As the singer of Talulah Gosh and Heavenly, Amelia Fletcher was considered the female voice of English twee, that fizzy romantic effervescence of indie guitar-pop in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Guest work with the Pooh Sticks and Wedding Present added to her iconic status in a musical network that connected Swansea and London to Olympia, Washington. But nothing about her casual-sounding art was ever casual: there was always more depth and complexity to Heavenly, a band that ranged across styles and often took on topics more serious than kittens and crushes. The fact that Fletcher, who now holds a PhD and is both an OBE and a CBE, became a highly regarded economist while singing numbers like “Cool Guitar Boy” serves notice to listen deeper. While there are no lessons about supply side or cryptocurrency to be had here, one should consider the thought and care that a highly trained academic brings to any undertaking. Lyrics that seem to be about one thing might well be about something else altogether. And a jolly sound could well harbor a sinister or sad thought.
Following Marine Research and Tender Trap, Fletcher’s current venture is the Catenary Wires, which began as an appealing home-brew duo with her life partner Rob Pursey, who was a member (mainly as bassist) of all her previous outfits.
From the start, the band has been something of a narrated chronicle of the mature couple’s rural domesticity; reflective and loving in a settled and good-hearted family way. The mostly acoustic Red Red Skies sets the scene right off, as “Intravenous” declares “nothing ever comes between us / it’s the only way that we know.” But that’s just one view: in the next song, Fletcher is “waiting for the day when you walk away” and warns that “all the things that felt so good / contained the seeds of what would feel so wrong.” Both sing, sometimes together in a lovely blend of her reedy soprano and his worn-in baritone, over low-key melodic music that gently supports the vocals. After such wry interludes as “The Records We Never Play” and “Throw Another Love Song on the Fire,” the brief album ends on a sad note. As Fletcher rarely dramatizes her singing to match a subject, it’s tempting to overlook the deep pain expressed in “Things I Love,” which enumerates a litany of beloved cultural artifacts that have become ruined by a past association: “Why do things I love / Remind me of someone I don’t?”
Added musicians flesh out the sound on Til the Morning, an altogether different sort of record. Pursey and Fletcher continue to explore the ebb and flow of couplehood, only here with keyboards, electric guitar, melodica, horns and cello that sometimes threaten to shroud the multi-tracked vocals in the mix. Rich and slow, the handsome minor-key arrangements support a gloomy collection of songs about missed connections, mistakes made and worries harbored. “Half-Written,” “Dancing” and “Dark Brown Eyes” all undercut romantic impulses with anxiety and doubt. “Tie Me to the Rails,” the verse of which bears a passing resemblance to Iggy’s “The Passenger,” is an abject apology (“She was just a crush / Not meant to undermine you”). Breaking the mood, the peppy “I’ll Light Your Way Back” weaves a complex skein of the two voices in an enigmatic travelogue that is perhaps about the stresses of touring. Indicative of the album’s emotional seesaw, the beautifully sung title track warns “If you hold me tight then maybe we can ride it / If you let me go I don’t think we’ll survive.”
But survive they did, returning two years later with the upbeat (and uplifting) Birling Gap, unveiling a substantial — and utterly delightful — stylistic rethink. Lighter in spirit, this grand and gorgeous — but still intimate — pop swaps indie minimalism for layers of harmony vocals, a rich and lovely musical brew by a full band (including drums!). The lightly baroque “Face on the Rail Line” layers pretty vocals that hail from somewhere between “Bird on a Wire” and Rubber Soul above a gentle music bed powered by a nearly martial snare beat. Tacking hard to the ’60s with no trace of the indie self-consciousness or nostalgia that usually attends such efforts, “You Were Always on My Mind” could almost be an Association song. Punched up with the kind of horn charts used by early ’80s new wave bands like Haircut 100, the delicious and knowing single “Mirrorball” uses the alternating male/female vocal scheme of Heavenly’s “C is the Heavenly Option” to paint a wistful, charming picture of lonely hipsters facing the uncool reality of their middle-aged lives in “an ’80s disco.” Offhand mentions of Kylie (Minogue) and Jason (Donovan) as well as Wah! Heat and (Pete) Wylie fix the frame in a line or two.
Elsewhere, the album turns slightly toward the continental restraint of Gallic groovers like Serge Gainsbourg. Sung almost entirely by Pursey, the measured “Cinematic” pairs a needling guitar figure with what sounds like a glass harp and woolly distortion for a unique atmospheric blend. The album ends (in “The Overview Effect”) with Fletcher wondering “Can’t things stay the same?” It seems as if she’s answered her own question here.
Around the same time as they were making Birling Gap, Fletcher (with Pursey and a drummer) reconnected with the much-missed Huw Williams of the Pooh Sticks and formed a band called Swansea Sound. Briefly available as a cassette, the group’s first issue, “Corporate Indie Band” (b/w “Angry Girl”) eviscerates the hypocrisy of anti-commercial commercialism with a clever cleaver. The quartet’s subsequent singles (“Indies of the World” and “I Sold My Soul on Ebay”) are just as knowing and amusing, an ongoing melodic critique of the land in which they are elder statespeople.