Pugwash is currently wrapping up its first-ever U.S. tour with two more performances scheduled in Los Angeles: this Sunday, October 19, on a bill alongside Wings’ great guitarist Laurence Juber and Now Sounds’ musical guru and all-around renaissance man Steve Stanley; and next Friday, October 24, with Love Revisited! If you’re in the area, you just might want to check the lads out!
The first track on the first-ever North American release by Irish band Pugwash implores “Take Me Away,” but where to? A Rose in a Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through the History of Pugwash, Omnivore Recordings’ new 17-track anthology drawn from five studio releases and one single originally issued between 1999 and 2011, will take you away to a world of jangly guitars, rich harmonies, unabashedly catchy melodies, bright productions, and vibrant colors, all delivered in a voice eerily reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra hero Jeff Lynne. That voice belongs to Thomas Walsh, who much as Lynne did for ELO, wrote, sang, produced and played multiple instruments for Pugwash. A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, however, transcends pastiche – which, let’s face it, takes a great deal of skill to do well, anyway. It’s best experienced as a continuation of the story begun by The Beatles and continued by bands from ELO to XTC – as well as a number of other groups with more than three letters in their names. Pugwash fits squarely in this tradition of smart, polished and exuberant guitar-pop practitioners unafraid to utilize the studio and all of the instruments it can house, among them organ, mellotron, sleigh bells, woodblock, harpsichord, strings, horns, vibes, glockenspiel, kazoo, and enough guitars and keyboards to sate even the most gargantuan musical appetite.
If “Take Me Away” is pitch-perfect ELO by way of The Byrds with a SMiLE-era Beach Boys interlude (and adding to the verisimilitude, Nelson Bragg of The Brian Wilson Band and The Now People plays on the track), the sounds in this Garden are, in truth, a rather diverse lot. This is in no small part due to the varied personnel. Sonic auteur Walsh is joined by a rotating cast on these tracks; Keith Farrell is the second most constant presence on a variety of instruments including Moog, Hammond organ and bass. The current band-line up with Tosh Flood (guitar/keyboards), Shaun McGee (bass) and Joe Fitzgerald (drums) is also represented. Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC drop by for good measure, and Jason Falkner of Jellyfish and TV Eyes adds various instruments to a number of tracks.
Falkner’s VOX Continental organ rides a cascade of acoustic and electric guitars, including Stephen Farrell’s George Harrison-esque inspired slide, on “Keep Movin’ On,” a wonderfully anthemic power-pop ode to perseverance. Another Beatle, John Lennon, is called to mind on the sincere, aching “Finer Things in Life,” on which Geoff Woods’ cello and strings add subtle elegance. Walsh has a knack for rhythmic yet attractive ballads, such as the yearning, vulnerable “Here” and the title track. The Section Quartet adds the baroque string ornamentation worthy of George Martin to both of those songs. (The liner notes tell us that the strings for “Rose” were recorded in Abbey Road 38 years to the day after “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Something was definitely in the air.) “Fall Down,” tinged with pretty melancholy, and the dynamic “Answers on a Postcard” – perhaps the most wonderfully realized production on this collection – pick up right where the Fab Four and ELO left off, and that’s intended as a high compliment, indeed. “Answers” incorporates some fleeting Brian Wilson-esque touches, too, and the master’s sonic approach is echoed, but not strictly recreated, on the effervescent, blissfully childlike “It’s Nice to Be Nice.”
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Walsh’s eccentric side shines on “Shine On Norvell Jefferson,” on which barrelhouse piano and twangy guitar serve the songwriter’s quirky tale of a wanted man (“but only by the bad”). “Monorail,” a lyrically simple list song (“all of these things will get you here to me”), is musically filled with a freewheeling sense of invention and a bright, electronic sheen. Modern production touches also abound on tracks like “Two Wrongs” and “Anyone Who Asks.” Both boast some of Walsh’s heaviest guitars and most impassioned vocals in this Garden and utilize live drums alongside loops. The energetic “At the Sea” was co-written with Andy Partridge, and features Partridge, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, singer-songwriter Eric Matthews and Nelson Bragg; its wonderful use of offbeat whistles and kazoos shows how far Walsh is willing to go with his dizzyingly orchestrated happy madness. Another Partridge co-write, is the shimmering, ethereal “Anchor.” The loping, wistful melody perfectly complements the evocative imagery of Walsh’s lyrics and accompaniment including sleigh bells and Eric Matthews’ triumphant trumpet and dark-hued flugelhorn.
“Be My Friend Awhile,” goes the final track on A Rose in a Garden of Weeds. No doubt listeners will find a friend in this album for more than just awhile. After all, these are the kinds of melodies that get under the skin and refuse to dislodge themselves easily, while the intricate, pristine productions offer rewards on multiple listens, as well. A Rose might well be the best album Jeff Lynne never made, but that’s taking sheer praise for the spirited, original and happily hook-filled pop created by Thomas Walsh and his merry band. This anthology, housed in a digipak well-designed by Greg Allen, has been splendidly curated by Walsh and Omnivore’s Lee Lodyga, and remastered by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen (veterans of numerous Omnivore reissues as well as George Harrison’s recent The Apple Years box set.) The booklet contains two brief notes from Chris Collingwood and Eric Gorfain of The Section Quartet, plus full lyrics, credits for each track, and discographical annotation.
Pugwash has the rare ability to take the sounds of yesterday and build on them with both fidelity and forward-thinking. With any luck, reissues of the band’s complete studio albums are in the cards. But in the meantime, Omnivore has tended this Garden well.