Many of the ‘two-fers’ in the 2021 Unpopular advent are at least thematically linked, but today sees a more concrete connection with both Swansea Sound and The Catenary Wires featuring several of the same players. It’s been said (always, one rather hopes, with a tongue firmly in cheek and a wry smile on lips) that Swansea Sound are a kind of Indiepop Supergroup and with Rob Pursey, Amelia Fletcher, Hue Williams and Ian Button in the ranks there is surely some justification in that.
The group themselves tell us that they are “a band that came into being during lockdown and decided that fast, loud, political indiepop punk was the answer to being stuck indoors” and that seems fair enough. ‘Live At The Rum Puncheon’ then is by turns angry, poignant, thought-provoking, self-referential and, more than anything else, very funny. It is the sound of a bunch of friends getting together, by whatever means is available to them, to make a racket, to remember something of the(ir) past, to make some very pertinent points about the present and to not be afraid to laugh at themselves in the process. There is an obvious delight in how the individuals have put the pieces together here, yet inherent in that delight is perhaps also an awareness of the ridiculousness of making this kind of noise at this kind of age. That’s in no way a criticism, incidentally, and if there was a theme throughout many of the records I have enjoyed this year it might be of the struggle to find balance between youth and age, idealism and pragmatism, illusion and reality. Which naturally says much more about me than it does about the records themselves. ‘Live At The Rum Puncheon’ could be a soundtrack to part of that eternal duel: A thirty six minute escape to happier/angrier places where we can convince ourselves that we can make a difference; the primal scream in the closet we all need now and then in order to restore our balance. Cheaper than drugs or therapy, too.
If ‘Live At The Rum Puncheon’ is a scream in the face of modern life then ‘Birling Gap’ by The Catenary Wires is a significantly more measured reflection, where nuance and suggestion win out over obvious proclamations. In some respects it follows in the footsteps of the beautiful ‘Wealden’ record that Pursey and Fletcher made with poet Nancy Gaffield in that it connects with place and explores something of the historical traces that energise landscapes. In the case of ‘Birling Gap’ this means that much of the record concerns itself with mediated nostalgia, where collective memory is manipulated and weaponised as a tool of division. It’s perhaps most obvious on the terrific ‘Three Wheeled Car’ in which a couple drive to the cliffs, there to “gaze out to the sea” and to “conjure up old enemies and feel safe and warm”, but the themes of division, polarisation, self-deception and retreat to the comfort of constructed memory thread themselves elsewhere too. It’s something Pursey touched on in an extensive conversation earlier in the year with myself and poet David Herd, whose work forms the lyrical foundations for the superb ‘Cinematic’. That piece can be read elsewhere in the Unpopular universe: https://bit.ly/birling-gap
Musically ‘Birling Gap’ sees The Catenary Wires as a 21st Century folk band informed as much by lush West Coast baroque and gentle horn-inflected soul refracted through the waters of the Mersey, the Clyde and the Rother as the traditional tropes laid down by centuries of Kentish hops harvesters. The group sound tremendous, with the core of Pursey and Fletcher again joined by Ian Button and superbly bolstered by Andy Lewis (Spearmint/Weller Band) and Fay Hallam (formerly of the fabulous Makin’Time, her own ‘Modulations’ set from 2021 is also well worth your time). If the songs of Swansea Sound are necessarily punky Pop sparks of acid that burn immediately on contact , then many of the songs on ‘Birling Gap’ pack a punch where it takes several listens to feel the bruise. Even on songs like the supremely upbeat ‘Always on My Mind’ there is something of a dissonant depth-charge going off as the song seems to mock an inability to move on from rejection even as it (musically) celebrates the worship of moments cast in amber. ‘Mirrorball’ meanwhile similarly delves into the past, rooting around in the bittersweet experiences of youthful excursions to provincial (’80s) discos, this time emerging with something profoundly moving in the re-configuring of memory. Here a kind of release is found in an understanding of things previously (wilfully) misunderstood. Complex relationships between truth, reality and perception in time might be played out in a marvellously catchy Pop jewel, but Catenary Wires simultaneously know that its possible to fuck all that and just dance. Which they do.
Indeed, that same reverberation of hope filters down through the entirety of ‘Birling Gap’. For if crumbling cliffs and receding shorelines can be read as a metaphor for the erosion of honesty replaced by untruth then so it could be argued that this in turn will pass. Tides will turn. Ground will be reclaimed and scales tipped. See-saw. So we go on.