It’s 21 years since the last Wild Swans album, and 29 since their debut single, ‘Revolutionary spirit’. How great then that this year they should make their best record so far into their on/off existence. Released through the excellent Occultation label, the The coldest winter for a hundred years is a long way from that debut, though the vestiges of the young man who wrote it still course through Paul Simpson’s blood. It would be harsh to say he overeggs the mourning for time past, because, well, it’s his lyrical patch as much as Liverpool is and he delivers beautifully nostalgic songs which are never entirely lost in dreams. No longer needing or caring to situate themselves either as musically apart or in tune with musical fashions makes for songs whose chiming guitars – no less than 11 are amassed on ‘English electric lightning’ – have a timeless feel which suits the lyrical nostalgia perfectly and add bite to the plaints that things were both better and worse in Paul’s day. It’s a heady, poetic, elegiac mix. The accompanying EP Tracks in snow offers three additional songs which for one reason or another didn’t make the final cut; ‘Poison’ with its lovely heartbroken melody can consider itself particularly unlucky. Both LP and EP are among my favourite records released this year.
And is it me, or is there a deliberate echo of George Martin’s speeded-up electric piano from ‘In my life’ threaded through ‘My town’? ‘Like music hall, variety, the Psychic Truth Society / Like Beatle wigs and Deaf School gigs / It’s over now, it’s over now’.
Talking of the Fabs, what’s the most fun I’ve had musically this year? Watching the Upbeat Beatles, that’s what. Primal Scream pretending to be the Rolling Stones apart, I’ve never knowingly been to see a tribute band, but when allegedly the best Fab fabricators are playing for free on your doorstep, it would have been rude not to. I wanted to go because I had always wondered what those songs would sound like live, and now I have some idea, because these pretend Beatles played both best and lesser known numbers just about perfectly. Of course it was moptop wigs and Beatle suits to hide the ageing impersonators underneath. John was a scream, and George might have made you cry with laughter or tears for the inadvertent mockery made of that beautiful man. Paul was probably the best fit, while at least Ringo looked sufficiently like he was on loan from another group. Of course the deep-seated connection between writing and delivery is broken by a tribute group, and it’s never going to have the same emotional heft as seeing the songs performed by their original writers (in a context magically devoid of screaming, death and ageing) but this was as close as anyone who couldn’t quite stomach an entire thumbs aloft Macca concert is ever going to get. I left the village green with the undeniably uplifting and celebratory sound of everyone singing ‘Hey Jude’ ringing in my ears.
The Wild Swans’ unfinished business continues with a seven inch single and download, ‘Liquid mercury’ / ‘The wickedest man in the world’ (Occultation) and it sounds like the past is still preoccupying Paul Simpson. While neither track has the epic grandeur of ‘English electric lightning’, each is still bedecked with a rare degree of grace and great swoops of guitar – classic Scouse pop. And pop poetry, for ‘The wickedest man’ is another spoken word piece in the same gloriously melancholic vein as ‘The coldest winter for a hundred years’: ‘For me each year gets just a little tougher to get through / the regime just a little tighter / and the stars a little more distant’.
And, as I’m sure you’ll agree, another fabulous cover.
Alistair has nailed his colours to the masts of the great new 10 inch singles by the Granite Shore and the resurrected Wild Swans (both available from Occultation). All four cuts are more than worthy of a write-up, but at the moment ‘The coldest winter for a hundred years’ is just shading it. A fond and evocative memorial to a dead time, place and person, ‘The coldest winter’ is a particularly fine addition to the small but growing collection of what for want of a better phrase we might call spoken word pop. I’m thinking of the Clientele’s ‘Losing Haringey’, The Claim’s ‘Mike the bike’, the Go-Betweens’ ‘River of money’, Momus’ ‘Closer to you’ and George Pringle’s ‘Carte postale’; I’m sure there are plenty of others that haven’t immediately sprung to my mind but will to yours.