My, how times change. A little over two centuries ago, that irascible Englishman Samuel Johnson could say of Scotland, which was widely perceived to be a kind of wild wasteland populated by savages, “Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.”
Little did the author of Rasselas suspect that, one day, vile, barbaric Scotland would become the last refuge of your sensitive rock ‘n’ roll fan. Belle and Sebastian, Future Pilot AKA, the Delgados, Lone Pigeon, Arab Strap, Snow Patrol—the country that was once best known for bringing us the likes of Gerry Rafferty and the Bay City Rollers now calls itself home to one of the world’s most vibrant (albeit wussy) music scenes. “What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?” asked Johnson once, most likely to reverberating laughter. Well, we’ll see who’s laughing when an armada of American indie-record-store geeks sails into the Firth of Forth.
And as if Scotland doesn’t have a firm enough stranglehold on indie pop’s skinny throat, you can add two more bands to its list of contenders: Glasgow’s Reindeer Section and Edinburgh’s James Yorkston and the Athletes.
True, the Reindeer Section, the brainchild of Snow Patrol headman Gary Lightbody, isn’t a real band per se, but rather a species of Scottish indie-rock supergroup. In addition to Lightbody, core members include fellow Snow Patrolman Jonny Quinn; Neil Payne, Charlie Clarke, Willy Campbell, and Gareth Russell of Astrid; and Jenny Reeve of Eva. Also making contributions are members of Mogwai, Alfie, Arab Strap, Idlewild, Teenage Fanclub, and Belle and Sebastian, among many others famous and not-so.
Given its sizable cast—and we’re talking enough geezers to play a full game of what the Scots call football, with enough left over to start a decent riot in the terraces—Reindeer Section’s sophomore album, Son of Evil Reindeer, could have easily turned into a directionless mess. But Evil, which, like its 2001 predecessor, Y’all Get Scared Now, Ya Hear!, was recorded in less than a fortnight, is a remarkably cohesive bunch of songs. And no wonder, because Lightbody wrote the music for every single one of them.
Indeed, with the exception of the occasional non-Lightbody lead vocal, Evil could easily pass for a Snow Patrol album. Depending on how you feel about Lightbody’s lighter-than-air melodies, too-twee-to-live vocals, and relatively vapid lyrics, that can be seen as either its greatest strength or its greatest weakness.
Me, I find that a little Lightbody goes a long way. His songs are the aural equivalent of funnel cake: too much and you risk nausea, but in moderation, they’re purest heaven. Take, for instance, the anthemic “You Are My Joy”: two churning chords played on electric and acoustic guitars, a chorus that consists of the words “You are my joy” sung over and over again, and…well, nothing else, really.
That said, I’m guessing that nine out of 10 of you won’t be able to resist its glorious charms. Lightbody knows that two chords are sometimes all you need to make a decent pop song, and he’s obviously convinced his bandmates that it’s even better if you play ’em as if they were the last two chords on Earth. Plus, Reeve gilds the whole thing with exactly the right amount of tastefully bowed violin. Just as good, and for all the same reasons, is “Cartwheels”: It starts slowly, with Lightbody singing—and this is as close to rabble-rousing as he’s ever come—about “pissing on the perfect front lawns”; then it kicks into a violin-filled chorus so superhumanly beautiful that it deserves to grace the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Ditto for “Your Sweet Voice,” which is pure pop treacle: chiming guitars, sparkling piano, and a chorus so berserkly melodramatic that it would make Barry Manilow proud. “I can’t call you a friend,” Lightbody sings, “Because when you left me here you left me here to die…/And when you broke my heart you broke it into shards of glass.”
But the best thing about the Reindeer Section is that you get a break from Lightbody now and again. Reeve and Blake share vocal duties on the slo-core-ish “Budapest,” and Reeve and ex-Vaseline Eugene Kelly join up for the jaunty “Strike Me Down,” one of the few songs on Evil that isn’t instantly recognizable as having come from the hand of the lead Reindeer. “I used to hope the phone would ring/And now I’m glad it doesn’t…/Don’t think I don’t think of you now I’m with you every day dear,” Kelly sings, just before the band unfolds yet another too-good-to-be-true chorus.
My personal favorite of the non-Lightbody tracks, however, is album-closer “Whodunnit?” Featuring soused-sounding Arab Strapper Aidan Moffat, the track is closer to the gutter than to the stars, all ass-dragging drums and downcast piano. “I fell in love again today/I think that’s been every day this week/I don’t need to know a thing about them/I don’t need to know their name or hear them speak,” sings Moffat on the chorus, more in resignation than self-reproach. It’s an almost flawless song, the final will and testament of a man mystified by the vagaries of his own wayward heart.
The song sounds out of place here, but if we’re lucky, the Reindeer Section will use it as a guidepost for its next effort. Son of Evil Reindeer is undoubtedly a fine example of contemporary Scotpop, but “Whodunnit?” makes you wish that Lightbody would get a little more evil a little more often. Maybe he just needs a little more help from somebody like Moffat. You could do a lot worse than being the Glaswegian McCartney, but you couldn’t do much better than becoming part of the Glaswegian Lennon-McCartney.
If the Reindeer Section exemplifies Scottish indie rock at its poppiest, then James Yorkston and the Athletes represent the genre at its most rusticated and folky. Languid and acoustic, with lots of harmonica and accordion mixed in for flavoring, Yorkston & Co.’s debut album could only have been released under the title Moving Up Country.
Yorkston’s voice is a charmingly ordinary instrument, and his songs are anything but catchy. Rather, they’re homely buggers that grow on you. Band members Yorkston (guitar, vocals, harmonica, mandolin, clarinet, bouzouki—you name it), Reuben Taylor (piano, other keyboards, accordion), Wendy Chan (violins, vocals, Vibratone), Faisal Rahman (percussion, accordion, lap steel), Doogie Paul (bass), and Holly Taylor (small pipes, whistle) don’t seem to be out to impress anybody. Like their North American antecedents in the Band, they prove that the height of artistry is to disappear into their songs.
And Moving Up Country’s 10 songs are, one and all, about as beguiling and beautiful as this stuff gets. “The Patience Song” dissects unrequited love with some lounge-y Rhodes piano (courtesy of Taylor), a few sharply observed verses (“And as I watch from the bar at some fool she’s acquired/She’s laughing, turns and catches my eye”), and a chorus that I would gladly listen to forever (“I’ve got patience and I will try to work this out”). “Tender to the Blues” is even better, with a haunting keys-and-piano intro, a soothing concertina figure, and the catchiest, saddest melody this side of the fen. “And the wise men say I should fight for my cause,” Yorkston sings. “But I’m all punched out, and just so tired.”
The bass-propelled “Cheating the Game,” by contrast, is downright perky—why, it’s practically Cajun, thanks to Taylor’s accordion and Yorkston’s banjo. And “I Spy Dogs” is similarly jaunty, moving along like one of Dylan’s upbeat New Morning numbers, with guest Simon Raymonde providing nice counterpoint to Taylor’s bouncy piano on his lap steel. Lyrically, it seems to have something to do with making fun of French musicians who “couldn’t even play.”
Dylan’s influence also pops up in “6:30 Is Just Way Too Early,” an organ- and harmonica-driven number that relocates Highway 61 to the Scottish highlands, perfectly evoking a frosty, peat-smoke-filled early December morning. But the very best thing here, “I Know My Love,” is a little more pre-electric. In the great tradition of Every Picture Tells a Story-era Rod Stewart, Yorkston and the Athletes gussy up an old folk number (sample lyrics: “I know my love by her way of walking/I know my love by her way of talking”) with some countryesque lap steel and piano, then keep the thing percolating with a bouncing rock bass. It’s a tasty piece of musicianship, and about as close as these people ever get to showing off: intense but never loud, tension-filled but never chaotic, slow-building but never boring. Here’s hoping that Yorkston & Co. keep holding back. CP