A Pugwash compilation may sound like a premature idea to some since the band’s first album is, as of this writing, 15 years old — ’tis but a blink in the 21st century for pop music. But the release of A Rose in a Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through the History of Pugwash… has a more pragmatic reason for existing, and that is to help us Yanks play catch up. Pugwash is one of those bands who are so well loved in their homeland of Ireland and in their neighboring country England that their stateside anonymity seems a little odd. It’s nothing new though. Remember the Boo Radleys? If you’re American, your answer is most likely “who?”
Pugwash have some powerful allies though. Andy Partridge of XTC signed them to his label. Dave Gregory wrote string arrangements for them and the Section Quartet recorded those parts in Abbey Road Studios. Jason Falkner and Neil Hannon both liked what they heard from Pugwash and appeared as guests on some of their songs. Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne was so taken by the song “It’s Nice to Be Nice” that he wrote Thomas Walsh a fan letter. Walsh, Pugwash’s front man and chief songwriter, sent Collingwood the band’s entire catalog as a response (Collingwood tells the story in this compilation’s liner notes). If you were raised on any variety of Nuggets-esque pop, you’ll find little to dislike in Pugwash’s overall sound. Pour in a drop of Partridge over here, a pinch of Jeff Lynne over there, stir in some Wilson / Love family keyboards and backdrop harmonies and you’ve got the beginnings of Walsh’s template. It’s tempting to lump them with other bands that appropriate heavily, like The Soundtrack of Our Lives. But after you remind yourself that everyone has to develop their palate from somewhere and at some point in time, you can begin to explore what Walsh and his bandmates have done with the musical tools they have inherited. And much like The Soundtrack of Our Lives, they carved a little space for themselves with those tools. No radical shifts, no reinvention of the wheel, just big pop that wants to connect with every seat in the proverbial house.
Pugwash are five albums into their career and A Rose in a Garden of Weeds plucks about three songs from each. Sophomore album Almanac is represented with four songs and “Heal Me” is a b-side from The Olympus Sound. The 17 tracks are not chronologically sequenced, though Pugwash have been so frighteningly consistent from 1999 to 2011 that it doesn’t seem to matter. A Rose in a Garden of Weeds doesn’t play out like a Best Of or a Greatest Hits. For one thing, the Pugwash story is still unfolding. They may stumble upon their Apple Venus or SMiLE days yet. Secondly, Omnivore Recordings are just trying to make up for the fact that Pugwash’s albums went out of print in America — even Giddy. The use of the word “Preamble” in the collection’s title is apt. Think of it as a thus-far sampler.
And when I say that Walsh and his band have been consistent, that’s not to say that all 17 songs blend together that easily. While listening to A Rose in a Garden of Weeds from front to back, a few pieces of it will manage to jump out at you. There’s “At the Sea”, an up-tempo day at the beach with “Jugband Blues”-like interludes. Co-written with Partridge, passages of it oddly remind me of an XTC song written by that band’s other songwriter, Colin Moulding. The title track features the previously-mentioned string arrangement by Gregory. There’s not much else besides the strings to help Walsh’s voice float along. Then again, how much sound would you want around your voice when singing “And then you laugh and then I see why you’re my rose in a garden of weeds”? According to Section Quartet member Eric Gorfain, Walsh got a little choked up when recording this number.
Then there’s Collingwood’s personal favorite, “It’s Nice to Be Nice”. “It’s nice to be nice / As my mother once said / It’s good to be good and it’s fun to be fun.” Can you get more positive than that? Sure, just build it around a Beach Boys framework and the sun will never stop shining. “Monorail”, one of only three songs here where Walsh co-writes with someone, is too short. It has a poorly-recorded banjo introduction, a Wurlitzer from the ’60s, a Mellotron from ’00s, a ii-V progression from American blues, a simple melody and lyrics that mean very little.
Where the American chapter goes in Pugwash’s story is anyone’s guess. There is an awful lot of crap competing for our attention these days and Thomas Walsh’s mug isn’t about to break the Internet. But he and his band do have a reasonably-priced collection on the American market, featuring 17 catchy tunes. Oh, if only that were all that was required.