Having spent the last few years writing almost exclusively about music from Scotland, it's easy to forget where I came in. There has always been an almost dizzyingly complex, often incestuous scene - not least in Glasgow - but back then, before Bandcamp and iTunes, it was a much more location specific affair. When I was in town, I'd grab handfuls of vinyl singles by bands I hadn't heard of - and the hit rate was pretty damn good too. I recognise that it's probably that grounding in opening my ears to unknown sounds which means I'm still intrigued to hear new things today. But one constant through this period, and it has variously been a proud allegiance or a guilty pleasure depending on the prevailing trends, has been The Pastels. An ever changing line-up rotating around Stephen McRobbie, alliances with US and Japanese artists exploring the edges of pop music, and a work-rate more akin to a cathedral stonemason than a musician in the internet age have all conspired to put The Pastels right back on the fringe of things again. But, they're back...
The intervening years roll effortlessly away as 'Secret Music' shuffles in. A tumble of glockenspiel chimes, furtively bubbly baselines and Katrina Mitchell's laconic, sensuous drawl. The song sprawls like a stretching cat, luxuriating in a glossy production which hooks in Stephel's distinctive brogue and some pretty horn embellishments. 'Night Time Made Us' ups the tempo somewhat, with a churn of scratchy but solid guitars and a confident but wonderfully ungoverned vocal from Stephen where he wonders "when did the burn become a river?". The passage of time seems like a key concern here, and elsewhere on this record. There is more brass accompaniment here, which adds a stomping 60s soul dimension to what shapes up into a truly lovely piece of music. The sunny, pop shuffle of recent single 'Check My Heart' transports me back to the relatively carefree early 1990s, as it skips light-footed around Glasgow's shining wet pavements, describing a scene not so much disappeared but ceaselessly reinvented. Nights in G12 are no less torrid and hip, if a little more expensive and a little less mysterious these days.
Beginning with the evocative "When the city is framed by a blue black sky..." there is a quiet, distant quality to 'Kicking Leaves'. Gentle strings and soft flecks of brass shore up the fragile vocals provided by guest vocalist and former full-time Pastel Aggi. A wobbly organ and ever-so-slightly off key guitar launches 'The Wrong Light' with Stephen's famously dissonant, low burr rarely sounding more in tune with this slow-burning ballad. A chorus of sweetly sung backing vocals emphasize his claim that "we are shadows of the night". Some tougher, angular guitar lines and little stabs of brass colour in the background and suddenly it could be anywhere in The Pastels distinguished back catalogue. This is no bad thing - and it's not about a lack of progress. It's more about striking out for new territory in a measured, confident way whilst holding on to all of that uncertainty and shyness about ever quite being the band of the moment.
The extended film-soundtrack shuffle of 'Slowly Taking Place' bristles with edgy guitar jangles, shuffling drums and a mournful noirish woodwind melody among bleeps and twinkles of electronics. It should be adorning the opening credits of a mid-sixties movie - Glasgow standing in for Paris, a tracking shot of an old Citroen crossing the Clyde. Elegant couples rendezvousing under the clock at Central Station. It's a beautifully done set-piece, with The Pastels' influences - both old and new - copiously nodded to.
So, all these year later, all this water under the bridge, and with the kind of indie-pop they typified in their various reinventions having drifted out of vogue and back again, does "Slow Summits" still produce spine tingles for this increasingly arthritic pop kid? Well, in fact it does - its a timeless, joyously old-school indie romp with rough edges and a heart-on-sleeve bravado. It's just what made us want to keep our fringes long and wear our school sweaters. It's what convinced plenty of us that picking up a guitar would be a good move - with variable results. Dismiss them as twee or wilfully inept all you like - the truth is, you can never write off The Pastels.
"Slow Summits" is available now on Domino Records and via your local record shop.