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Mining Gold From The Music Stream: The Pastels - Slow Summits

Aaron M. Olson, Messenger Clerk, Silver Lake Branch Library,
The Pastels, 1990s
The Pastels, 1990s Photo: Masao Nakagami, CC BY-SA 2.0

Though instrumental in ushering in a new and lasting wave of Glaswegian independent music that would spawn such far-reaching alternative rock acts as The Vaselines, Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian, and more, The Pastels remain to this day egregiously underrated and overlooked. How can a band that has garnered the praises of everyone, from the aforementioned groups to Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth, remain for so long in the shadows of such kindred musical spirits and stylistic progeny? Perhaps it is the very qualities that make The Pastels so appealing to some that also make them so impenetrable to others, that makes them your favorite band’s favorite band. When first hearing The Pastels one may be initially struck by the vocals—punk-yet-sensitive, irreverent-yet-sincere, clumsy-yet-measured, and most noticeably pretty out of tune. These qualities are most conspicuous in the vocals, but extend through every aspect of the band’s sound wherein a sweet, folksy acoustic guitar might be paired with a screeching, seemingly out of control distorted guitar, or a tender, concise childlike melody may be floating atop an amorphous fistfight of pounding drums and sloppy strums. The Pastel’s sound, especially in the 1980s on albums such as early career highlight Sittin’ Pretty, can be identified as something somewhere between the sparkly, crooning romanticism of The Smiths and the wide-eyed naivete of an elementary school band who has just been assigned their first instruments and is attempting to let out their inaugural notes. While that may sound like a bad thing, their outsider-esque approach to music making very much worked in their favor, helping The Pastels to create their own musical language and carve out a place all their own in an oversaturated rock’n’roll landscape. Where punk used irreverence, noise, naivete, and chaos to convey disillusionment and disinterest, The Pastels found a way to bake those very same ingredients into a sweet musical pie of sincerity and languid joy—their qualities of “off-ness” coming across as the product of honest attempt rather than intentional indifference.

Book cover for Sittin' Pretty
Sittin' Pretty
The Pastels

On their most recent album, 2013’s Slow Summits, The Pastels are at their most polished and clear, with decades of experience and experimentation culminating in these 9 songs. Of course “polished” and “clear” are relative when speaking of The Pastels, a band who’s been called both affectionately and critically shambling, awkward, and gawky. The guitar tones of Slow Summits are largely undistorted, the drums gently brushed, the vocals more measured than ever, and the whole album is watercolored-over with flutes, pianos, and lush string arrangements. As polished and clean as The Pastels can be, however, there is still the underpinning chaos, naivete, sincerity, and charm that make the group so enticing and genuinely endearing. Recorded by Chicago independent music legend, producer/drummer John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea & Cake, Stereolab, etc.), every note of Slow Summits is captured in a clarity that allows The Pastels’ chaos to present as more of a coherent mesh of interconnecting yet free-flowing musical thoughts, coming together as an aqueous and supportive harmonic foundation. In pairing the album down to only 9 songs, The Pastels put across an album that is more succinct and consistent than anything they’d previously released, every moment savorable and pleasing to the ear, with no filler in sight. In fact, what might normally be seen as a filler track, the mid-album instrumental “After Image,” is actually an album highlight, capturing perfectly the majesty and unadulterated joy created by The Pastel’s unique ambling noodle soup of sound. Slow Summits is a good entrée into the world of The Pastels as it captures them at their most mature, concise, and wholly pleasing without losing any of those qualities that make them so appealing to some and impenetrable to others. Though the above-mentioned 80s classic, Sittin’ Pretty, offers an unfiltered, younger version of the group, wide-eyed and urgent, that might also prove an exciting starting point. Take your pick!

Slow Summits is available to stream on hoopla and Sittin’ Pretty is available to stream and download on Freegal.

Book cover for Slow Summits
Slow Summits
The Pastels