In 1996, British bands were aping the Kinks and the Beatles en masse, playing catchy but unoriginal music that appealed to kids too young for the first go-round and Rich Little fans alike. Meanwhile, Scottish youth culture looked through its American record collections and, by never staying with their influences for more than a few bars, came up with a distinct new voice in pop music. Bis, Belle and Sebastian, the Delgados, Urusei Yatsura and Mogwai created Scotland’s first international buzz since the Jesus and Mary Chain, Pastels and the Vaselines. At the heart of the action was the Chemikal Underground label, and at the center of the label was the Delgados.
After a slew of singles and EPs, Domestiques is more than anyone could’ve hoped for. The album opens with the adrenal pop-thrash single “Under Canvas Under Wraps,” a leaping fit of Pixie-ish riffs, drums delivered with military accuracy at a machine-gun pace and Emma Pollock’s politely sultry singing dueling with Alun Woodward’s fuzzbox rants. The dynamic between Pollock and Woodward keeps the quartet compelling on grind-pop like “Big Business In Europe” and “4th Channel.” “Leaning on a Cane,” with its soft, lilting tempo and background strings, is shocking in its delicate beauty. Despite the euphoric recklessness here, one never gets the impression that the band arrived anywhere accidentally (unlike their American aesthetic cousins, the New Bad Things, whose “The Dirge” is covered with tightened success on the Sucrose EP). The arrangements are meticulous and imaginative, marinating the Joey Santiago-ish guitars with Fall-through-Pavement vocal lines (Woodward sometimes sounds alarmingly like Steve Malkmus). Utterly endearing.
The 1997 BBC Sessions disc compiles two John Peel visits along with a Mark Radcliffe session and two acoustic bouts — one for Radio Scotland and one for Mary Ann Hobbs.
Everything Goes Around the Water shows a more delicate side of the Delgados. The title track is beautiful, lilting pop with the accompanying flute and strings setting the mood. “Blackpool,” also a relatively smooth number, even features a bit of turntablist scratching, which doesn’t seem so out of place in execution as it does in concept.
The Delgados of The Great Eastern are a richly relaxed lot, making sweet, lush pop that owes a little something to both Aztec Camera and the Trashcan Sinatras and scarcely resembles the brash enthusiasms of Domestiques. Strings, horns and keyboards augment the quartet’s instrumental strengths; co-producer (with the Delgados) Dave Fridmann renders it all in a handsome array of mellifluous sound and emotional resonance.
In few other bands’ careers has each album surpassed its predecessor by one precise notch. Hate offers sweeping and majestic pop in which dark hope lurks (Emma’s masterful voice weaving through the bombastic “The Light Before We Land”) and bitter/ironic resignation is accepted (the Beatles-referencing “All You Need Is Hate”). “Coming in From the Cold” is simply quintessential. A few tracks are less worthy, but this is a consistent effort with broad constructions intertwining the twee, the melancholy and the plaint. Call it a Scottish trademark at once given service and expanded; Belle and Sebastian covering Big Country in the orchestra pit for a Kubrick production requiring audience participation. The US version has two extra tracks.
The songs on Universal Audio are split evenly between Pollock and Woodward. Less orchestral than Hate, which teetered precariously, Universal Audio (like the band’s namesake, cyclist Pedro Delgado) rides confidently. “Is This All That I Came For?” is a mid-tempo rocker; “Everybody Come Down” is sunshine pop supporting a dark subject. The understated “Sink or Swim” carries mature confidence in its statement. “Bits of Bone” is an XTC homage, while “Girls of Valour” uses bouncy techno. Paranoia and loss of control drifts throughout: “Life is just a list of consequences of things that we do” (“Now & Forever,” the winsome closer); “Just another hit of happenings that we have to live through” (from “Keep on Breathing”); all of “The City Consumes Us.” The album is another improvement for the band and a bit of light relief after Hate. The album by force became the perfect stopping point, as the band dissolved upon the departure of bassist Stewart Henderson.
The Complete BBC Peel Sessions (not all of which were actually recorded for Peel) is a sugary treat. With entertaining liner notes, this virtual career retrospective mixes originals with such eclectic covers as ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” Cat Stevens’ “Matthew and Son” and the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles.”