Glasgow’s The Pastels were one of the better bands to emerge from the Scottish indie-pop scene of the 1980s and the NME’s now-legendary C86 mixtape – though C86 and the associated ‘twee’ genre are labels the band has never really been that comfortable with. Slow Summits is their first album in 16 years, and unfortunately for fans of the band’s sweetly abrasive, jangly ’80s output, this new record very much picks up where 1997’s Illumination left off.
Here are nine songs of inoffensive, syrupy indie-pop that are essentially the musical equivalent of a lukewarm bath followed by a cup of weak tea and an early night. It’s the kind of thing you could quite safely play to your gran without causing too much (or, indeed, any) controversy. But don’t lets see this is as a bad thing. You can’t listen to Black Flag all the time, after all.
From opening track Secret Music you can sort of tell what you’re in for. The tempo is slow. There’s a flute. Katrina Mitchell starts singing about rain falling; listening to her voice is like having marzipan piped into your skull by a unit of apologetically smiling Brownie Guides. If The Pastels had got someone like Sade in to sing this one (a leftfield option for a Scottish jangle-pop band, perhaps, but could someone make this happen?) Secret Music could have been a gorgeously sultry, soulful number. As it is, it’s a tediously sleepy start to the album, unwittingly serving as a kind of pre-emptory anaesthetic to the rest of Slow Summits.
Follow-up track Night Time Made Us is much better, its deceptive lullaby of an introduction segueing into a mellow guitar chill-out that’s lifted by dreamy brass flourishes and softly shambling drums. Kicking Leaves is mournfully pretty with an almost folky melody; Wrong Light has a hint of the Neil Young about it. There’s something pleasingly adolescent about The Pastels, even 26 years on from the release of their debut album Up For a Bit With The Pastels: it’s partly naïve-teenage-romance lyrics, all, ‘When we’re standing still at the head of the hill won’t you kiss me, won’t you kiss me?’; partly the plush, childlike voices of Mitchell and her partner-in-twee Stephen McRobbie.
The highlights of the album are undoubtedly the brilliant if not especially original slice of gently upbeat Britpop that is lead single Check My Heart – which you can file somewhere in between The Boo Radleys’ Wake Up Boo! and The Coral’s In The Morning – and the two instrumental tracks, After Image and Slow Summits. The former is a (comparatively) short ‘n’ sweet number that draws you in with its lethargic organ drone and plodding piano part while other instruments emerge and retreat from the noise in unexpected and distorted ways; the title track meanwhile sees The Pastels fully exploring their penchant for flutes, trumpets and xylophones, the result being a laid-back and gorgeously melodic six minute slow-burner that has just enough unsettlingly jarring guitar bits to stop its sugariness from rotting the teeth out of your head.
People might listen to Slow Summits and yearn for The Pastels of the ’80s, the band responsible for jangle-pop gems like Nothing To Be Done and Crawl Babies, as well as the bafflingly persistent trend for shuffling about looking awkward in a duffle coat. But it’d be pretty incongruous if The Pastels released another Up for a Bit… in 2013, and while Slow Summits might not set your pulse racing it’s a fantastic example of a band throwing themselves into making a record as lush and pretty as they possibly can.