Saturday, April 10, 2010

Let's hear it for the girls

Do you remember the Summer Of Spector? Well, no you don't, unless you recall all the minutiae and pointless order making of Sweeping The Nation history, and not even we do that. For what it's worth, Summer Of Spector was a title we gave to the summer of 2006, when a lot of our favourite records of the moment had deliberate hints of wall of sound production and girl group aesthetics. It was the summer of Camera Obscura's widescreen breakthrough Let's Get Out Of This Country, El Perro Del Mar dredging through heartbreak and melancholia in minor key romanticism based on huge dynamics and analogue-sounding production values and the Pipettes locating the molten spot between knowing kitsch nouveau (dress code, video based on Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls) and indie pop modernity. Meanwhile, although they wouldn't release their debut album until early the following year, a little band based in Greenwich with big plans was making a splash with 7" nuggets of kitchen sink melodrama. Lucky Soul looked the part, sounded the part on a self-financed budget and were taking the retro girl pop span of Dustys, Sandies and Ronnies and shoehorning into a modish (and mod-ish) pop frame.

Four years on Camera Obscura have taken huge steps to the precipice of wider acceptance, El Perro Del Mar is channelling Brian Wilson, the Pipettes are channelling Baccara and Lucky Soul... well, there's a tale. The self-financed The Great Unwanted, for all its critical acclaim, didn't become the expected sleeper sales hit even as those that came after them with much the same records to tout - Amy and Duffy and all points east - took the sound and made it easy money for major label A&Rs, nearly bringing the accidental irony to Andrew Laidlaw's declaration "We’re never going to be out of fashion, because we’ve never been in it". Meanwhile, Laidlaw ended up dossing in the band's rehearsal space. Still, such determination to prove their own ground in terms of pop melodies with a hint of Sixties pizzazz dragged through assorted stylistic nods and a great dollop of production gleam has led to A Coming Of Age, released April 19th. So confident are they that not only did they turn down a production offer from Tony Visconti, but it's a main bullet point in the press release.

Whether Visconti would have added much is moot - his most recent high profile work, the Manics' Lifeblood and Morrissey's Ringleader Of The Tormentors, could best be described as latter day discography filler - but having lived for so long with The Great Unwanted, our seventh favourite album of '07, which felt like its title, a me and occasionally you against the world clarion call, it can take time to get used to the glossier feel. The emotional troughs seem more obviously signposted, the interplay is more smoothed over and we're becoming overfed with jaunty melodies against downbeat words. It's not that difficult to do. Undeniably, however, it's an album designed as much for the dancefloor as the heart, more so than its predecessor. It's there with paper change in the two singles, the huge glam Stax and quadrillion hooks of Woah Billy! and the Smiths-in-Motown (and the Smiths themselves hinted at that a couple of times not as successfully as here) of White Russian Doll. Up In Flames is Wigan Casino dragged over some very rocky ground with clever strings and four to the floor stomp shrouding Ali Howard's bittersweet appeal. Following on from the earlier command of brittle but huge balladry, the title track and Could be I Don't Belong Anywhere pack a cinematic, grandstanding sway with Brian Wilson's favoured string section making Bond theme grandiose statements, the former in exactly three minutes.

What is new, at least to us outsiders, to the Lucky Soul palette is an autumnal sophistication which isn't so much post-modern pastiche as reshaping the influences that others might wear more openly. Howard's little young woman lost is pretty much spot on for this sort of thing, an audible shimmer even as what she brings to the lyrical darkness ("sentiments that make Leonard Cohen look like Miley Cyrus" says that same press release - now come on, you know that's not true) burrows into the core. While not everything comes off with her vocal style there's just as many moments where she seems born to vocalise, say, Love³, an approximation of Booker T & the MG's working the Grand Ol' Opry. That song and Upon Hilly Fields, a fine countrified vibrato on, yeah, heartache and regret with twanging guitar solo to go, suggest an interesting diversion from soul plan A. For now, though, it's clear this is no band restricting themselves to indie ambitions, which might wrongfoot with its renewed slickness at first but could ultimately never ride a bike through a supermarket swigging Diet Coke when it could be sitting with a Jack and Coke on the fire escape stairs of Studio 54.

Lucky Soul - Woah Billy! from Ruffa Lane on Vimeo.

They didn't cross our radar until the tail end of 2007, but by that summer of all our hearts The School were active if only as a Loves side project (Simon Love played with them for a while and makes the odd reappearance, not least as loose cannon utility member at Indietracks last year) Since then there's been an ever changing lineup, currently acting as an octet (and when you've seen all eight, two keyboards and all, fit onto Leicester Firebug's tiny stage as we did last month you've really seen teamwork in action), and their own debut, Loveless Unbeliever, has been on the way for what seems an age and still doesn't land, via Elefant, until 7th June. Their frontwoman and songwriter Liz Hunt is fascinatingly anti-archetype, relatively diffident on stage - she does have a keyboard to play, in fairness - but similarly blessed with an ability to spotweld hooks and harmonies that are at once timeless and modern sounding. Admittedly some of them sail close to being other people's - the lingua franca of the retrospective, Kirsty Maccoll's They Don't Know, is invoked at least twice - but the overall vibe is bulletproof in its fully admitted invocation of style, Ronettes by way of Heavenly, Camera Obscura were they the underachievers, a much better suggestion of a girl group than Stuart Murdoch ever came up with in that thing he did. Indie in the old form of the word used to be about this, where the sixties met the hairclipped and fanzined, coloured Sarah 7"s of airy female singers who believed in themselves with any air of apologia offset by the joy of the thing. Two tracks feature castanets prominently. Obviously joy isn't totally unconfined, there's more than a hint of the lovelorn and broken hearted self-pitying am-dram here too, but it's hard not to spend the 37 minutes swooning in reverie. It's guileless pop that insists on its own terms even when utilising someone else's.

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