Pugwash – Almond Tea (1999)
“Almond Tea” was Irish ELO and XTC fanatic Thomas Walsh’s band’s début album, back in 1999. It sold very modestly and now, fifteen years later, to celebrate Pugwash’s massive worldwide success and their forthcoming sold-out arena tours of Europe and North America, they have re-released their now fifteen year-old first album so that the millions of adoring fans who now know them for their multi-platinum albums “The Olympus Sound”, “Jollity” and “Eleven Modern Antiquities” can get their hands on the former out-of-print rarity. Unfortunately, that’s a load of bollocks, but, if there was any justice in the musical world, that’s the way it should be. I’m sitting here listening to my new copy of “Almond Tea” (number 93 in a limited run of 250 albums) for the umpteenth time and Pugwash still remain a relatively obscure band in mainstream pop culture, but they do have a dedicated following of fans who have, hopefully, grown in number over the past few years thanks to Walsh’s collaboration with The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon as cricket-popsters, The Duckworth Lewis Method. I am one of those very people who have discovered Pugwash through their Neil Hannon connection and, seeing as Neil has been playing on Pugwash albums for years, I really should have known them before. Quite honestly, I really don’t have a good reason why other than… well, I just hadn’t heard of them. Still, they have been in my life for the last five years, which is five years more than most people, sadly.
When I bought “Almond Tea” at one of their gigs (Pugwash recently supported their friend Matt Berry on his short tour of England), I genuinely had no idea how good it would be. When I finally got home and played it for the first time, I was blown away by what a wonderful album it is and, especially for a début album, it’s incredible. There are some Beatlesque songs on this album that had, say, Oasis released them, would be declared a work of genius by the masses and be on radio playlists from now until the end of time. I know Thomas Walsh has said that Beatles comparisons are “lazy”, but the immense “Finer Things In Life”, for example, has such a gorgeous Beatles/Jeff Lynne vibe that it’s impossible not to go there. Walsh’s compositions never go into tribute or pastiche territory, though. The influences are discernible, but you can say that about any melodic rock band over the last forty years from artists such as Big Star, The Raspberries, The Electric Light Orchestra and Klaatu through to XTC, Jellyfish, Teenage Fanclub and The Electric Soft Parade. Just like Pugwash, each one of those bands have taken their influences and carved their own musical identity, rather than being copyists.
Walsh’s first long-player is superb and, although it also features Keith and Stephen Farrell, is almost a solo album under the Pugwash banner. It’s one of those albums that becomes an instant favourite; it’s like meeting a beautiful woman who has all of the same likes and interests as you and you think, “Where have you been all of my life?”. As well as the aforementioned “Finer Things In Life”, which truly is a classic, “Darkness Makes Us Blind” radiates beauty like a lost track from George Harrison’s “Cloud Nine”, complete with Harrison’s guitar sound and that irresistibly chunky Lynne snare drum and “Two Wrongs” shimmers like one of XTC’s finest. “Getting Me Down Again” is a sublime, dreamy slice of haunted melancholy and Walsh’s vocals, at time, sound like the magnificent Carl Wayne from The Move whereas the terrific “Kings And Queens” reveals shades of sixties Kinks over a deliciously rich organ and guitar combination. There is more than a touch of psychedelia on the stunning “Obvious” which boasts twisting guitar lines, beautiful bursts of powerful vocal harmonies and an ending reminiscent of mid-sixties Beatles. “Nonsense” brings the album to a superb conclusion with a whimsical power-pop jaunt that has echoes of Jeff Lynne’s first successful band, The Idle Race and, if you needed any more convincing of Walsh’s influences, the very final moments of “Almond Tea” belong to a short musical skit that could have been The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; it’s all quite astonishingly brilliant.
These days, fifteen years later, Pugwash are a four-piece band comprising of Thomas, Tosh Flood (guitar, vocals, co-production), Shaun McGee (bass, vocals) and Joey Fitzgerald (drums), still producing critically acclaimed music, but still being listened to by an audience way too small for their talent. They are also a superb live outfit, given to playing spontaneous covers and amusing on-stage banter. The compositional and sonic chemistry between Walsh and Flood, plus the musical excellence of McGee and Fitzgerald, has brought an extra dimension to Pugwash’s music and, if you listen to their most recent album, “The Olympus Sound” (from 2012), which is one of the best albums of this decade so far, it could be argued that Pugwash have simply got better and better the longer they have been making music and their most exciting days have yet to come. They are currently working on a new album which may, if we’re lucky, be with us before the end of the year. There aren’t many better début albums than “Almond Tea”, however, so, if you’re fortunate, you will get your hands on one of the 250 CD copies made to celebrate this wonderful album’s 15th anniversary. However, as it was such a limited run, they may already be all gone, so you may have to settle for a download. I hear all the kids are doing “downloads” these days, so hopefully that won’t be too difficult. One thing is for sure, once you start your Pugwash collection, you won’t be happy until you have everything…