Sunday, 16 May 2010
THE POSTMARKS - Memoirs At The End Of The World
I was introduced to this album by The Postmarks by my friend Walt, a lover of Squeeze and kitschy sci-fi television. Since we share so many tastes I had to check it out, even though the Belle and Sebastian-esque monochrome sleeve art sent alarm bells ringing. My dislike of Belle and Sebastian (aside from the odd song) is well known amongst my internet chums, so I figured Walt would be unlikely to recommend my listening to something which would be too much like them.
There are a couple of twee moments which I imagine may appeal to Belle and Sebastian’s many devoted followers, but that doesn’t really mean The Postmarks share much in common with them. The Manhattan based outfit have a degree of twee and kitsch values, but the majority of their music is borne from lush soundscapes evoking sixties film music, particularly that of John Barry. This third outing sees Postmarks regulars Tim Yehezkely (vocals), Jonathan Wilkins (drums) and Christopher Moll (guitar) augmented by Brian Hill (bass) and Jeff Wagner (keys).
Despite the strong sixties feel, there’s something more modern, circa 1990s, in The Postmarks’ sound. Maybe it’s the Saint Etienne style pop element. Like Saint Etienne, with The Postmarks, plenty of sixties pop influences are present – and maybe even more so, since The Postmarks’ sound never employs any of the nineties dance-pop vibes which made Saint Etienne so difficult to pigeonhole. It’s hard to say which of The Postmarks’ musical elements hold the key to their retro themed style. The cinematic arrangements are vital, yet Yehezkely’s wistful voice – often more tuneful than Sarah Cracknell, but never as sultry as Beth Gibbons on Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ – is charming and perfect for the sound The Postmarks set out to achieve.
‘No One Said This Would Be Easy’ begins the album with an almost perfect snapshot of The Postmarks’ typical sound: lush strings come in waves; the guitars and keys add more depth and the sound of castanets adds a touch of extra drama. Tim Yehezkely’s vocals could easy get lost if the music were overplayed; however, despite the overblown nature of the arrangement, somehow the music and light vocal manage to create a natural sounding union. Staccato piano and a bouncing beat are at the centre of ‘My Lucky Charm’ which is closer to straight ahead pop. A multi-tracked vocal is used to good effect and an infectious, upbeat chorus makes decent (but light) use of a sixties horn arrangement.
‘All You Ever Wanted’ provides another standout track. The verses concentrate on woozy eastern drones combined with acoustic guitar – and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s not really going anywhere. Then the chorus kicks in. While it’s not instantly singalong, it’s a chorus with a more upbeat quality and the horn sounds give it a totally feel-good vibe. ‘For Better...For Worse’ breaks continuity with most of the album, since its kitsch sixties elements are pushed aside completely. This track is almost pure nineties pop – and while I’m not keen to mention Saint Etienne again for fear of labouring a point, they tend to be one of the bands (if not the band) huge chunks of this album’s sound recalls the most. (Walt had said it was like having Sarah Cracknell arranged by John Barry and if you’re looking for The Postmarks’ essence diluted to one sentence, that’d be it.)
In contrast to ‘For Better...For Worse’, ‘I’m In Deep’ is very gentle which allows the listener to slowly drown in its arrangement and the hushed vocals call to mind the softer work of the New York trio Ivy (a band with a strong connection to The Postmarks; The Postmarks were discovered by Ivy’s Andy Chase, who signed them to his Unfiltered Records label).
‘Go Jetsetter’ goes for broke in the pop stakes with its sixties soul beat driving the melody while Tim’s vocals add a summery air; the addition of brass sounds here help to reinforce the retro feel. While it could do with a more memorable chorus, the other elements are strong enough to make this an almost perfect example of the kind of pop The Postmarks produce during their more upbeat moments. In contrast, ‘Theme From “Memoirs”’ does exactly what it says on the tin – the sound of a film-less film theme. It’s an almost James Bond pastiche – imagine a cross between classic John Barry and Gene Pitney’s ‘Town Without Pity’; the twanging reverb of the guitars are complimented with string sounds and a breathy wordless vocal. ‘Si Tu Vieux Mon Couer’ represents the only time the album really misfires; the bigger elements of The Postmarks’ sound are played right down, the French vocal is just that little bit too twee and the whole thing comes off like mid-60’s cult singer songwriter Margo Guryan but without any real charm.
The album closes with a couple of reprises: Firstly, ‘Go Jetsetter’ appears in a more eighties guise. With a bigger punch and stripped of most of the usual Postmarks sound, it ends up a sort of Cars/Black Box Recorder hybrid. This harder edged arrangement allows a greater look at the pop songcraft which lies at the heart of the band’s work. Closing the album, ‘My Lucky Charm’ (which appeared near the beginning with an upbeat arrangement) makes a second appearance, slowed right down to a chill-out vibe. While this second look isn’t as good as it’s upbeat counterpart, on its own merits it holds up as a decent track - it’s best element being the sparingly used brass sound.
‘Memoirs at the End of The World’ is an album which is mostly pleasing and seems instantly familiar. Since the musical arrangements have the feeling of John Barry and touches of Burt Bacharach for a postmodern generation, you’d be forgiven that the cracks could show before long, but thankfully, its cinematic approach provides just enough depth to stop it becoming too saccharine.