erasing clouds

Melodic Pop-Rock Magic: Garfields Birthday, Suicide Cat and Marlowe

by Dave heaton

The beauty of today's "information society" is how easy it is to discover musicians working all over the world. Of course, this same world is so overloaded with musicians and their releases that it's impossible to keep track of even a small portion of the great music that's being made over the world. What makes it easier is DIY record labels that operate on a global scale, music fans who comb the globe for new music and then do their best to get it to people.

It is through one of those labels, the fine Italian tape label Best Kept Secret, that I discovered Garfields Birthday, a British power-pop group from Bristol that writes melodies to die for. The group's four members--vocalist/guitarist James Laming, vocalist/bassist Simon Felton, guitarist Jon Park and drummer A.D. Payne--together create fun, heartfelt, intelligent and hyper-melodic pop-rock music which is less about innovation than just straight-out-great songwriting. On their albums Peepshow (1999) and Words and Pictures (2001)both are on Felton's label Pink Hedgehog Records; the latter was also released on tape by Best Kept Secret) are filled with killer pop songs, tunes that will never leave your mind once you hear them. The lyrics match a sharp wit with touching takes on relationships, while both Laming and Felton's vocals have a prettiness that suits the melodies perfectly.

Their most recent release to be distributed on cassette by Best Kept Secret is Chrome Jungle, a 2000 compilation of "rarities and unreleased tracks." Also available on CD from Pink Hedgehog, it features rare tracks from cassette albums they put out in the mid-to-late 1990s, plus two tracks from an unfinished, never-released album and a few covers that they recorded for a pub demo made to get them gigs. All of the material is as top-notch as on their albums, and while the tape isn't organized with the tight cohesiveness of their albums, it does have that nice sense of rough organization that this sort of compilation tends to have, with quotes from the film "Withnail and I" used as segues between songs.

The cover songs here are a real treat, as it's always nice to hear singers you like take on other people's songs that you like. They're all straightforward takes on classic pop songs, including Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" and Teenage Fanclub's "Everything Flows," and they're all really enjoyable. The rest of the collection is just as much of a pleasure. There's a different mix of Words and Pictures' "Last Night I Slept With Your Mother," a super-bitter kiss-off that manages to sound both caustic and sweet at the same time, and several short little pop gems, including "I Don't Believe in Magic Anymore," billed in the liner notes as the band's shortest song ever.

Suicide Cat, whose album Food For Thought was released in 2001 by Pink Hedgehog, is Laming and Felton playing mostly acoustic, mellower songs. The album is like the prettier side of Garfields Birthday pushed to the front, with the "rock" side pretty much taken away. The result is a gorgeous, gentle pop album. Songs like "Slumberland Blues" have a quiet melancholy that evokes Simon and Garfunkel, while "We Know Your Name," which appeared in rock form on Garfields Birthday's Words and Pictures album, has a nice psychedelic touch to it, as do some songs near the album's end where the duo throws keyboards and slightly warped vocals into the mix. "She looks like an angel but smokes like a chimney/Baby take a ride with me," Laming sings on the final track, displaying the same eye for description and sort-of romantic air as in Garfields Birthday's lyrics. Suicide Cat might be mostly a "side project" to Garfields Birthday, but the resulting album is just as worthwhile.

Another band involving a Garfields Birthday member is Marlowe, essentially a one-man project for Laming to cloak his songs more in layers of sound and atmosphere. They Would've Hated You Anyway (also released by Pink Hedgehog in 2001) features Laming's gorgeous voice and knack for melodic songwriting, but with Garfields Birthday's quick punch replaced by more expansive, laid-back arrangements flittered with keyboards and piano along with the guitars. The album has nearly the opposite style of the Suicide Cat album--richly textured where that album is sparse and stripped-down, playfully experimental where it is direct--but is just as pretty, with Laming's voice meeting the music in sublime ways. "I just wrote to say that I'd love to steal your girl away," he sings at the start of "A Blow for Charity," showing a wry directness in his words, but delivering it in a quietly melancholy way. That sort of gentle sadness infuses the whole album, as do themes of people's affairs and interactions, the ways people entice each other and then break each other's hearts. The two times when the music picks up to a more exuberant, bouncy pace, it's to back a song about a "Two Day Affair," featuring the line "where did I go wrong?", and for a song called "What Did I See in You?" Still, the lyrics are as self-critical as they are critical of others; they ask questions about human interactions and why they are as they are, about why people behave as they do.

Marlowe's They Would Have Hated You Anyway is a complex mix of lamentation and experimentation, held together with ultra-fine pop melodies. It's one more reason music fans should pay close attention to Garfields Birthday and its members other projects. This is pop-rock magic that people will like…if they only hear it.


Issue 9, April 2002 | next article

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