[20 September 2009]
When Stephen McRobbie’s voice wafts in for the first time on the third track of the Pastels’ collaboration with Japan’s Tenniscoats, it feels like waterfall gently washing away the space between the band’s seminal 1997 masterstroke Illumination and today. The track, “Song for a Friend”, introduces the uninitiated to the gentle power of the Pastels – a touchstone for current C86-inspired bands like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Our last glimpse of The Pastels on record was 2002’s The Last Great Wilderness, a largely-instrumental soundtrack for the film of the same name. That release, taken in concert with Two Sunsets, feels like a gradual building up for the release of a “proper” follow-up to Illumination. For now, however, Two Sunsets stands on its own as a solid release and reason to anticipate the next album from one Scotland’s most enduringly influential bands.
The Pastels are no strangers to collaboration. The band has recorded with Al Larsen of Some Velvet Sidewalk, Jad Fair, and Jarvis Cocker among others. These sessions typically occurred within a short span of time. The sessions for Two Sunsets, however, occurred over a span of three years. Given the intermittent nature of the sessions and the lack of collaborative writing sessions, studio output could have devolved into rudderless improvisation. The Pastels and Tenniscoats avoided this potential problem when Tenniscoats presented a version of the eventual title track in the initial recording session. Thus, the parameters for collaboration blessedly came into focus at the outset. Seemingly against the odds, the slow romance of the Pastels and Tenniscoats birthed a truly cohesive and purposeful album that belies its casual beginnings. McRobbie subsequently recalled the sessions as, “sunny and productive – we were never stuck.”
Correspondingly, Two Sunsets never feels stuck. From the twinkling, wordless opener “Tokyo Glasgow” to the woozily gorgeous closer “Start Slowly so We Sound Like a Loch”, Tenniscoats and the Pastels make their teamwork sound effortless. The album’s mood shifts from gently pastoral to gently funky and back again without reaching too far outside its borders. The contributions from Saya and Takashi Ueno bring a Japanese indie folk perspective into the uniformly positive equation. The album works best when the voices from McRobbie, Katrina Mitchell, Annabel Wright, Saya and Takashi Ueno meld together to create a winning dichotomy – pointed, clear Japanese inflections paired with expansive, oozing English vocals. The third track, “Song for a Friend”, beautifully illustrates this effect. Beginning with lullaby Japanese vocals, the track moves to McRobbie’s waterfall moment before coming back to a sing-along portion that seamlessly stitches the track together.
Contributions from former Pastels collaborators Gerard Love, Tom Crossley, Alison Mitchell, Norman Blake and Bill Wells enrich the instrumental palate and enhance the one-for-all feel of Two Sunsets. Flute, trumpet, and keyboard augment the prominent bass lines that serve as the foundation for much of the material here. It is indeed a credit to all involved that this album sounds as ego-less and cohesive as it does. The performances throughout also retain a loose, lived-in quality that strikes an even balance between purposeful songwriting and the pleasant surprises of in-studio “mistakes”. This mix of the polished and the rough-hewn make for an album that startles as much as it soothes.
At one point in the recording of Two Sunsets, Saya reportedly asked Crossley, “to play some flute to sound like a cherry blossom falling from the tree.” It is a moment that speaks to the collaborative spirit, to the pastoral beauty, and to the fruits of international goodwill evident across this excellent release.