The Woodentops

Granular Tales

We live in an era defined by our predilection for nostalgia, and with that comes the inevitability of comebacks; of course – music is cyclical, we all know that now, thanks to Alex Turner’s well-meant but awkwardly sapless Brit Awards speech. And because of its "cyclical nature", never more so than the present has independent guitar-based music of the 1980s been so revived and revered – take 2013’s meticulously compiled Scared To Get Happy box set, which chronicles indie pop’s epoch and reiterates the early days of bands like Primal Scream and Prefab Sprout. Its story was one that seemed more comprehensively wrought than most of its kind, in turn inciting a new dewy-eyed nostalgia for yesteryear.

Since then we’ve seen myriad revivals from those who were seemingly forgotten, and those who are extant: twee proprietors Talulah Gosh resurfaced with the all-inclusive Was It Just A Dream? compilation, even 1986’s iconic C86 cassette is getting an extensive reworking in June. There’s also a heightened appreciation of the associated fashions and its aesthetics: Sam Knee’s A Scene In Between excavated the sartorial treasures of the era, centring the book on the various styles of bands affiliated with labels like Postcard, Creation and Sarah Records. It’s this kind of retrospection that has induced a wider appreciation of the 1980s music scene in general, and a notion that denotes to a time other than the Bananarama – esque visions most people have of the decade. Rather it’s the shambling, anorak clad revolution of the 80s – when the term indie embodied principle and meaning – that people are increasingly citing.

But while The Woodentops have always pertained to the 80s UK indie pop scene, shoving them into that bracket often seems quite tenuous; though it makes perfect sense in theory: too hedonistic to be explicitly "indie" and too idiosyncratic to be commercially viable. In terms of musical aesthetics, though, the band were more arbitrary than shambling, and when pared down to its bare bones, The Woodentops’ music is primarily pop at its purest – accessible but singular, and abound in enough eccentricities to negate the commercial guff that filled the increasingly gushy, candy-coloured landscape of the 80s.

That’s why in 2014, their first album in 26 years feels pertinent. In a time when all this seems the norm, you’d be forgiven for denouncing the band for cashing in on our thirst for the perpetual stream of 80s nostalgia, but this is a band who have never really been away in terms of influence and tangible presence. Despite attaining critical success during their pinnacle with debut album Giant, following the release of 1988’s Woodenfoot Cops On The Highway they soon ventured deeper into obscurity, but their music has always been an important footnote in indie history, and their records always heavily available – it was only recently that I bought the popular double A-side Stop This Car from a Poverty Aid in Leeds. Now, their name is likely to elude the unfamiliar, but they remain cult favourites amongst proponents of the era.

Granular Tales is knowingly and effectively contradicting: there’s a juxtaposition of styles at play – from the genteel introspection of opener ‘A Little More Time’ to the conflictingly emphatic, perhaps irritatingly catchy ‘Conversations’ – their trajectory has shifted slightly, but they remain pleasingly genre-defiant. Often credited with leading the indie/dance crossover, it’s their reluctance to be strictly one thing that makes them continuously relevant, in the same way Talking Heads and Devo – both of which are oblique influences on the band – rarely sound outmoded outside of cautiously formulated mainstream radio playlists.

There’s a sense here that these songs, like their previous studio full-lengths, would benefit eminently from a live environment. It’s not until you hear something like Hypno Beat Live that you’re able to capture the true essence of The Woodentops: they are primarily a live band; an indie band that encourages you to dance. The frantic energy that is so palpable on their previous two albums might be lacking, but their visceral approach to making interesting, multi-genre pop music remains unchanged.

Granular Tales is not without its flaws, but perfection isn’t necessarily what makes a good album. For every momentary lapse – such as the marginally outdated ‘Smokin’ – is a track like ‘Third Floor Rooftop High’ to counteract any blemishes; instrumentally primitive, its rich, ebullient melodies is what endeared us to the band in the first place, yet they’ve cautiously veered from recreating former glories; songs sound less frenetic and their rockabilly influences are lightly indicated but eschewed in favour of more down-beat, contemplative rhythms, with lyrics remaining similarly tender. The band might be renowned for their unlikely Balearic associations, and although at times musically hedonistic, have never been averse to lyrical introspection. The most notable element that still exists within The Woodentops’ typical aesthetic is their extensive use of polyrhythms, evinced in the percussively driven ‘A Pact’, while Rolo McGinty’s gruff, authoritative refrain remains one of few familiar constants.

What’s more, Granular Tales is not a product of the 1980’s; although it retains some of what we have come to know and love about The Woodentops, it belongs to the present day. The band’s influence on music is indelible but sadly and undeservedly overlooked. It’s not likely to secure their place in the history books, but they will continue to be cult favourites, ever-present in our subconscious. Above all, it’s reaffirmed The Woodentops’ understated, vibrant and vital brilliance. Long may it continue.

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