One of the happiest pop-rock discoveries of 2014 was undoubtedly Pugwash's A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, compiling the Irish band's best music from 1999-2011. Now, the four-piece consisting of Thomas Walsh, Tosh Flood, Shawn McGee and Joe Fitzgerald is back with an all-new set recorded at Konk Studios and released on Omnivore Recordings. Produced by Walsh and Flood, Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends) features the same bright, vibrant spirit and unabashedly melodic sensibility that permeated the anthology, building on the groundwork laid by The Beatles, XTC, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Electric Light Orchestra, but with a fresh feel that transcends mere pastiche.
It's no mistake that lead singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist invited ELO's Jeff Lynne to literally provide a shout on the bold opening track, "Kicking and Screaming." Walsh and Lynne are pictured together in a photograph that accompanies the song's lyrics in the booklet along with an ELO pin, and indeed, the song could be a great lost track from the "Evil Woman" and "Mr. Blue Sky" band with a dash of Byrds-ian jangle. Even putting aside that Walsh's timbre is eerily similar to Lynne's, "Kicking and Screaming" has a catchy, memorable melody, impeccable harmonies, and a layered, guitar-driven production redolent of Lynne's finest work. That the song's lyrics carry an upbeat, positive message is the cherry on top of this particularly delicious pop sundae. The open-hearted sensibility is also in evidence on the attractive ballad "The Fool I Had Become," on which Walsh looks back at a failed relationship with clear eyes but still adds, "I wish you well..." It's one of eight tracks here featuring The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon as a guest musician. Hannon adds piano to the bouncy "Hung Myself Out to Dry," another track with a pronounced Lynne influence, especially in its swooning vocal arrangement.
The album's prevailing, cheery vibe extends to the celebration of finding love, "Lucky in Every Way," and to the appropriately-named "Silly Love." The latter doesn't channel the famous Paul McCartney song with a very similar title, but Sir Paul would likely be proud of its bright, bucolic feel. But Play This Intimately is unafraid to tap into various throwback musical strains. A light locomotive rhythm drives the amiably mellow "Feed His Heart with Coal" while it's more like a freight train on the twangy rockabilly/Traveling Wilburys-esque "You Can Always Cry." There's an even more laid-back, country-style groove on "Oh Happy Days" featuring longtime Pugwash champion Andy Partridge and The Kinks' legendary Ray Davies on background vocals, and Neil Hannon on banjo and piano. Noel Langley even adds a touch of Bacharach with his flugelhorn part. (Other delightfully atypical-for-2015 instruments peppered throughout the album are washboard, Moog, Cymbalum and ukulele!)
"Clouds" is a dreamily wistful slice of bossa nova ("Clouds look down upon the two of us/What can we do?"), with Noel Langley guesting once more on pitch-perfect flugelhorn; far moodier is "Just So You Know" which glides along on mellotron strings and a subtle John Barry vibe. It gains color via evocative Spanish guitar and Hannon's Fender Rhodes. Pugwash's more overtly psychedelic influences come to the fore on the impressionistic, spacey "We Are Everywhere." And if you ever imagined what a Phil Spector production as sung by Roy Orbison might sound like, chances are it wouldn't be too far off from "All the Way from Love."
After a listen to Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends), it's probable that you'll take the title's advice - you very well may also play it often and play it for those good friends! By reverently looking back to the past without getting mired in it, Pugwash has created a future classic pop album for 2015. Oh, happy days, indeed!