Wednesday, July 2, 2008

As you cycled by, there began all my dreams

Is Holidays to Wales the least rock’n’roll song title ever? It might be but then again it has stiff opposition from Distant Showers Sweep Across Norfolk Schools. Both are songs on July Skies’ The Weather Clock.*

I remember reading an interview with The Jesus And Mary Chain where Jim Reid was asked why a band from Scotland would use the American term Sidewalking for a song title. Reid replied: “Well, pavement isn’t a very rock’n’roll word is it?” **

American place names are part of the mythology of rock music. Their adoption is always a deliberate act of homage. For The Jesus Mary Chain this homage was always somehow subverted, the borrowed classicism offset by their spotty angst and sullen attitude. But, Indie music, and specifically British Indie music, has also developed a counter tradition which celebrates the quotidian and the unglamorous. Think Orange Juice in their boy scout shorts and antiquated vocabulary, or Morrissey’s 1950’s imagery and John Betjeman allusions.

This replaces the "Cars and Girls" of American rock with cerebral pleasures and deeply uncool modes of transport (see Aztec Camera's: "There's a message for us, we can get there by bus." from Killermont Street). These are pre rock’n’roll reference points, a period where the non-literary sensibility of rock music (noise, rhythm, the grain of the voice) had yet to assert itself, when holidays to Wales were still the stuff of dreams.

July Skies, with their odes to pre-Beeching branch lines and the paintings of Paul Nash, fit into this lineage. Their music has some of the qualities of the shambling c86 era and the cuteness of bands like The Field Mice, but they are more abstract, less song based. The lyrics, if there are any, are virtually inaudible and the songs are more like delicate mood pieces, somewhere between Vaughn Williams and Boards of Canada.

About as far from the Mary Chain's Sidewalks as you can get, The July Skies are more likely to be found on a cycling holiday in Norfolk, ruddy cheeked and with copies of Pevsner in their satchels. The pictures of early New Town housing in the CD booklet of The Weather Clock sum up their refined nostalgic impulses. The late music critic Iain Macdonlad once wrote that listening to Saint Etienne was like driving around Milton Keynes with the windscreen wipers on. I don’t think he meant it positively but it’s probably exactly the feeling they were striving for.

The music of July Skies meanwhile feels like daydreaming during double geography in a secondary modern school room on the outskirts of Harlow. In a good way you understand. An obscure and esoteric sensation to evoke for sure. It’s saved from sentimentality perhaps by the oblique loveliness of the music and the gentle eccentricity of the reference points.

* An album I was alerted to here and which received further endorsement from here.

** I have a theory that Steven Malkmus read the same interview before he christened his own band Pavement. The choice of such a deliberately un rock’n’roll word with all its anglophile gawkyness fits perfectly with Pavement's own skewed literary sensibility.

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