to hear of the anger and 'social skirmishes' in the music of Beat Happening, The Vaselines and the majority of the TVP's output. I don't care if the author is ambivalent about the new LP but at least criticise the music rather than some perceived character flaw in one of it's creators.

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May 30, 2013 2:43pm

Initial reaction: it is the best Pastels record. It cuts deepest - it's human, flawed, amazing. Kind of depressing to see so much snideness on such a great site but not the first time.

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May 30, 2013 4:22pm

In reply to :

Leaving aside the Pestilence, Beat Happening is ** all ** about sublimated violence and sex sex sex sex... Calvin Johnson's schtick worked too, but all the time and there are few things more petulant than a cocksman scorned.

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May 30, 2013 4:25pm

Hard to get too worked over this damp squib of an album either way. If we'd waited another 16 years our lives would be no less. It's clear Stephen has nothing to say at this point, musically or lyrically... which is FINE, though it would have been better to quit while the musical cock was still twitching in it's musical half-life... If you guys want to hear some strong POP with orchestral leanings, check out BELL GARDENS, recent LP on the Southern label many of you would enjoy.

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May 30, 2013 5:56pm

In reply to :

"Kind of depressing to see so much snideness on such a great site but not the first time."

Totally agree. Interesting how the snide remarks on here are written in a similar style to each other (note the elipses...). It comes across like someone has some kind of personal grudge.

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James Reid
May 31, 2013 10:39am

In reply to :

Yes, I've noticed this recently too. Increasingly so.

Never mind, it's probably a disgruntled ex-BMX Bandit with an axe to grind. :)

I should add that I'm quite disappointed with this review - it's The Pastel's 1st "proper" album in a decade-&-a-half, & they've changed an awful lot in the intervening years. I expected something more substantial from The Quietus, to be honest.

p.s. It's a lovely album, & I'll be playing little else for the next few weeks.

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John Doran
May 31, 2013 11:27am

In reply to James Reid:

More substantial than a 900 word feature, coming after a 4,000 word feature, the week before a Baker's Dozen feature with Stephen which runs to another 2,500 words.

How much coverage do you think Mojo or NME will run do you reckon?

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Poison Ivy Compton-Burnett
May 31, 2013 3:15pm

In reply to John Doran:

Regardless of one's positive or negative or neutral opinion of this album, I do think the Quietus has been more than generous in its coverage, which if not approaching Bowie/Savages/Blue Oyster Cult (that's what BOC is yes?) levels, has certainly been ample and, I daresay, more than such a relative non-event deserves on musical merit alone. I understand the Pastels have totemic anti-hero value for some but that's no reason to inflate either their significance or the achievement what is a very middling-album (or "pop symphony" if you must and never heard the Beach Boys.)

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John Doran
May 31, 2013 5:17pm

In reply to Poison Ivy Compton-Burnett:

No reason not to either. We cover music in as much or as little depth as we see fit. We'll either be slammed for doing what everyone else is doing or for being too obscure amongst the commentariat, yet the massive proportion of silent readers grows and grows so I'm guessing we're doing something right.

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James Reid
May 31, 2013 6:46pm

In reply to John Doran:

Yes, that was an excellent interview with The Pastels that you featured a few weeks ago (thank you)

All I was suggesting above was that, considering Slow Summits is their first full album in a decade & a half, & that The Pastels are a band that have been generally held in very high regard for many years, I would've personally appreciated it if the review spent more time discussing the LP's contents than in giving a precis of their career.

You're probably right - Mojo will dismiss it with a cursory paragraph & the NME will overlook it entirely.

Apologies for bothering to leave a comment, I'll remain part of your "massive silent readership" in future.

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May 31, 2013 7:44pm

In reply to James Reid:

yeah i totally agree with that, the baker's dozen and pastel interviews were both engaging, thoughtful pieces so, thanks, and given those, i'm not irked that the lp got a lukewarm notice. But I'd rather it were a brief indifferent review than padded out with a rather cliched bit of overlong typing about their early years, anorak fetish etc etc. anyway, slow summits is a rare and precious gem.

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Jun 1, 2013 11:19am

In reply to :

The Baker's Dozen piece isn't out yet, is it?

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John Doran
Jun 1, 2013 11:40am

In reply to :

No. It'll definitely be up next week but not sure which day.

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Jun 1, 2013 7:45pm

In reply to James Reid:

James, with all respect, aren't making the opposite argument with the evidence you cite? Unless one is a Pastels superfan-- and even then it's questionable-- the less said about this album is perhaps the better. Dilettantism can only get you so far and whoever above called this imitation Bacharach rock was correct. Truly, there's nothing more compelling to this album than Stephen et al felt any compulsion to finish it. I daresay if someone were to do a track-by-track review of this album the final result would displease its few admirers even more. In a world with a few Pastels records of far greater urgency and accomplishment, and in a world where Dusty Springfield still covers Goffin/King "Wasn't Born To Follow," why would I recommend this tired albeit precious bit of careering? We don't judge these things on a sliding scale, mate!! DUSTY FOREVER--

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bh_DoIXec-Q

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Jun 1, 2013 9:45pm

In reply to :

yeah, "the less said about this album the better" is certainly what i got from this review, loud and clear, all 900 joyless words of it. Inspiring stuff. The record in contrast, is lean and sparkling.

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Nathan
Jun 3, 2013 10:02am

In reply to :

Jeez, all the haters (or should that be hater)are irritating. They may have stopped using elipses but the irritating smug and semi-unreadable style remains as do the bizarre derogatory and ridiculously misplaced references to other artists. As someone else said, there does seem to be some kind of personal and bitter grudge against Stephen and the band going on here.
I think that this is a gorgeous record, up there with their best; it sounds like a record that only The Pastels could make.

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