Thoroughly wistful and eternally childlike, Glasgow’s Pastels exemplify a much maligned style of UK music that was, for a time, referred to as “anorak pop.” Characterized by an amateurish devotion to ’60s pop conventions and wide- eyed na‹veté, the sound is as lovable as it is easily copied. The Pastels have the distinction of being more influential than imitative, and are one of the better outfits working in this well-trod arena.
Formed in the early ’80s by singer/guitarist Stephen Pastel (McRobbie), the Pastels were among the first indie- pop bands to mount a do-it-yourself aesthetic based on a wide-eyed, almost childlike view of the world but grounded in a ’60s-revering love for sweet melodies and beholden to “a rejection of orthodox pathways,” as Stephen Pastel (McRobbie) spells it out in the notes to the Truckload of Trouble compilation. That ethos threw the band in line with punk, at least ideologically; musically, the Pastels’ avoidance of such accepted premises as singing on key made the group pop rebels to some, a hard-to-acquire taste for others. But like their American cousins Beat Happening, the Pastels’ effusive charm elevates the artistic reach of their endeavors, yielding a number of wonderfully memorable songs.
The Pastels’ first album, Up for a Bit, followed a five-year string of wonderful singles. Ten polished guitar tracks stamped with Jonathan Richman-worshiper Stephen’s nearly atonal vocals, the LP falls just short of fulfilling the 45s’ promise, and overproduction (by John Rivers) is the culprit. “Crawl Babies,” “Automatically Yours” and “I’m Alright with You” are winning tracks; checking the excesses, however, would have made this a much better album.
Comin’ Through restores many of the rough edges lost on the LP, giving the four tracks a refreshing boldness. The rockabilly-laced “Sit on It Mother” is the fiercest this band is likely to get and displays the intuitive versatility that separates the Pastels from the rest of the anorak pack.
In 1987, the band re-signed with Creation just long enough to compile some singles and radio sessions into Suck on the Pastels.
While there’s nothing new in Sittin’ Pretty‘s off-key awkwardness and gawky grooves (for the first time, the Pastels sound like they’re consciously trying to sound like themselves), this outing from the monsters of twee is not without its gems, especially the cute but noisy “Baby, You’re Just You” and the revamped “Sit on It Mother.” (Richard Mazda produced.)
Deliberately amateur and willfully obscure in that distinctively Scottish manner, the Pastels are notorious for cutting multiple versions of the same songs: if you include radio sessions, there are as many as five different renditions of some early tunes. Stephen’s label, 53rd & 3rd, has been almost as influential as the Pastels, releasing records by the Vaselines, Pooh Sticks, Shop Assistants and Beat Happening.
By the end of the ’80s, the Pastels had two albums, two compilations (Suck on the Pastels and the semi-legit A Bit on the Side) and numerous singles and EPs under its belt. The ’90s began with more singles, most of which are reprised (some in remixed form, or with minor alterations) on Truckload of Trouble. The far- ranging 18-track set dips further back for a previously unreleased version of the first album’s sweet, sexy, psychedelic “Baby Honey” (one of the group’s finest moments) and the jaunty singles “Truck Train Tractor,” “Crawl Babies” (also from the debut LP) and “Comin’ Through,” the lead track of a 1987 EP on which future Vaselines/Eugenius leader Eugene Kelly is noted as a member. The album also contains two of the five tracks from Thru’ Your Heart (the title tune and “Firebell Ringing,” steered by longtime Pastel Aggi Wright’s creaky vocals) and a couple of cover versions: a winsome, banjo- driven take on Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” (originally released as a K single) and a bouncy, orchestrated (glockenspiel, toy clarinet, etc.) rendition of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle.” Truckload of Trouble includes just one (“Dark Side of Your World”) of the six single sides the Pastels recorded with Jad Fair. Many tracks here feature contributions from Teenage Fanclub guitarist Norman Blake. Not simply a useful introduction to the Pastels, it’s also a handy seven-year stack of nifty 45s by a casually exceptional singles band.
Mobile Safari, only the Pastels’ third studio album in nearly 15 years of existence, solidifies the group’s ’90s lineup: Stephen, Aggi and Katrina Mitchell form the group’s core, with help from guitarists David Keegan (ex-Shop Assistants) and Fanclub bassist Gerard Love. The album builds upon the Pastels’ oft-copied shambling pop sound, but rounds off some of the songs’ rough edges with fleshed-out arrangements and sensitive, clear production. The threesome’s vocals remain cheerfully off-key as Mobile Safari takes them through the sultry “Exploration Team” (“Everyone should have a friend, to lead and to follow/To open up to and to lose control/Someone to explore,” croons Stephen), the billowy pop of “Yoga” and the finger-snapping “Worlds of Possibility” (featuring nifty brass work), on which the trio’s songwriting styles gel nicely. Dean Wareham of Luna adds some lovely, soft-hued guitar color to the album. The CD single of “Worlds of Possibility” offers an alternate version of the song — de-emphasizing the horns in favor of a nice Wareham solo — along with two more originals and a cover of bubblegum-era obscurity “Love It’s Getting Better.”
In 1995, Katrina (who also has a side-project band called Melody Dog; Olympic World is another Pastels offshoot), Stephen and Aggi recorded an EP with Some Velvet Sidewalk’s Al Larsen (while he was an artist-in-residence at the Glasgow School of Art) under the name Sandy Dirt. All five songs (including a take on Van Morrison’s “Slim Slow Slider,” in which Larsen recites, rather than sings, the words) represent an even amalgam of the Pastels’ casual pop and SVS’s nervy, angst-renting songs.