Molly Drake Songs
(Strange Feeling Records 2014)
Sometime around early 1991, the indie label Enigma Records went bust and flooded the remainder bins of America’s mall record stores with thousands of remaindered LPs and CDs. That’s how I discovered the Close Lobsters that spring, after buying their three Enigma releases at the Record Bar in South Plains Mall in Lubbock, Texas for, if I recall correctly, $4.97 plus tax. Total. That remains one of the great value-for-money shopping days of my life, because those two albums (Foxheads Stalk This Land and Headache Rhetoric) and one EP (What Is There To Smile About, which song for song remains my favorite of their records) soon became some of my most treasured, and have remained so ever since.
A five-piece from Paisley, Scotland, their music reminded me a bit of some of my other favorite ’80s U.K. bands — particularly Felt and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions — but seasoned with a big dose of the jangly American college radio bands of the era (think Feelies more than R.E.M.) that gave them a bit more edge. A couple years later, when my college work study job got an internet connection, I discovered that the Close Lobsters were part of a scene that had been retroactively dubbed C86, after the promo cassette of that name that NME had released as a survey of the state of the British indie scene in that post-Smiths era. (C86 itself, incidentally, has just been reissued in expanded form on Cherry Red Records and is totally worth your money and time.) I’ve spent a fair chunk of the intervening two decades exploring those bands and their acolytes, and yet, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any that I like more than the Close Lobsters.
Which is why I’m both thrilled and relieved to report that their reunion single is brilliant, sounding both like the logical extension to their ’86-’89 records and like a record recorded and released in 2014. Top side “Now Time” matches a hypnotic guitar riff to a drop-dead cool lead vocal by Andrew Burnett, both of which owe a certain debt to vintage Tom Verlaine, before spiraling off into a gorgeous, near-psychedelic guitar solo. The flip “New York City in Space” is more classically Lobsteresque, piling Burnett, Tom Donnelly and Graeme Wilmington‘s guitars into a swirl of rippling overtones around Burnett’s impressionistic lyrics. The single is also a lovely object, sporting both a great sleeve design and what must be, seriously, the heaviest seven-inch single I’ve ever held. Plus, if you download the tracks, you get an additional two mixes of “Now Time,” an extended mostly-instumental with some wordless female vocals and a dubwise mix built around a pulsating keyboard part.
Before C86, the most influential compilation I’d ever heard was Pillows and Prayers, the legendary 1982 LP compiled and sequenced by Cherry Red’s A&R head Mike Alway. I first bought that at another chain record store, the Hastings Records across the street from Texas Tech University, which in early 1985 had the best import collection in the city. I bought it because it had a song by Everything But the Girl, whom I had immediately fallen in love with some weeks previously when MTV’s London Calling show played the video for their single “Each and Every One.” That three minutes remains vivid in my mind as one of the key sea-change moments of my musical life. It lead me not only to Everything But the Girl and by extension the rest of the Pillows and Prayers-era Cherry Red catalogue (including the early solo records by Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt and Tracey’s post-punk outfit the Marine Girls), but served as my introduction to the cool jazz and bossa nova artists that inspired them. I owe a lot to that record, which still counts among my favorites.
A Record Store Day release through Ben’s own Buzzin’ Fly label, this minimalist seven-inch reminds me very much of those Pillows and Prayers-era recordings by Tracey and Ben. The two songs together last less than four minutes total, and the recordings are delicately spare, with Tracey’s haunting vocals supported only by Ben’s electric piano on “How Wild the Wind Blows” and guitar on “Night Is My Friend.” (Incidentally, this is the first time the long-married couple have recorded together since the end of Everything But The Girl back in the late ’90s.) The songs were written by Molly Drake, Nick Drake‘s mother; her home recordings of them were issued recently, making plain the previously unknown influence of his mother on Nick’s own songwriting. The pre-rock style and quiet sophistication links them equally to the early Everything But the Girl material. Fans of those records would do well to seek this one out before it disappears.