Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pugwash, The Olympus Sound

Beautiful harmonies, sumptuous melodies, swirling organs, Mellotrons, chiming Rickenbacker guitars and beguiling chords all mashed together with shades of The Jam, The Who, XTC, ELO , The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Beach Boys and, dare we say it, Peter Frampton: who else could it be but Dublin’s own Pugwash.

The Olympus Sound, released in August 2011, is the fifth offering from Pugwash front man/songwriter Thomas Walsh, and follows Almond Tea (1999), Almanac (2002), Jollity (2005), and Eleven Modern Antiquities (2009). Pugwash have always been something of an oddity, crafting intelligent and honest retro pop within a city, indeed a country, which cares little for the genre.
The Irish music scene has produced some wonderful pop groups over the last few decades, but few have been able to carve out a successful mainstream career with its financial rewards.  Such success seems all too easy for rock bands who take themselves too seriously, or artists with a traditional music variable who can rely on a heavy appeal to a pre-conditioned population. 
Ireland simply doesn’t have a huge tradition in pop, which is not surprising given the special hold trad has within and without the major towns and cities.  This is compounded by the damaging and one-dimensional legacy which followed on the success of the country’s major international rock acts throughout the ‘70s/’80s/’90s and beyond. 
"Dublin Is Dead" was the controversial slogan of one of Dublin’s few indie acts of the mid 90s. The city, and the country has however undergone a regeneration of sorts over the past 10-15 years, producing an eclectic array of pop acts which, while hardly rivalling the output of any major UK city, has still been a vast improvement on its sometimes dull musical past.

Over the past 12 years, Thomas Walsh and Pugwash have been at the core of this renaissance. Walsh, like many purveyors of his particular brand of classic pop (what some call "power pop") was weaned on the giants of the genre: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, ELO, and XTC.
It was his discovery that Andy Partridge of XTC composed in his garden shed which led Walsh to erecting a wooden shed in his parents' back garden, filling it with cheap recording devices and instruments and running a power cable from his home in Drimnagh to his new abode. It was in this same shed that Walsh spent 10,000 hours learning his craft and amassing a wealth of demo tapes.
These tapes eventually led to his discovery by US producer Kim Fowley and hitting the touring circuit with Belfast singer/songwriter Andy White.

Walsh formed Pugwash in 1997, and their debut Almond Tea was released in 1999. Twelve years on, The Olympus Sound and its first single "Fall Down" finds Walsh in familiar pop territory (albeit with a more accomplished and mature sound), but still short of the mainstream success which you would expect this style and calibre of music to deliver. Walsh, thankfully, prefers to focus on what he has than what he has not. 
Commercial success may have eluded him thus far, but Walsh has never been short of critical acclaim. In fact the list of heavyweights who have heaped praise on his talent is, frankly, intimidating. Walsh met his idol Brian Wilson in 2005 following the release of the band's third album Jollity. The album contained the track "It’s Nice To Be Nice" which was a sublime homage to Wilson’s Beach Boys, and unsurprisingly, it caught Wilson's attention.

Not content with the praise of one idol ringing in his ear, Walsh next caught the attention of and befriended Andy Partridge of XTC, who called Walsh "the saviour of modern pop."  Walsh is a rich man indeed. His interest in XTC has been long and formative, with Walsh declaring that the group's 1986 release Skylarking "changed my life." 
Partridge signed Pugwash to his own label in 2009, and has even composed with Walsh. Their close friendship and Partridge’s high regard for the Dubliner's talent is evident in his remark that Walsh is "better than McCartney; fatter than Lennon". 
Walsh however got his closest brush with the high-rollers and mainstream success following his collaboration with The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and their cricket-themed work, The Duckworth Lewis Method (2009). Walsh was nominated for an Ivor Novello award for his contribution.
Following this project, Pugwash returned to the studio and the result is The Olympus Sound. Again, and unsurprisingly, Walsh’s influences shine through on the 12 tracks.

"Answers On A Postcard" contains some wonderful Beach Boys harmonies, and a syncopated rhythm section which is more than a nod to "Good Vibrations."   This single also contains swirling, hurdy-gurdy organs a la The Small Faces and an opening that evokes the intro of The Who’s "Out In The Street."   "There You Are’" contains shades of XTC and ELO, with a little of what The Who might like sound like if they’d been tamed by a spell in Borstal. 
The beautiful "To The Warmth of You" plants Walsh in XTC heaven, and could easily be an outtake from Skylarking itself, while a comparison with Paul McCartney’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard seems fitting. The albums’ second single "Fall Down" is probably its strongest commercial track, sounding just a little like the late output of George Harrison; particularly the Jeff Lynne-stamped solo. 
"Dear Belinda" and "I Don’t Like It But I’ve Gotta Do It" return to XTC territory a la Skylarking while "15 Kilocycle Tone" sounds like earlier Pugwash, with a beat borrowed from Revolver’s "Tomorrow Never Knows."  "Such Beauty Thrown Away" and "Four Days" mirror Wilson once again, while "Be My Friend A While" is inescapably ELO. "Here We Go Round Again" is a sublime nod to ‘70s pop, with a just a hint of Frampton in the melody, yet just the right amount of late 60s Mellotron’s subjected to more XTC-influenced vocal melodies and harmonies.

The Olympus Sound is, overall, more tightly produced, somehow more compressed than its predecessors, with a palpable lack of the brightness of "It’s Nice To Be Nice."  But that darkness gives the album a maturity and consistency which previous Pugwash albums may have lacked. 
Walsh may find the constant comparisons to his idols in his work grating at times, but the truth is that he weaves these into his own songs so well that he escapes their clutches easily. Like their Scottish counterparts of power pop, Teenage Fanclub, Pugwash may wear their musical loves on their sleeves, but Pugwash still sound like Pugwash. In a city that will barely acknowledge beautiful, bright, shiny pop such as this, they will always be unique. 
Walsh isn’t fazed by his lack of international success. “If people are gonna remember me for something, it might as well be a beard. Some people never get remembered, so it might as well be a beard for me.” The Olympus Sound, the band’s four previous albums, and whatever Pugwash may still have up their sleeve ensures Walsh will be remembered for his honest and intelligent approach to pop music, and not his facial hair.

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