Written by 4:10 am Audiophile Music

Pugwash’s First International Release is a Charmer

Mark Smotroff finally succumbs to Pugwash’s loving pop overtures

For me, the buzz about Pugwash started several years ago when XTC’s Andy Partridge started touting about a band from Ireland he was helping out…  I heard snippets of their stuff and it sounded real nice but for numerous reasons I steered clear of it. Part of me wanted to take a wait-and-see approach to see if the band really developed and grew into something bigger that I could sink my musical teeth into for the long haul — was I disappointed by perhaps one to many assemblages of gorgeous pop music that suddenly disappear after disappointing sales or internal struggles? Maybe…. 

AR-PugwashCover225.jpgProbably a bigger part of it was simply that (truth be told) life had once again intervened in my personal happiness and I was seriously paying attention to other more immediately pressing details related to family, friends and my future.  

Either way, I accepted the fact that I was not going to be the first new kid on the block with a groovy imported Pugwash album in hand… 

And so it goes… and we now fast forward to 2015 …

Recently, the good folks at Omnivore Records contacted me with news of the band’s first domestic US release. My life being a bit more settled this time ’round I got immediately excited as this seemed like the right time for me to finally check them out.  A “no brainer,” as they say, for a pop music fan like me…

Well the good news is that I am not disappointed at all about the music or the sound of their new CD and LP which is called Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends).

I could get all spot-the-influence on you, Dear Readers, because this is a band that not only has done its homework, but really has immersed itself it its influences to the point where they become their own.  That said, Pugwash is yet another example of fine new music that I will gleefully toss in the face of anyone who tries to tell me that “they don’t make any good music anymore.” 

Listen to this record review…

AR-PugwashAndyPartridgeLyricSheetImage.jpgReally. Pugwash’s new album is fine fine release and its not all just retro British-Invasion-Meets-The-Beach-Boys type influences. The opening song, “Kicking and Screaming” sounds like what might happen if Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme was fronting a new incarnation of The Troggs playing songs co-written by The Foo Fighters Dave Grohl and XTC’s Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding.  

Ok, there I go playing spot-the-influence…

I don’t really have play too much on a track like “Oh Happy Days” which features background harmonies by XTC’s Andy Partridge and Ray Davies of The Kinks — notable for that fact itself, consider that this is perhaps the first time these two legendary British pop artists are together on the same recording…

Anyhow, I’m really digging this album. In fact, I dug it so much that when I read that Omnivore has put it out on oooooh-so-shiny red vinyl (at a fair price via Amazon Prime) I promptly ordered myself up a copy to compare and contrast with the CD. And mind you, the CD — all things considered — sounds quite nice. But given the lush blend of electric and acoustic instrumentation plus harmony-drenched vocals, I wanted access to the best possible version. 

And the verdict is….

AR-PugwashLPplaying225.jpgThe vinyl sounds fine and, not surprisingly, even better sounding than the CD with an interesting focus on the bass and midrange sounds. More than just a bit warmer and open sounding, the LP shows more details that are sort of washed over on the CD, such as the propulsive bass lines on “Lucky In Every Way.” On a tune like “Feed His Heart With Coal,” the acoustic guitars sound boxier on the CD than on the LP which is noticeably richer and rounder sounding.  

On the CD, The Monkees-flavored “You Could Always Cry” sounds more like its being played over the AM radio band while on the LP the song sounds you are hearing it over FM radio.  The Rufus Wainwright-Meets-Badfinger flavor of “Hung Myself Out To Dry” sounds a lot more appealing on the LP, with the harmonies coming through rich and full while the strummed acoustic guitar chords resonate the wood of the instrument (whereas on the CD you mostly hear just the scrape of the pick against the strings, as if some random scratching was buried in the mix).  My only “ding” for this release is that the LP version doesn’t come with lyrics but the CD does… but … when you download the free 320 kbps MP3 — which sounds ok all things considered — you get a PDF containing all the CD packaging including the lyrics! 

Someone thought this through, no doubt. 

Overall, Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) sounds real lovely in a vintage pop-rock record sort of way (and the CD sounds great in the car!); this record could have been made any time in the last 40 years and that is a good thing (some might even call it a “timeless” sound).  

The vinyl is perfectly centered, thick and dead quiet. And it is red! Yup, it comes on spiffy translucent red vinyl with nifty mod target label that is very reminiscent of the labels on the original pressings of The Who’s Quadrophenia movie soundtrack. I don’t think there was any mistake in that reference point, especially as I found a cute Mod character on a scooter scooting across the band’s website bearing that same target image. 

Spot the influence! 

These guys don’t make the game easy, that is for sure. And that is a good thing. 

One of the hallmarks of great songwriting is how much the writers and performers have assimilated their influences to the point where they no longer show outwardly. There is no doubt these guys have listened to all the seminal British invasion and New Wave bands, from The Kinks to The Pretty Things to Rockpile to Elvis Costello.  I love how on the last song “We Are Everywhere” they channel two eras of George Harrison simultaneously — vocals are heavily processed ala “Blue Jay Way” from 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour against a somber guitar signature this side of Harrison’s aching 1973 release, Living in the Material World — while never quite sounding directly like the quiet Beatle.  The horn solo is one of those things that sends a shiver down your spine (reminding me a bit of Chet Baker’s solo in Elvis Costello’s devastating 1982 war song “Shipbuilding”).  And then there is that perfect Ringo-esque drum flop tucked at the end (loosely echoing the side-one closer from The Beatles’ White Album on Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”) that is just so the right closing moment for the album. (insert applause from the pop music peanut gallery)

Ok, ok… I really will stop with the spot-the-influence stuff already… for now (wink wink, nudge nudge).

Bottom line: this is a great album of great songs played by a great band. Melodies, hooks, choruses, bridges. All the hallmarks of classic pop and rock songwriting with twists and turns that are at once familiar and fresh at the same time. 

For me, this all adds up to an album that is a keeper. Get it!

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