Category Archives: Buried Treasures

Brief candles: Pulsars

New Order and LCD Soundsystem fans: enter here

It’s 1997, and I’m hightailing it past CD racks stuffed with Silverchair, Spice Girls and Oasis, to the quiet corner every record store’s still reserving for cassettes. The wall mounts’re littered with new wave and ’80s alt. bargains. That $3.99 XTC tape is calling to me. You have to work a little harder at your iconoclasm when the checkout kid motions to the pile of Oak Ridge Boys and Alan Jackson tapes with a dismissive “got more music tapes right there.” Is she implying I’ll buy any cassette because it’s a cassette? This is how music snobs are born.

Not every tape I bought in 1997 was a decade out of fashion. Some were even older! Once, a black dude approached me for help, thinking this white guy pulling Isaac Hayes tapes was a store employee. (Hey, profiling hits everybody.) One purchase stands out: although it was brand spanking new at the time, it was as anachronistic then as any Cut Copy, Twin Shadow or LCD Soundsystem record is vogueish now, despite rather similar qualities and referents. Welcome to the world of Pulsars, another entrant in the wrong-place, wrong-time sweepstakes.

Pulsars comprised Chicago-area brothers David and Harry Trumfio. David, a young industry vet, carried the load: writing, producing, playing, and singing most everything. Harry drummed. David’s contacts got Pulsars inked to Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ post-A&M Records venture, ALMO Sounds. And the record they made, an unabashed love letter to the early synthpop 1980s, is excellent in every regard.

“Tunnel Song” video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDXF2rAspv0

Pulsars charms because it time travels with unironic bonhomie absent from Adam Sandler’s contemporaneous The Wedding Singer. Giving its audience credit for intelligence and memory recall, Pulsars present arms with specific musical cues and sounds (a “Gloria”-like bounce, a dinky Depeche melody line, a thrusting Peter Hook interlude) geared to match the simple, topical lyrics. There are odes to Daniel Miller’s Silicon Teens, a crapped-out ’85-vintage computer, a robot surrogate best friend and time machines, all of ’em sung with the earnestness of a guileless comic book geek. But there’s meat on them bones: Pulsars is a rock band at heart, in the way New Order was a rock band. Free your ass and your mind will follow. There’s joy found everywhere on this record…including the crafty dom/sub S&M tune dropped midway through side two.

“Runway” live performance (1997): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umuva0zKZIs

“Runway” is my favourite. Brotherhood-era dance rock at its finest, it explodes from tense, chugging verses into a blissed-out, starry-skied refrain, backended by a marvelous, wordless chorus straight outta the school of OMD, who did wordless choruses better than anyone. Pulsars eventually flutters to a splendid finale with “Das Lifeboat,” a song about female self-destructiveness blessed with a neat metaphor and a sumptuous symphonic arrangement from longtime Bowie confrere Tony Visconti. Soaring, graceful stuff.

These are major-league calibre songs from a guy who cut his teeth engineering other people’s records before stepping out from behind the curtain for a star turn. Given David Trumfio’s pedigree, experience, talent and incisive humour, he’s got a lot in common with DFA/LCD’s James Murphy. With a fine record that matches LCD Soundsystem’s work for craft, cool and ingenuity, it’s a bloody shame Pulsars’ journey foundered on the rocks of failing record labels, withheld tapes and public indifference. This old retro-futurist record is the sound of today. Discover it.

“Technology” fan-made video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OW-wKRWh3Q

As of February 2011, Pulsars is available from volume online sellers like CD Universe and amazon.com. It is not available from iTunes.

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Brief candles: The Bluebells

The Bluebells                                                                                             Sisters                                                                                                                Originally released: 1984, on London/WEA

In early 1993, before Britpop gave the UK music scene a running theme, the charts ran amuck with one-hit wonders and soundtrack smashes. One of the more unusual success stories concerned “Young At Heart,” a decade-old single by The Bluebells, a forgotten Scottish band, which crept back onto the charts after its appearance in a Volkswagen ad, and ended up spending four weeks at #1.

The surprise success spawned a singles compilation, but the band’s debut album – 1984’s Sisters – was never reissued and remains out-of-print today, despite the presence of three top 40 singles. It’s a shame, because it’s one of the most airily engaging guitar-pop records of its time.

While peers like Big Country and Simple Minds were exploring Steve Lillywhite-produced, arena-sized rock, The Bluebells were making inroads with youthfully romantic jangle-pop, sounding a bit like Aztec Camera fronted by a brogue-heavy Neil Finn. The music’s crucial personality came from rustic instrumental additions like mandolins, harmonica and fiddles, the last of which fed “Young At Heart”‘s hook. A delightfully hummable song with a soaring, sing-along chorus, “Young At Heart” went Top Ten upon its first release in 1984, and helped drive the album to the edge of the Top 20.

“Young At Heart” TOTP appearance:                                     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dxygFmLfvQ

(Winter 2012 note: WMG’s playing havoc with Bluebells clips on YouTube and it’s a chore to keep active links available. I’d love to think it’s because there’s a reissue of Sisters in the works, and not just an eager intern preventing the sharing of great, forgotten music.)

Sisters was partly built on earlier singles. The Bluebells had caught Elvis Costello’s ear, and he produced a handful of their 45s in 1982-1983, while in the midst of his classicist songwriter phase. Costello must have heard a kindred spirit in the band’s main songwriter, Robert Hodgens, who was crafting songs (“Will She Always Be Waiting,” “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” “I’m Falling”) that seemed beamed in from a bygone era, with carefully constructed verses that blew into charming choruses and cinematic climaxes, without ever tipping into histrionics. There was a wholesomeness to these songs at odds with the big, glossy pop of the era, and even a rave-up like “Cath” seemed to hold something in reserve.

“I’m Falling” TOTP appearance:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEXB2vSTOdk

“Cath” is perhaps the best thing here, swinging power-pop with persistent harmonica flickering just beneath the surface. In the last minute it shifts into higher gear, singer Kenneth McCluskey breaking from the close-formation chorus into a beatific ad lib, followed by a mandolin-like guitar break that screams new love. You know that Hall and Oates scene from (500) Days of Summer? If I’d been in charge of song selection, I’d’ve dropped “Cath” in there instead.

“Cath” video clip:                                                                               http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnGEya0nOaU

The non-singles, mostly tacked onto side two, reveal a rockier Bluebells. The instrumentation may be more standard rock band issue, but “Red Guitars” and “Syracuse University” are vividly muscular, and the six-minute closer, “South Atlantic Way,” incorporates rollicking piano into the mix before tumbling into a vivacious, tom-tom heavy coda that feels like the sun breaking out from behind the clouds. These developmental moves away from rootsier instrumental touches indicate a shift toward the rock mainstream. Maybe it’s a moot point, but everything on the excellent, forgotten, Sisters suggests The Bluebells would’ve been worthy, welcome contenders.

As of January 2011, Sisters is out-of-print. The Singles Collection is available on WEA.

Brief candles: Mark Eric

Decades before pastiche became a respectable genre, when there was no track record of out-of-favour rock bands regaining artistic credibility, Marc Eric Malmborg channelled Pet Sounds into his career-killing debut album.

Maybe he just wasn’t made for those times.

In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it career that ended before his 20th birthday, Malmborg pursued his devotion to counter-cultural America’s sitting duck – The Beach Boys – to the nth degree, crafting a sincere, if gauche, musical love-letter to Brian Wilson that died upon its August 1969 release. Cut-out bin purgatory is the lot of most one-album artists, but the critical re-evaluation of The Beach Boys that began in the early ‘90s has unearthed a few diamonds in the rough, including Malmborg’s A Midsummer’s Day Dream.

Showing early songwriting promise, a 16-year-old Malmborg (who dropped his surname for professional purposes) could be found demoing songs at L.A.’s Gold Star Recording Studios with Wrecking Crew session players laying down the basic tracks. A spiritual Wilson connection was later forged when The Four Freshmen, the antecedents to The Beach Boys’ vocal sound, recorded one of his songs. Malmborg was green-lit to record his own full-length in early 1969.

Midsummer’s strength lies in the details: the tunes are good, but the sound’s incredible. A soft-focus filter envelopes every song in a glaze of reverb and space, a quixotic effect that works like a trawl through someone else’s yellowing summer holiday pictures. That dreaminess is neatly mirrored by Malmborg’s multi-tracked singing voice, keening and slightly flat, but made all the more affecting by dint of its earnestness. He plays the ingénue throughout, homesick on the opening “California Home,” bewildered by sexual awakening on “Laura’s Changing” and “Where Do The Girls Of The Summer Go?” and beset by youthful insecurities on…just about everything else, actually.

For fans of a certain type of pillowy ornateness on the order of Pet Sounds, this record is manna from heaven. The most Pet­-sounding songs, “Take Me With You,” “Don’t Cry Over Me” and “Sad Is The Way That I Feel” are heartbreakingly lovely, and the modest rock drive behind “Move With The Dawn,”  “Night Of The Lions” and “We Live So Fast” is tastefully restrained. Besides, the musicianship is faultless and the kid can really write a hook. And the roaming basslines, vibraphones and French horn leads are totally School Of Wilson.

It’s not hard to hear A Midsummer’s Day Dream as a natural successor for Pet Sounds, if Wilson’s creative ambition had peaked there. Where Wilson sought to expand rock’s vocabulary in his one-upmanship battle with The Beatles, graduating to “Good Vibrations” and Smile, Mark Eric’s Johnny-come-lately effort is the work of a romantic sentimentalist, an 18-year-old on the cusp of manhood, blithely aping his hero’s signature moves in the grip of artistic puppy love. In this light, Midsummer is in fact very much like a daydream on a hazy, drowsy, late-August afternoon, where you can pass for someone else if the lighting’s right.

“Sad Is The Way That I Feel” audio clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0-diWG6byw

As of December 2010, A Midsummer’s Day Dream is available on Now Sounds.