Pastels Slow Summits

The Pastels have a new album out called “Slow Summits”. It’s their first full band release for about 16 years. They didn’t split & reform or anything like that. They’ve just been busy with other things & forgot their own stuff.  It’s a great album – warm, engaging, funny and a mixture of the expected and unexpected. But I completely lack any real objectivity when it comes to The Pastels so you should check it out for yourself. Difficult as it is for me to understand, some people just don’t get The Pastels.

The Pastels occupy a special place in my heart. They have done ever since I first heard their music sometime in the mid to late 1980s.

I can’t remember when I first heard them. Most likely I read about them before hearing them, probably in a NME article. That’s the way it happened back then. I would’ve made up my mind I liked them on the basis of reading about them and seeing a photo of them. Their conspicuous lack of rock & roll bearing in the photos – Stephen Pastel’s cardigans, duffle-coat & army-surplus anorak, Aggi, & later on Katrina, amongst the awkward boys – and descriptions of their cheerful pop amateurism captured my imagination.

Pastels 1980s

I probably first heard them on cassette tapes of radio shows mailed from a relative in Scotland. Their 1987 single “Crawl Babies” opens a taped 1987 broadcast of a ‘Rock on Scotland’ BBC Radio Scotland show. The Chills new single “I Love My Leather Jacket” follows a few songs later.

I was born in Scotland and, in three stints, spent 10 of the first 20 years of my life there. I was there when Scotland beat England 2-1 in a football match at Wembley in 1977 – a class-mate brought a glass jar to school allegedly containing a slice of Wembley turf dug up by an older brother during the post-match celebratory pitch invasion. I was there when punk (and then post-punk & New Wave) happened. Both were momentous events still recalled vividly, but it was only music’s cultural revolution that had an ongoing influence on my life.

Back in New Zealand in the 1980s I kept an interest in Scottish music. It wasn’t hard – it was all over the weekly music press for a while: ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’ – Orange Juice, Josef K, The Associates, Postcard Records, early Creation Records. And some of the recordings were either released in NZ or imported by stores like Dunedin’s Echo Records.

That probably explains why I paid attention to The Pastels. There were a lot of other Scottish bands from that mid-80s to mid-90s period I liked – Boy Hairdressers (later Teenage Fanclub), Primal Scream (in their first incarnation as a jangle-pop band), The Jasmine Minks, The Shop Assistants, The Vaselines & Jesse Garon & The Desperados. But The Pastels seemed the most ‘Dunedin’ of any of the Scottish bands somehow.

Pastels Sittin Pretty

All of this seemed to sit perfectly with things I was hearing in New Zealand at the time, particularly Dunedin bands like The Clean (then The Great Unwashed), Sneaky Feelings, The Chills, The Verlaines and The Orange and the Dunedin/ Christchurch band The Bats (who recorded half their debut album “Daddy’s Highway” in a Glasgow flat in 1986).

Last trip I made back to Scotland, in 1989, I bought “Suck on” (Our Price, Inverness) “Up for a Bit With The Pastels” (not sure where) and “Sittin’ Pretty” (Virgin Records, Edinburgh). That sustained the relationship during subsequent long periods when it seemed like The Pastels had vanished. In the days pre-internet in New Zealand it was hard to keep contact with a band once they fell off the pages of NME.
Pastels 3 albums
Five years later a compilation appeared called “Truckload of Trouble” which looked like a full-stop on their run (it wasn’t). It’s an excellent starting place to discover The Pastels yourself.

Or, you could start in 2013 with their latest album “Slow Summits” and work your way back (a few appearances on collaboration records in the past decade and “Mobile Safari” in the late 1990s).

“Slow Summits” is as light-footed and loveable as their earliest releases.  The Pastels haven’t so much aged gracefully into ‘mature indie-pop’ as just continued their distinctive character and idiosyncratic charms as an expression of where they are right now.  It’s a bit more polished perhaps (flutes, strings, orchestral arrangements in places and a crisp production thanks to Tortoise drummer John McEntire) but the songs are wonderful and the distinctive voices – Stephen’s low awkward croon and Katrina’s calm soft enchantment – are there as always. The Pastels line up has for a couple of decades now included various musicians from the Glasgow scene – notably Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Gerard Love, who were influenced and inspired by The Pastels in the 1980s. The line-up is further augmented by guests from previous collaborations too which leads the album down some interesting paths into extraordinary soundtrack instrumentals. But mostly it’s just perfect songs about the confusion of relationships and life. It still sounds as different and vital as anything they’ve done.

Read more about “Slow Summits” in an interview with Stephen here. And in another interview in which the interviewer sees a link between Glasgow, Olympia and Dunedin.