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:
“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.