This influential Scottish indie band formed in Glasgow back in 1981 as a three piece. This time around, for their first full length release in sixteen years, The Pastels are frontman Stephen Pastel and drummer Katrina Mitchell who also shares vocal duties. While there are many fans eagerly awaiting Slow Summits, I have to admit I am not one of them. I am, however, one of the many new fans The Pastels are sure to win round when the album is released. This also means I am coming to it with fresh ears and a very open mind. I did do my homework and I have listened to older releases and, while from my brief dig through their back catalogue I can say with some certainty that Slow Summits doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, I can also say it doesn’t really need to. It also doesn’t cling to the same framework as earlier albums and definitely sounds more fully realised – although admittedly that could be to do with changes in production over their sixteen year absence.
Album opener, Secret Music, sets the tone for what’s to follow. Sang by Katrina Mitchell, it’s perfect to listen to as the sun sets on a summer’s day in a foreign city as the streetlights flicker to life and you find yourself wandering around with no plan and no destination save where your feet take you. There’s a beautiful lyrical refrain of “Can you sing along quietly?” which seems like a question you have to answer before you can proceed. If you can, then you’ll find the rest of Slow Summits a perfect fit. Night Time Made Us reintroduces Stephen’s voice ornamented by flute and trumpets evocative of the “night time colours” he sings about. It sounds a bit pretentious but this really is an album you can see the colours of as well as listen to. I’m trying to think of a non-wanky way to say that it evokes a really tangible physical presence as well as an aural one, but I’m not even sure that makes sense. The third track, Check My Heart, is a summery-twee-pop masterpiece and the lead single from the album. It sort of builds towards it and, even though it stands out, it’s not really a surprise, even when it fades out and is followed by the absolutely gorgeous Summer Rain, a lushly orchestrated waltzing love song, particularly after the three minute mark when the drums take off and it just meanders into earworm perfection.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to the high standards set by the four opening numbers. This is not to say that the rest of the album is bad – far from it! It’s a lovely album on the whole, but when you open so strongly it can be hard to keep the momentum going and here I think The Pastels struggle a little. After Image, a down-tempo instrumental piece that edges towards 80’s synth territory, slows the pace a little before the honeyed vocals of Mitchell usher in Kicking Leaves with its string arrangements and woodblock echoes. Musically, it’s sort of a companion piece to Summer Rain, whereas following track Wrong Light is more of a thematic companion to Secret Music as it circles back around to the recurring motifs of friendship and a city after dark. The album’s title track does, admittedly, make me rethink my stance on the second half of the album being weaker than the first, but only marginally. Initially it sounds a little out of place, but as it builds and builds towards its climax before coming back in you realise that it’s a sort of showpiece for everything that’s happening on the album. Slow Summits closes with the short and sweet Come to the Dance which opens with a few “yeah yeah yeahs” and is probably the most typically twee song on the album: it’s absolutely delightful, if an odd way to end the album.
All in all, the end of May is the perfect time to release this album. It’s summery, but in a way that it won’t become irrelevant or out-of-tune when the nights get a little shorter and the leaves begin to turn. After all, it’s a slightly off-beat celebration of imagined darkness and drizzly summer days that will delight old fans as well as a few new ones.