A memory to begin. May 2008, I was a bit of a state. Family reasons. And as part of Stirling’s Le Weekend festival The Pastels played a set which was at once too much for me, and exactly what I needed. Stephen introduced a new song with an anecdote about graffiti in a Bearsden cemetery, and sang about ‘aeroplanes in the summertime’, the band building to a glorious melody on trumpet and flute underpinned by a rhythm at once dense and free, triggering echoes of Curtis Mayfield. At the time I wrote that it was
not only a new song, but a new Stephen song, and a new Stephen song about friendship at that. There is no better kind of song, if you were wondering.
This was ‘Night Time Made Us’, the second song on Slow Summits. On record it has more space to it, flitting between a sunlit and a neon glow, and lyrics I hadn’t caught previously: ‘In the shade of my parents’ house I can always see the world slowing into me’. So he was thinking of his family too. It’s even a bit Proustian: his memory of his parents’ house became my memory of my grandparents’ as I listened, and that’s the point of it, that a personal memory can translate to an equivalent in the listener, and create a connection. The song moves from day to night and gets more fun as it goes on: ‘Night-time colours are so cool / I wanted to be somewhere with you’. This kind of shift is typical of the record, which, says Stephen, contrasts ‘day and night, city and countryside, calmness, the wild moment’. Because there’s magic in all of them.
‘Secret Music’ is the opener, the eye opener, the heart opener, still as beautiful as when it premiered at a festival of German electronic music in Glasgow, backed by To Rococo Rot, who add rippling electronic caresses to the recorded version, too. Its palette is night or twilight, city, calm; it’s raining, the day is done, it’s time to go inside. The line ‘Park your car outside and be discreet’ always makes me think of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it’s no tale of infidelity, more of withdrawal from the bright whirl of the public world into a ‘dark and unclear’ private space, where there is no rush, no showing off. But there is music. ‘Can you sing a song quietly?’ is the challenge. If you can, come on in.
There’s more than one way to sing a song quietly, though, and the big surprise with Slow Summits is that it goes in for a spontaneous-sounding warmth over the calmer beauty of Illumination and 2009’s Tenniscoats collaboration Two Sunsets. Stephen’s ‘Summer Rain’ owes something to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Who Loves the Sun?’, but its circular illogic is all his own: it’s about how people — two people — are always the same, always different, irreducible. Commonplace scene setting details are listed (a window, a broken light, an ill-kempt tennis court), but ‘nothing will save us from us’. It’s a riddle, fond but moody, a double-negative tease which comes around to a positive without ever having to actually say so. In its second half the song breaks into a one-chord shower of flute, xylophone and pitch-wheel synth over a propulsive outro beat. Then the album turns, delicately, through the calm of instrumental ‘After Image’, all slow dub effects, and takes us to ‘Kicking Leaves’, which works as Katrina’s response to the call of ‘Summer Rain’. Craig Armstrong’s string arrangement sways in the ‘November freeze’ and a woodblock echoes, evoking the warmth of the cold months. ‘There’s a drawing of you with your eyelashes black on your cheek, you’re asleep’, it’s as romantic as The Pastels have ever been – swirling, affectionate, free and easy.
Stephen’s ‘Wrong Light’, a heavy-lidded nocturne, picks up a theme from ‘Secret Music’ and ‘Night Time Made Us’, of darkness as artificial, neon, magic; a place for friendships to spark. It’s quite cryptic lyrically, but seems to make a link between integrity and the shadows, which I like. Is the ‘wrong’ light sunshine? Or just any light too bright to allow concealment, subtlety? It feels like a manifesto, but one which doesn’t want to give too much away. The title track is the album’s (instrumental, expansive) climax, but whereas the live version grows and grows, on record it hits you over the head before reeling itself in, taking a more exploratory course via some Morricone-esque flute and hand claps. Which ease it in to the brief, luminous finale ‘Come to the Dance’, another manifesto: ‘Don’t forget boldness / Never roll your eyes / Energise / Think / Be kind’. Yeah, OK. I’ll try. It’s one of two Katrina songs here which remind me of her pre-Pastels recordings with Melody Dog. Not that there is any return to that band’s endearingly wayward percussion (Slow Summits is rhythmically very rich), but she sings with a joy and a swagger which makes you glad to be alive. The other song is ‘Check My Heart’, the biggest brightest pop song, a natural single, a duet and a duel, a three chord rollercoaster which will light up 2013 much as the Olympics did 2012. After all this time — and many great diversions — the follow-up to Illumination is here: vivid and concise, in love with sound, in love with life, and ready to save us from us.
Chris Fox, Dundee 2013