In their original run, the Scottish band the Bluebells were around for a few years in the early ‘80s, and recorded just one LP: 1984’s Sisters. The album had one song produced by Elvis Costello and another, perhaps their biggest hit, co-written with Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama (“Young at Heart”). Though hard to find, Sisters is to this day a delight, “jangle pop” that moves like a breeze, with an optimism that infiltrates even its most melancholy moments (“Will She Always Be Waiting”). Or it presents optimism within the melancholy, like on the opener “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”.
The version of that song that kicks off the new compilation Exile on Twee Street (a clever title or a stupid one, I’m not sure which) accentuates that feeling, sounding a bit Byrds-like and having a “Blue Moon”-style guitar solo. The subtitle for the CD is “Songs from Glasgow 1980-1982”. That means what we’re hearing here is the band in its infancy. Some are rough demo versions, others predate their first album but sound like they could have been included. Others suggest roads they didn’t quite travel but could have.
The CD has been described, in press materials and reviews, as showing the way their sound connected with the Glasgow scene of the day: Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, etc. That might be true; this is classically “indie-pop” music. And you can clearly hear the influence on future indie-pop bands (my best example, from a personal level, is how strongly elements of “East Green” point towards the Ladybug Transistor). But just as clear to me is the “classic” side of that, the way the music harkens back to pop music of previous decades. The chorus to “Happy Birthday” could be on oldies radio (when oldies radio was still playing ‘50s/‘60s music and hadn’t moved on to the ‘70s and ‘80s). “Wistful Thinking” sounds older than it is.
The compilation was put together by Robert Hodgens, aka Bobby Bluebell, and it shows. Especially at first it’s fairly seamlessly put together, versus just strong together in random order. That’s less true as it proceeds near the end, when it gets a bit more esoteric (and less interesting). It ends with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free” which starts off sounding remarkably Big Star-like but breaks apart a bit as it proceeds.
The collection is varied in sound, from low-fi snapshots of the moment to songs that would have fit well on a proper release and will be hugged warmly by longtime fans of the band. In the second half, the style gets shinier and brassier; like they’re trying to figure out the optimistic style of Sisters. It also starts feeling more “odds and sods” in organization. But that leaves perhaps more room for surprises, like the tenderness of “Tender Mercy”. In all, this collection is meant for Bluebells fans. But considering how otherwise difficult it would be to stumble across their music, it serves as a decent introduction to them as well.
// Notes from the Road
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