AMELIA FLETCHER and Rob Pursey have been making intelligent British indiepop together through more incarnations than your current, faithful scribe cares to shake a stick at, and thus that stick shall remain firmly static.
Their relationship goes right back to the days of the lovely Talulah Gosh, one of many bands tarred only partly accurately by the dismissive inkies as ‘tweepop’: OK, so gems like “Beatnik Boy” and “Just A Dream” have a real choirgirl innocence, but check the rush of “Steaming Train” – and I’m reliably informed and teased about how punk as fuck they were live (yep, I just – just – missed them once in Exeter).
It wasn’t really until midway through Heavenly and the ever-echoing response from over the Atlantic, with the rising riot grrrl scene name-checking Talulah Gosh as an absolute touchstone, that it once more became the done thing in polite society to note: yes, they were a helluva lot sparkier and punkier than they were given credit for. As were Heavenly, who really began to mature politically in a lyrical sense in their mid-period, with some very dark lyrical subject matter being couched with melodic breeziness.
Rob was only briefly in Talulah Gosh, leaving early on; but he’s a mainstay alongside Amelia all the way through Heavenly, Marine Research, Tender Trap; and on into the current set up of The Catenary Wires and Swansea Sound. How many adorable bands do two people need? You might say.
Rob and Amelia have never fallen out of love with pop, as having at least two bands going concurrently even now illustrates; with a mini-album for Elefante, 2015’s Red Red Skies, and their most recent full-length album, Til The Morning, coming out in 2019, the time is indeed ripe for more cute pop with intelligence. A lot has happened. There’s been plenty to absorb and write about. I mean, look back to 2019: no virus and we thought Theresa May was bad … right? Walk in the park.
And as this once supposedly sceptred isle ups anchor and pushes away from the continent is will always, geographically, be part of, The Catenary Wires are firmly positioned on those romanticised white cliffs wondering at it all – at Sussex’s Birling Gap, no less.
On the Sussex coast, it has those steep chalk faces on which a certain version of England, Gracie Fields on loop, prides itself. It’s where The Cure shot the video for “Just Like Heaven”; Warren Ellis, Nick Cave’s violin dervish, has lived hereabouts. It’s romantic, it’s stormy, it can be deadly.
And it’s within that pristine white and sea blue that Amelia and Rob pack their tunes, adopting personas; the two lovers who finally cross paths at the Eighties’ disco in the sweet lead single, “Mirrorball”; old folk-rockers harking back to the Canterbury glory days (Syd Arthur notwithstanding); love rediscovered with a Sixties’ pop tinting rosily; Kinks fans in a Reliant Robin proud in their vision of their England.
Of course, for all that Amelia and Rob are kinda twin suns, it’s not just about them. The Catenary Wires number five these days. Lining up in trusty musical support are Fay Hallam, once of Black Country mods Makin’ Time alongside Charlatans’ guitarist Martin Blunt; bassist Andy Lewis, who’s worked with Weller, the inestimable Louis Phillippe and Fairport and Trader Horne chanteuse Judy Dyble; Ian Button played in Thrashing Doves and dark breaks confectioners Death in Vegas. Are you ready? And a one-two-three-four …
“Face On The Rail Line” is maybe not the opener you’d expect; it’s a frankly gorgeous folk-rocker, Byrdsian, full of autumn wood smoke and harmony. It talks of our multi-avatar world in which we all live our best life at one remove, and climaxes in the massed-voice hook, “Don’t lose your way”. Some opener, that.
“Alpine” also has a Mitteleuropean folksy swing, crisp 12-strings, a decent dose of shimmer and a classic call and response vocal, understatedly anthemic; and leads us into the strutting, Californian folk-pop harmonies of “Always On My Mind”, in which a couple rediscover lost love from a photo in an old stack of memorabilia; think John Phillips, think Mama Cass. Get some well-tailored drainpipes and chelsea boots for that retro dancefloor.
A triad of more chiming, earthy-coloured tunes in opening suddenly pop with bright primary colours and chrome trim of the Eighties with the delish single, “Mirrorball”: boy-meets-girl down at the disco, underlit dancefloor and cheap pints and all (we’re told the characters are divorcees). It’s as sweetly indiepop as you like, garnished with brass à la June Brides or Pale Fountains, in which the two “desperate fools” smile at each other in the chrome and pastel sweater hell of an Eighties’ disco, trading lines back and forth with loving warmth.
“Be Jason to my Kylie … sure if you’ll be Wah! Heat to my Wylie …” how can you not fall for a couplet that clever? And there’s even room for the interjecting boop-boop of a space syndrum – which, that’s insouciant. Thumbs up.
“Three Wheeled Car” – a Reliant Robin, surely, best of British (…) sees an old couple parked up, foil-wrapped sandwiches and tartan flask to hand, at Birling Gap; romantic in decades-long love, sure, but also a bit … smug. All of which is wrapped in traded lines abetted by a slight spaghetti western thing, cantering drums and warning chimes, the occasional Morricone whistle; even some wah-wah caress. “Deep down, we’re as English as the weather,” observes Rob-as-pensioner; “Do you know your history? / It’s part of you, it’s part of me”. The band say it makes oblique reference to The Kinks, those great recorders of the small English life as lived – which it does in that drawled la la la refrain; but also posits that maybe Ray Davies’ once radical songs are just part of the nostalgia industry now. Oh … that’s bleak. Eeep.
“Liminal” is a neat ditty, post-punky and synthy, possessed of a Too Pure-era Stereolab pulse, around which Amelia weaves a tale of waking to find her lover dreaming ; but we swing from that more urban retrofuturism consciously back to the folk-rock sphere in “Canterbury Lanes” the two here guising as a pair of musicians harking back to a halcyon Kentish scene – but still thinking the big break might be out there if they get the band back together one more time. It’s a great business. And you can scent the heady smoke of the Canterbury scene, woody reed instrument licks and all. “I took to the ale / In CAMRA tavern seats,” sings Rob, tongue surely a little in cheek there.
“Cinematic” bares its guitar teeth in fuzz and cloudiness on a forthright 6/8 swing about these increasingly hostile Ingurlish shores, Rob singing “push back, push back” with a deceptive light touch – the velvet fist of a country which is deciding to snarl; and the band say the last brace of tracks, “Like The Rain” and “The Overview Effect”, are “anxious love songs, set in a fragile world. Those white chalk cliffs at Birling Gap are, in reality, eroding very rapidly. They are emblematic of a proud, self-regarding nation, but they also represent impermanence, erosion and environmental change… “, and they present as an almost él Records harpsichord ballad, in the first instance, Amelia’s voice particularly honeyed, growing ever more plaintive and cracking just that crucial amount; the latter, pretty with 12-string and Amelica singing with that characteristic confessional thing she does, a slower-paced tune that could’ve sat anywhere in their catalogue right back to Sarah days. Going out on a high.
Birling Gap sees Rob and Amelia kicking back against some of the darker trends which stalk the land as we speak; and they do it with an observational deftness and an eclectic way with a tune. Don’t come expecting loadsa DM-bouncing floorfillers, though “Mirrorball” is an absolute gem, as sweet as it is fun as it warmly wry; come expecting folky introspection, some punkier and even krautrockier things, a little lyrical spikiness. And why wouldn’t there be? Look around our land and see what’s afoot. A canary in the indiepop coalmine, but a really interesting listen, too.
Fans of Tim (Burgess’s) Twitter Listening Parties and the band, take note: Birling Gap has a slot forthcoming at 8pm on Monday, June 21st. Should be good.
The Catenary Wires’ Birling Gap will be released in the UK by Skep Wax digitally, on CD and on vinyl on June 18th and may be pre-ordered over at Bandcamp; for the US, Shelflife Records is handling the album – and you’ll find a separate option at Bandcamp.