As the frontman of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Kip Berman wrote songs about the thrills and ills of young adult life with the care and concern of a cool older sibling. The long-standing New York City indiepop group disbanded soon after releasing their final record, The Echo of Pleasure (2017), and Berman found himself at a creative crossroads. He wanted to keep making music, but the themes and sounds he was interested in had shifted; it felt time for a course correction.
Enter Tethers, Berman’s first solo record as The Natvral, which finds him coming to terms with the changes in his own life by observing those transformations in the people he’s known — a self-portrait in relief. In the time between making his last record with his former band, Berman’s life and location have shifted dramatically, as he welcomed a daughter, then a son, and moved from Brooklyn to Princeton. With his new identity as a parent came a crucial shift in how he approached music. Gone were the months in a cramped tour van and late nights rehearsing with his band in a windowless warehouse space. In its place were amorphous, suburban afternoons playing whimsical songs to two young children, while writing music for himself after their bedtime.
But in this time away from the life of a touring artist, Berman discovered an unvarnished, broken folk rock sound — a marked departure from his previous work.
(Photo Credit: Remy Holwick)
“The idea of ‘twee’ as I understand it is completely escapist. It can become creepy, but not in a good way. It doesn’t allow for politics or sex or the totality of things. It is… limiting.”
— Stephen McRobbie, the Pastels
Like Sarah Records, anoraks and the oft-cited but mostly misremembered NME mixtape C86, the Pastels have become shorthand for something ignored or dismissed by the majority of music writers: indiepop (one word, thanks). One of the most iconic bands of this very specific strain of post-punk that drew on the anyone-can-do-it ethos of punk and applied it to overtly pre-punk jangly guitar-pop structures (see also: Orange Juice, the Flatmates, the Television Personalities), they gained an undeserved reputation as perpetual pre-adolescents, shambolic poster children for a larger (if not actually all that large) underground community that celebrated songwriting over technical skill and self-reliance over traditional record industry support.
Admittedly, the group now fronted by lone founding member Stephen Pastel (né McRobbie) and 20-year vet Katrina Mitchell were initially all too happy to supply several red herrings that their detractors and fans alike were quick to latch onto. With a name that conjured a nursery color scheme, a sometimes-librarian anti-frontman, and a debut 1982 single “Songs for Children” (“You’re my girl/I’m your boy/This is perfect joy”), one can understand why a legion of young adults hell-bent on dressing like school kids and affecting an aggressive shyness might build a shrine in their twee houses to the band.
But to me, they’d be wrong.
Though I was too young to witness their early reception, their albums never sounded “twee” or came off like the work of marginalized outsiders, even given their cardigan-clad reputation and general anonymity in mainstream music writing (not counting an occasional mention as a band that Kurt Cobain liked). At their mid-to-late-’80s “productive peak” (the band has released only five proper albums in 30 years) their initial LPs, Up for a Bit with the Pastels (1987), Sittin’ Pretty (1989), and essential stand-alone singles like “Comin Through” and “Truck Train Tractor” were far dirtier and feverish than indiepop contemporaries like the Field Mice, Brighter, and Blueboy. Those bands’ rejection of macho rock tropes took the form of embracing the lyrically effete and incorporating electronic, jazz and bossa nova influences. The Pastels would eventually come around to incorporating more of a not-rock palette themselves, beginning with 1997’s Illumination and its companion, the surprising Illuminati remix album. But when the Pastels were releasing the songs that are still staples of Indiedisco playlists from Jakarta and Malmö to London and New York, they were embracing and defacing the primal underpinning of what rock music could be. If anything, they were akin to a Scottish Velvet Underground — if Lou Reed’s depravity were supplanted by Jonathan Richman’s wide-eyed emotional candor.
While never quite as haphazard, nihilistic or classicist as, respectively, the Vaselines, the Jesus and Mary Chain or Teenage Fanclub (all Glaswegian bands/peers McRobbie has confessed admiration for at various points — and it’s undoubtedly mutual), the group established an identity that had touches of the best parts of all three of those contemporaries. And if you listen to newer bands like Veronica Falls, the Crystal Stilts, Real Estate, or the first few releases of the band I’m in, you’re sure to hear touches of (or maybe in my case, blatant appropriation) of the Pastels’ legacy. But in the years since 1995’s Mobile Safari, the Pastels have steadily undermined any hints of their own ossification with an increasingly nuanced approach to writing — incorporating horns, bells, flutes and strings on a series of releases that sound less and less like rock records and more and more like some perpetual, idealized afternoon. “Summer Rain” is less the title of one of the many high water points on Slow Summits than a précis of the band’s sound in 2013: warm, languid chords that just fall as they are going to fall, their intentions unhurried, reveling in under-dramatized orchestration, unobtrusive percussion and vocals that easily express charged images like “the rapture of you” in a conversational tone that implies that “you” isn’t all that far away, but maybe sitting across the kitchen table, casually doing a crossword puzzle and waiting for the weather to clear.
I’ve met McRobbie a couple times, took a picture standing next to him, and bought a really good Vic Godard and James Kirk LP on his recommendation from his record store (Monorail Records) in Glasgow. I could never really broach the subject of what it was like to be revered for a sound he had outgrown before I’d learned how to play the guitar. I couldn’t say how I’ve been trying to dress like the cover ofSittin’ Pretty (a CD that I found in a strip mall record store in the $1.99 bin a decade after its release) for the past 15 years, or how I brought a CD-R of “Truck Train Tractor” to my friend Derek’s house before he recorded our first EP in his basement, saying “If it can sound kind of like this, we’ll be happy.” Instead, we talked about how good Crystal Stilts are.
To McRobbie, becoming the Patron Saint of Teenage seems the antithesis of his musical ethos, which, while initially untrained, was never an act of purposeful naiveté. Speaking in a fanzine that was reprinted on a Tumblr in 2013 by someone who was likely born about 12 years after the first Pastels single was released, McRobbie said:
“I’ve never really liked twee things or too much sweetness, but when we started the Pastels, three or four years earlier, you have to understand that in Glasgow there was a tendency towards a kind of adult sophistication in music, which we hated. We were raw and basic and we wanted to be the opposite of groups who were rushing to embrace Steely Dan and putting literature references into their songs. Our fury made us want to be more like children. But we weren’t twee people, not at all, it’s not the same thing. It was only meant to be a starting point, a zeroing out, the idea of songs for children. Soon, we started to realize that our idea for a beginning had become an end point for some people and it started to feel quite suffocating.”
I don’t know if Slow Summits will be the album that most people think of when they think of the Pastels. But to overlook such a graceful and seductive record simply for not having a bunch of songs you might hear at indiepop club nights between the Sea Urchins’ “Pristine Christine” and St. Christopher’s “All of a Tremble” seems unfair. After you hear the album’s opening salvo of “Secret Music,” “Don’t Wait,” “Check My Heart” and “Summer Rain,” you realize this sounds like a band making a record in their creative prime — but it also sounds very little like what the Pastels sounded like in their other creative prime.
Maybe, as I move further and further away from being an actual teenager, the things I want out of records are different. When I listen to this one, I hear a charming example of what it means to make art that still feels as subversive in its ornate craftsmanship as it once did in its irreverent, righteously amateur fury. 1982 is a long way away, and there are few indiepop bands of that era that are doing anything other than rehashing their hits or touring their classic records. (The Wake are a vital exception.) Thirty years later, McRobbie and Mitchell have emerged with a new record that gracefully relinquishes the superficial trappings of perpetual youth culture (“We are missed/but we exist”) and keeps cynicism and complacency at bay (“Don’t forget boldness/never roll your eyes/energize”). Though long grown from girls and boys, the Pastels are still perfect joy.