I guess they’re called Pete and the Pirates because they have two guys named Pete in the band. Otherwise, who knows, they might have been called Tom and the Tyrants (the lead singer’s name is Thomas Sanders). Frankly, it doesn’t seem like a name that was given a lot of thought. But what’s in a name; it’s what’s in the grooves, as they used to say when there were grooves. But I digress.
It’s their second album, you see, and it’s entitled One Thousand Pictures. And a stumble or two notwithstanding it’s really, really good. I suppose by the industrial standards of British rock they’d be considered an ‘indie’ band. But let me tell you right now – that means something very different with respect to music than it does in the States. Where Amer-indie rock is dominated by post-graduates cooking up genre jokes and goofball aesthetic strategies, young British musicians by and large aren’t afraid of: a) melody and b) making records that sound like they were actually trying to make the songs sound good. Crazy, I know. Hell, I’m even getting aural fatigue from my beloved American garage-rock. Seriously, does everybody have to shoot for a sonic spectrum that tries, usually in vain, to aspire to the sound limitations of a scratchy Sixties rhythm ‘n’ blues single? A Thousand Pictures, without being in the least ‘over-produced,’ sounds big. You can hear all the parts, distinguish the voices – the production enhances the performances. End of rant.
So, what do they sound like? The Kinks, Roxy Music, Placebo, the Stranglers, the Buzzcocks, Magazine, Dramarama, the Chills, Television Personalities, the Only Ones, Blur, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Blondie, the Cars, Squeeze, Devo, David Bowie – there, that’s a start, a menu for us to select from when we discuss individual songs.
And quite fine songs they are. Sanders wraps his charmingly ungainly vocals around tales of drinking (its joys and ravages) on “Come to the Bar” and “Half Moon Street,” violence or its suggestion (two songs with gun in the title, be they metaphorical or not – “Little Gun” and “Shot Gun”) and romantic and sexual turmoil (“Washing Powder,” “United,” “Half Moon Street”), and often the intersection of two or three of the above.
“Cold Black Kitty” is a dark, rocking post-Bowie version of the Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues,” but with the kitty in control, even if the kitty is a bit into self-abasing stuff. “Come to the Bar” nimbly champions the social life merits of drinking and dissects the fallout at the same time. The “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” coda evokes Roxy Music. The “I’m Waiting for the Man” vamp of “Washing Powder” presages the band’s bittersweet tale of lost love. “United” celebrates sexual congress (“united on the carpet”) precipitated by a bit of domestic violence (‘I threw and ashtray at you, my darling’) – Sanders makes it all sound like wicked fun. Perhaps the same ‘darling’ in “Blood Gets Thin” ‘behaves like she’s on fire,’ surrounded by dirty riff-age that suggests either Magazine or the Stranglers. A second song with blood in the title, “Blood Bit,” showcases the Pirates’ theme-developing penchant; even if in this case the song is an instrumental that’s equal parts “Spies” by Dramarama and something by Mott the Hoople.
“Motorbike” is an evocation of the “Born to be Wild” spirit. The only catch being that it comes from some nice lads from Reading whose singer sounds more like Brian Molko (Placebo) or Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks). Hey, skinny indie boys like a girl on the back of their cycle as much as any bruiser.
Pete and the Pirates world of thwarted romance, sexual exhilarations, one too many nights out and intimations of violence all wraps up nicely in “Half Moon Street.” Again, Sanders implores the object of his attentions (affections?) to meet him for a bit of carousing (‘we’ve got nothin’ in common but a love of drinking’) and begs her not to ‘make me feel stupid, I’ll do that on my own.’ Still, Mr. Self-esteem issue is longing for what drives us all – attachment and recognition. And if we’re all misfits in a mismatch, well, such is life.
The sonic palette of One Thousand Pictures delivers on the promise of the inspirations list I submitted earlier in our review. Pete Hefferan and David Thorpe frame these songs with big, bright, full-bodied guitar work that reminds me of the great John McGeoch, whose playing graced records by Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Public Imaged, Ltd. Bassist Peter Cattermoul is rock solid throughout, delivering powerful JJ Burnel (Stranglers) lines when they befit the song, providing deep bottom end where required. Drummer Jonny Sanders (singer Thomas’s brother) gives glam flash and deep grooves like Roxy Music’s Paul Thompson. Together, they’re a formidable rhythm section. Somebody contributes a wide variety of electric keyboard flavas (think Greg Hawkes, Jimmy Destri, Dave Formula … that’s Cars, Blondie, and Magazine, respectively), but without an actual, physical disc or record (I’m reviewing this from a download, for which I’m thankful, even as I point out its insufficiency) to tell you who the hell it is. Producer Brendan Lynch (Paul Weller, Primal Scream, 22-20s, and Ocean Colour Scene) makes the songs sound big, present and powerful while keeping Sander’s wounded tenor wail front and center so you can hear the lyrics.
One Thousand Pictures comes highly recommended to anyone who revels in a tradition of British rock and songwriting that stretches from the Kinks (much of the domestic specificity in these songs owes to Ray Davies’ semi-detached portraiture), through the post-punk pathos of Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, right up to Brian Molko and Placebo’s very modern take on the sound of ’79. Good songs, performed with distinction and individuality, recorded well; it’s a prescription that rarely fails. Pete and the Pirates’ One Thousand Pictures is available in disc and vinyl from a few online specialists and as a download in the U.K. (updates or correction from Stolen Recordings welcome).