Various Artists: You Don't Need Darkness to Do What You Think Is Right
Compilation albums are inevitably hit-and-miss affairs. We've all had the experience of programming our CD players to construct a playlist highlighting the standout tracks while avoiding the unwanted dregs. One way around this problem is let someone whose musical taste you've grown to know and love make the selections for you. Enter the Pastels' Stephen Pastel, who, along with bandmate Katrina Mitchell, is making his second go at running his own record label (after heading 53rd and 3rd in the '80s and helping launch the careers of the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Soup Dragons, BMX Bandits, and others). The Pastels, of course, were hugely influential in establishing lo-fi, twee pop as a viable alternative to some of the more nihilistic movements of the time as well as establishing Glasgow as a scene for like-minded bands (Belle & Sebastian might consider sending them royalty checks). So to hear Mr. Pastel's current favorites is an intriguing offer. As a wise man once said, though, there's no accounting for taste.
The disc opens with the Pastel's own "Intro", which is essentially ambient guitar wallpaper, before leading into their version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everybody Is a Star", which has lent one of its lines for this album's title. Not to disrespect Sly Stone but somehow hearing Katrina Mitchell intone "I love you for who you are" somehow makes me feel warmer and fuzzier than when coming from Sly. Not surprisingly, some old friends pop up as well. Former Soup Dragons bassist Sushil K. Dade's new project Future Pilot AKA contributes the dub-influenced, horn-driven "Remember Fun (Like We Was Young)" and shows off his falsetto in the process. Jim and William Reid of the Jesus & Mary Chain, along with their sister Linda, make up Sister Vanilla whose "Pastel Blue" somewhat disappointingly turns out to be rather pedantic acoustic folk. It's equally interesting to hear the Pastels' and their contemporaries' influence on new bands. Nagisa Ni Te's "Me, On the Beach" could be an acoustic collaboration between the BMX Bandits and Shonen Knife, and International Airport do a fine job of applying a shambolic indie sensibility to a finely crafted pop song. Pedro and Barbara Morgenstern are both testaments to the ability of electronic instruments to not sound out of place amongst the earnestly strummed guitars and tickled pianos of the rest of the disc. Bill Wells Octet can quite possibly lay claim to the highlight of the album with the breezy "Wiltz", a perfect song that could have been recorded by Belle & Sebastian after repeated exposure to Vince Guaraldi. After a listen you'll be whistling along yourself.
More often than not, however, the tracks tend to be ineffective, if not outright confounding. Empress, which sounds like a Sinead O'Connor 45 on 33 1/3, immediately followed by the equally narcoleptic Appendix Out, seems to be an exercise in curing insomnia. Veterans Telstar Ponies' keen understanding of dynamics thankfully kept me awake for the rest of the album. Maher Shalal Hash Baz seem to make a virtue out of instrumental inability and tunelessness, and National Park bring to mind someone playing guitar as they emerge from a coma. Even more bewildering are Plinth, who sound as if they are testing the acoustics of a cave with piano and xylophone, and Directorsound, who contribute one minute of what sounds like a dusty old 78 record of a jazz band attempting to jump on the Hawaiian bandwagon. Yeah, me neither.
What may be the biggest appeal of the record to the most people, though, is its final track. "Outro" is one of the first new pieces of music to appear from My Bloody Valentine leader and famous recluse Kevin Shields in years and one of the first releases under his own name. Unfortunately, to call it "new" is as much as misnomer as crediting it to "Kevin Shields". The track is actually a reworking of the Pastel's track "Intro" and could only be called a remix in the loosest sense of the word. It sounds nearly identical to the original with the exception of what could best be described as the sound of a tape being rewound very loudly over the top of it. And there you have it. The Pastels and their friends seem to inhabit an entirely different world from the rest of us and unfortunately it can make very little sense when viewed from outside.