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Album Of The Week

Party Politics: International Teachers Of Pop
Patrick Clarke , February 7th, 2019 07:39

Grim times breed great music, but not the kind that you might think. All those po-faced lads, sweating and grimacing their way through dreary derivative ‘political’ indie rock, are false prophets. If any band has a useful response to our current predicaments, it is these daft-as-fuck pop geniuses

front page photo: Duncan Stafford

International Teachers of Pop is the project of Adrian Flanagan, Dean Honer and Leonore Wheatley, with the addition of Katie Mason for their live shows. Flanagan and Honer are the creative force behind The Eccentronic Research Council, The Moonlandingz and more, while Wheatley and Mason are best friends and flatmates, and Wheatley is a member of The Soundcarriers. Unlike Flanagan and Honer’s previous projects, there is no explicit grand concept to this record, no mythmaking or complex narrative like The Moonlandingz’ semi-fictional adventures in Valhalladale. The International Teachers Of Pop’s debut record is a straight-up solid pop record from the North of England, nothing more and nothing less.

The Teachers’ brilliance is in how they make this record so utterly inspiring. They treat fun as if it were the most important emotion in the world. They find ten thousand times more depth in joy than all those indie rockers combined could ever find in heartbreak or Brexit. Their live shows are daft as fuck, with Wheatley and Mason performing goofy synchronised dance moves, rehearsed in their lounge, and singing songs about train delays and why Wheatley’s cat refuses to be cuddled. It’s like if the Human League’s Joanne and Susan had staged a coup on Phil Oakey. Their gigs are also infinitely more fun than being barged in the spine in the mosh pit at a Shame gig.

For all their dabbling in the esoteric corners of electronic music, by god can Flanagan and Honer thread a glorious, pumping pop tune. With The Moonlandingz they proved that when they turn their hands to rock music, great things happen; the same is true with pop music here. The record opens with a wicked slap in the face, the searing, relentless thrust of ‘After Dark’, then follows it up with a straight-up banger, ‘The Ballad Of Remedy Nilsson’. It’s a one-two punch to set the scene perfectly: irresistible, accessible, unforgettable pop music. Wheatley is fantastic at the helm of these racing hits, never outdone by their momentum. Her lyrics, written on the countless train journeys to Sheffield from her native Manchester, are imbued with their own idiosyncrasies, and are every bit as vital to the band’s deeply individual aesthetic.

Writing songs like this is deceptively hard. Repeated listens reveal layers of texture and the kind of deft, subtle twists of momentum that could only be accomplished by outliers in their field. This album is direct and head-on, but after a while you begin to realise that the way it flows is quite astonishing. There’s no track on here with a phenomenal chorus but a forgettable verse: every element is tailored to suit everything around it. They know exactly when to lay on the texture, with mazes of modular synth that weave in and out of each other, and exactly when to take it away. They can shift your emotion with brilliant subtlety, and you can shift from the hectic, pulsing grooves of ‘Time For The Seasons’ to the ethereal, sparkling drift of ‘She Walks In Beauty’ without even noticing how much everything has changed. Everything here is inflected with the same distinct worldview, but explored in a myriad of ways, from the heavy, almost industrial drive of ‘Age Of The Train’ to the wonky, drifting waltz of ‘Oh Yosemite’.

The way they move through the record feels almost dreamlike, but the way they move through each song feels meticulously well-crafted, full of flourishes that are never less than perfectly placed. Take ‘On Repeat’, for example, which follows ‘Remedy’. On the surface, it’s just another excellent pop song, laced with a hint of melancholy, but listen closely and you’ll hear a frantic arpeggio whizzing underneath the delicate main melody. These duelling synth lines race in tandem until just the right second, when they’re taken away to leave just a sparse rhythm and the occasional jab of squelching synth. Then the band unleash a quick, skyrocketing rush to the heavens, and bring everything straight back down in a flash; forever in total control. Over it all Wheatley is unhurried and commanding at the reins as she sings the marching refrain. Listening to the track is an ecstatic and blissful experience, but take a look over your shoulder and you’ll see a pop song that’s been slaved over, whittled to perfection. You can extend that to any song on the record, to the dreamy ‘Praxis Makes Prefect’ or the gleaming disco-noir of ‘Love Girl’.

It is the kind of album you can listen to 1000 times, and on every single play a new intricacy will be revealed. The mark of genius is that despite this it never feels overburdened or complex. It is, put simply, an extremely ace pop record. Wheatley’s writing, too, demands analysis that goes beyond the surface level. She has a way of writing about simple subject matter – a delayed train or an inscrutable feline – with a brilliant turn of phrase: “Another argument like the puncture scar I have in my right knee / a sobering event like the antibiotics I had on my birthday.” She doesn’t try to find some kind of bullshit meaning in the banal, but rather finds a way to incorporate it into the record’s overarching aesthetic. She knows exactly when to repeat a simple refrain that compels us to dance, and exactly when to wander off into a daydream.

It might be tempting to label International Teachers Of Pop escapist, but that does them a deep disservice. This is a deeply English-sounding record, and a clear product of a country that’s sinking further into despair; just because they don’t make some lame attempt to capture our complex national decline, that doesn’t mean they’re burying their heads in the sand. The joy on this record is a defiant one, a call to dance in the face of depression, in the knowledge that though nothing can be fixed, we can still have an excellent time when we all get together. ‘After Dark’ begins the record with an invocation – you’re fed up, it tells us, but the Teachers Of Pop are having a party.