There’s something almost contrary about certain Scottish bands, including The Blue Nile, The Bathers and The Pastels. Hugely talented, they’ve released critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums. Yet in a quintessentially Scottish way, as if unsure of fame, fortune and the trappings it brings with it, these bands fail to capitalize on the momentum they’ve built up. It’s as if they can’t or don’t want to quite make the next step. In some ways, this is understandable.

Maybe they don’t want to become part of the machine that is a major label? They don’t want to become part of the constant grind of releasing an album, publicizing it and then heading out on tour. Then they need do it again and again. They’re forced to make compromises and tow the party line. Some bands are willing to do all this and more, just to experience a taste of fame and not always fortune. 

After all, they forget, everything they do, the record company is charging them for. Record companies aren’t charities. Far from it. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in the music industry. The artist pays for every lunch, promo album, photo shoot and new guitar that comes their way. For some bands they don’t want to become part of this. They’d rather do things their own way and at their own speed.

That’s be the case with The Pastels. Since forming in 1981, The Pastels have only released five albums. Their latest album is Slow Summits, which was recently released on Domino. Slow Summits is the first studio album The Pastels have released since 1997s Illumination. Having said that, they did provide the soundtrack to John McEntire’s The Last Great Wilderness in 2003. However, since then, things have been quiet on The Pastels’ front. Dedicated followers of The Pastels wondered if we’d ever hear from the group again. Then last year, came Slow Summit, The Pastels fifth album in the group’s thirty-two year career, which I’ll tell you about. It was a return to form for The Pastels, which saw them nominated for 2014s Scottish Album Of The Year Award. This is fitting for one of Scotland’s veteran bands.

The Pastels were formed in 1981 in Glasgow. Their original lineup consisted of bassist Gerry Love, guitarist John Hogarty, trumpeter Alison Mitchell,  flautist and keyboardist Tom Crossley plus vocalist and guitarist Stephen McRobbie. They’ve been the backbone of the group. Like any band who have enjoyed the longevity of The Pastels, there’s been occasional changes to the lineup. However, that was the lineup that featured on their debut single.

1982 saw The Pastels release their debut single Songs For Children on the Whaam label. After that, The Pastels were signed to both Rough Trade and Creation, where they released a series of singles. During this period, The Pastels continued to hone their sound. It was a period of evolution. Quickly, they became an influential group within both the burgeoning fanzine movement and the Glasgow music scene. Then in 1986, The Pastels featured on the NME’s C86 compilation. Although this showcased a new generation of bands, its importance has been overstated. A year later, The Pastels released their debut album.

Six years after forming, The Pastels released Up For A Bit With The Pastels on the Glass label. Veering between indie pop, garage and post punk, it marked a new chapter in The Pastels’ career. Their sound had evolved and was much tighter. Produced by John Rivers Up For A Bit With The Pastels was critically acclaimed and perceived as a classic Scottish album. It’s in the top 100 Scottish albums. Up For A Bit With The Pastels looked like being the start of a successful career for The Pastels.

Two years later, The Pastels released their sophomore album Sittin’ Pretty. It had been recorded over a two year period and was released on the Chapter 22 label. The Pastels trademark sound changed. There was a harder edge to their music. Maybe this was because there had been a change of producer from Up For A Bit With The Pastels? Replacing John Rivers, was Paul Mazda. After the release of Sittin’ Pretty, it looked like The Pastels were no more. Rumours were rife in the music press that The Pastels were splitting up. Reports of their demise proved to be exaggerated.

While The Pastels didn’t split up, their lineup changed. Drummer Karina Mitchell joined the band in 1990. With the lineup settled again, The Pastels got back to work. Eventually, they released their third album Mobile Safari in February 1995. It featured the new lineup, plus contributions from many of Glasgow’s best musicians. The Pastels’ friends joined the band for their first album for six years. Produced by Paul Chisholm and The Pastels, this was their first album for the label that they’d call home for the next eighteen years.

Having released their first album in six years, The Pastels released their next album Illumination in 1997. Co-produced by Ian Carmichael, Gregor Reid and The Pastels, Illumination saw The Pastels draw inspiration from a wide range of sources. Melodic and similar to Mobile Safari, The Pastels had found their own sound. Released to critical acclaim, Illumination looked like the album would be The Pastels breakthrough album. It wasn’t. Instead, we never heard from The Pastels for another seventeen years.

Apart from providing the soundtrack to John McEntire’s The Last Great Wilderness in 2003, we never heard anything else from The Pastels. Even The Great Wilderness was a quite un-Pastels’ album. It was more like a series of soundscapes. Then earlier this year, rumors started doing the rounds that The Pastels were about to release a new album. Some people were sceptical. They were wrong. Glasgow’s forgotten group had been busy.

Slow Summits features nine tracks, four of which were penned by Stephen McRobbie. He penned Secret Music, Night Time Made Us, Summer Rain and Wrong Light. Karina Mitchell wrote Kicking Leaves and Come to the Dance. She and Stephen cowrote Check My Heart and After Image, while Stephen and Tom Crossley contributed the title-track Slow Summits. These nine tracks became Slow Summits, which was recorded at several studios in Glasgow.

This includes Chem 19, Cava Studios, LA Chunky and Castle of Doom studios in Glasgow. The Pastels were joined by a whole host of old friends, including Norman Blake, Craig Armstrong and Bill Wells. They recorded nine tracks, which became Slow Summit, The Pastels’ comeback album. Was it worth the wait?

There’s a understated, wistful sound to Secret Music. Distant cymbals give way to percussion, melancholy flute and pensive rhythm section. Guitars chime as Karina’s tender, almost whispered vocal takes on a wistful sound. Around her, the rest of The Pastels replicate the sound of the meandering nighttime traffic. Horns rasp, guitars chime and drums add mystery to a track where melancholia and the ethereal beauty of Karina’s vocal prove a potent combination.

Night Time Made Us sees The Pastels reminisce, remembering how they saw the world as children. Things they used to do, people they used to know and things they believed. In doing so, Stephen’s vocal takes on a pensive sound, as he remembers simpler times. Crystalline guitars, heartbreaking horns and harmonies accompany his vocal, as memories come flooding back. Soon, the track takes on not just a trademark Pastels’ sound, but a Glasgow sound. It reminiscent of a generation of bands who came through at the same time. Two of the best known are Teenage Fanclub and BMX Bandits. The other member of the triumvirate are The Pastels, who on form like this, are back.

Check My Heart sees the comeback continue on a truly genre-melting track. Everything from sixties girl groups, pop indie rock, garage and doo wop combine. Karina is accompanied by punchy harmonies. Meanwhile the rhythm section and scorching guitars drive the arrangement along. Stephen shares the lead vocal. His vocal provides is deeper and louder and is a contrast to Karina’s tender vocal on this paean.

Summer Rain sounds like Aztec Camera during the eighties. It’s the deliberate, crystalline guitars that leads to the comparison. What’s different is the vocal. Here, Stephen’s tenderly delivers the lyrics. His needy, heartfelt vocal is accompanied by cooing harmonies, distant rasping horns and guitars. Up until then, it’s a beautiful song. Then The Pastels noodle. They decide to experiment. Guitars, flute and the rhythm section are join by sci-fi sounds. For two minutes they’re sure to divide opinion. It can either be scene as innovative, jazz tinged exploration of the track’s nuances or a missed opportunity?

After Image has a somewhat subdued and experimental sound. It sounds like a relation of Summer Rain. An instrumental, bursts of ethereal harmonies provide a contrast to the dark, moody and broody sound of the arrangement. Keyboards, synths and guitars are unleashed, providing cinematic sounds to a wistful, futuristic soundscape.

Kicking Leaves written by Karina Mitchell is one of the highlights of Slow Summits. Her ethereal vocal is accompanied by cooing harmonies and strings that tug on your heartstrings. Guitars are strummed, as drums mark time. They’re playing a supporting role to Karina. Her lyrics have a strong narrative and are full of imagery. She paints pictures that unfold before your eyes. You can imagine her wandering through the Botanic Gardens frustratedly kicking leaves and singing hopefully Oh Kiss Me We Won’t You Kiss Me.

Wrong Light sees The Pastels roll back the years to when they and their fans were much younger. Stephen is in reflective mood, singing: “you were so young, a flower in the sung.” There’s a tinge of sadness and regret in his voice. Karina adds backing vocals, horns rasp and guitars scream. The rhythm section provide a thoughtful heartbeat and a harmonica adds to the emotion. Later, handclaps encourage what is one of the best guitar solos on Slow Summits. There’s even a bit of showboating, as The Pastels show they’ve not lost their mojo. They haven’t. Neither has Stephen McRobbie who wrote this wistful, poignant reminder of day opportunities lost.

Slow Summits is a six minute instrumental. It’s reminiscent of a track from the soundtrack to a sixties French art movie. It’s the flute lead instrumental that leads to the comparison. That and the meandering understated, pensive arrangement. Soon, it’s all change. Searing guitars cut their way through the arrangement. Their crystalline, chiming sound has a sixties sound. Clanking and chiming, the flute meanders wistfully above the arrangement. Eventually, The Pastels settle into a groove, where drama and ethereal beauty unite. Rasping horns, harmonies horns and blistering guitars join The Pastels as  they revel in this opportunity to showcase their musical ability, on what could easily be part of a soundtrack to a film or television program.

Come to the Dance closes Slow Summits. Again, there’s a sense of melancholia. The Pastels might have Come to the Dance, but sound as if their heart has been broken. Karina’s vocal is tender and thoughtful. Harmonies, handclaps and the rhythm section join chiming guitars as her vocal veers between pensive, hopeful and heartbroken. She doesn’t sound as if she’s Come to the Dance, more to briefly escape her broken heart.

After seventeen years away, many people had forgotten about The Pastels. They thought the band had split up. After all, their last studio album Illumination was in 1997. They’d made a brief return with The Last Great Wilderness in 2003. After that…nothing. Having started their career with the critically acclaimed Up For A Bit With The Pastels, The Pastels “should’ve had a brilliant career.” Sadly, although The Pastels released three further albums, they never scaled the heights they should’ve. 

Mind you, neither did their contemporaries. Neither The BMX Bandits nor Teenage Fanclub enjoyed the critical acclaim and commercial success their talent warranted. Although commercial success came their way, they should’ve sold many more albums. At least critics and their fellow musicians recognized their undoubtable talent.

Maybe though, groups like Teenage Fanclub and The BMX Bandits, The Pastels found a level of success that they were comfortable with? After all, look what fame and fortune did to Babyshambles and Nirvana? Possibly, The Pastels didn’t want to scale the heights Franz Ferdinand did? That would’ve meant sacrificing too much to the major label machine. For them, maybe that was a step too far?

Instead, The Pastels were content to follow in the footsteps of The Blue Nile. They released critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums on their own terms. That did The Blue Nile no harm. It added to the sense of mystery that shrouded them. The same can be said of The Pastels. 

Where have they been since 1997? What have then been doing? All we can say with certainty, is that they’re back, older, wiser and more experienced on Slow Summits. Sometimes The Pastels sound worldweary and rueful, especially when Stephen takes charge of the lead vocal. Like those of a certain age, we realize our youth is but a distant memory. Sometimes, he sounds rueful as if unsure he’s done the right thing. Deep down I wonder if he’s wondering whether five albums in thirty-two years does The Pastels justice. As for Karina’s vocals, they’re ethereal, veering between wistful, melancholy, hopeful and needy. Her vocals breath life, meaning and emotion into lyrics. She sounds as she’s lived, experienced and survived the lyrics. Maybe she too, realizes they could’ve and should’ve been a much bigger band. Slow Summits is proof of this. 

No wonder. The Pastels are a a band full of talented musicians and songwriters. They’re not content to replicate previous albums. Instead, they innovate, and move their music forward. That’s to their credit. After all, they’ve been making music since 1981. Eclectic music at that. On Slow Summits, everything from indie rock, pop, sixties girl groups, doo wop, garage is thrown into The Pastels mixing bowl. It’s stirred by producer John McEntire and The Pastels. The nine tracks are a compelling musical journey, where not once, do The Pastels take a wrong turn. Far from it. The Pastels haven’t just made a comeback on Slow Summit, but are back and are better than ever. Indeed, The Pastels have reached slowly and somewhat belatedly reached the summit with Slow Summits, which was one of the best Scottish albums of 2013. That’s why Slow Summits resulted in The Pastels being nominated for 2o014s prestigious Scottish Album Of The Year Award.

If The Pastels are crown winners, this will be fitting. The Pastels are a Scottish musical institution. Just like so many Scottish bands their contrarian. They’ll only do things their way. The result is five albums during a thirty-three year career. However, it’s quality not quantity that matters. Slow Summits is proof of this and could see the contrarian and quintessentially Scottish band The Pastels win the Scottish Album Of The Year Award.



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