Album Review: Popularity Pending – 20 Years Of Pugwash (Japanese Import)

I almost feel envious of people who have yet to discover the blissful, melodic sounds of Pugwash. They have a very loyal following in their native Ireland, in small pockets of the USA and around the United Kingdom, but they still aren’t a band you could describe as being a household name and their success has been a very modest one and, indeed, at the time of writing, only around six thousand people “like” the band on Facebook. Pugwash, as a band, have had an evolving line-up over the years, with frontman, main songwriter and music obsessive Thomas Walsh beginning his musical life recording demos in his garden shed, trying to emulate Andy Partridge, and ended up having his work recognised by Irish magazine “Hot Press”. This led to other opportunities and, with the help of Keith and Stephen Farrell, Walsh released his remarkable début, “Almond Tea” (1999) to critical acclaim. The Farrell brothers continued to work with Walsh on “Almanac” (2002) and the highly rated “Jollity” (2006) up to and including “Eleven Modern Antiquities” (2008), after which the Pugwash nucleus changed, recording and touring two albums “The Olympus Sound” (2010) and “Play This Intimately (As If Among Friends)” (2015) with Walsh (vocals and guitar), Tosh Flood (guitar and harmony vocals), Shaun McGee (bass and harmony vocals) and Joe Fitzgerald (drums). Unfortunately, heath issues and the stresses and strains of touring on a shoestring to small but very appreciative audiences took its toll and Pugwash reverted back to the one man operation of Walsh himself, who wrote and recorded his last album (to date) “Silverlake” (2017) with Jason Falkner in Los Angeles, with its unfussy and punchy production bringing to mind the early days of the band, taking Walsh’s music almost full circle… albeit with a little more wisdom and gravitas.

Thomas Walsh doesn’t like the term “powerpop” and has said that he considers Beatles comparisons to be “lazy”, but it would be difficult to imagine that people who dig the powerpop genre or are aficionados of the Fab Four wouldn’t be the ideal audience for Pugwash. However, the band’s whole output is much more diverse and all-encompassing for them to be simply typecast as another bunch inspired by The Beatles. Walsh is a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music; on social media you’ll often see him enthusing about The Move, Left Banke, Kinks, Honeybus and other timeless bands who place great importance on melody and arrangement. On your journey throughout this compilation, there will be more influences worn on their sleeves than you will be able to keep track of and I would hope that the listener will come to the same conclusion that I have; Thomas Walsh simply writes music that he would enjoy listening to. The uplifting “Take Me Away” soars like mid-nineties Teenage Fanclub with a Beach Boys interlude, the whimsical and probably Simpsons-inspired “Monorail” has a vaudeville Divine Comedy feel , “Keep Movin’ On” channels upbeat Elvis Costello & The Attractions whilst incorporating a Harrison-esque guitar solo and “Finer Things In Life” is a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad that sounds like it could have been written by Jeff Lynne (whose favourite Pugwash song, by the way, is the sublime “Be My Friend Awhile”). The two albums that Tosh Flood co-produced with Thomas (Olympus Sound & Play This Intimately) have such a beautifully textured feel and “Hung Myself Out To Dry” is a particular favourite from the latter; it’s as close as the band ever got to emulating the ELO sound.

The creative wonders come thick and fast on this record. The gorgeous reverb-soaked guitar of “Two Wrongs” is reminiscent of early nineties classic indie, “It’s Nice To Be Nice” is almost pure Beach Boys and Andy Partridge’s influence can be distinctly heard on “At The Sea”, a deliciously quirky but catchy tune which could easily have come from XTC’s own catalogue. “Fall Down” is a devastatingly brilliant track with harmonies, it seems, specifically designed to melt the soul whereas “Answers On A Postcard” is an eminently likeable, jaunty track with an apt seaside holiday feel to it and if you can get through the kazoo solo without grinning like a fool, I’d be surprised. “Here”, an absolute shimmering pearl of a song with its sumptuous string section, is one of the best classic ballads the vast majority of the world hasn’t heard. Another slice of utter pop perfection is the jangly “Apples”, with that irresistible Byrds-like guitar sound and a wonderful combination of a verse hook every bit as good as the chorus. I could go on, as every single track here is fantastic. They’re all my favourites, every single one of them. The real strength of the work here is the fact that whether it is a catchy, indie burst of sunshine such as “The Perfect Summer” or “What Are You Like” or a magnificent rolling ballad like “Anchor” or “To The Warmth Of You”, it’s all melodically and lyrically rich; regardless of style or genre, these songs are the work of a true craftsman.

I personally find it astonishing that more people haven’t discovered Pugwash, given the fact that over their history they have worked with Neil Hannon (Divine Comedy), Dave Gregory and Andy Partridge (XTC), Ben Folds, Ray Davies, Michael Penn and Eric Matthews. Indeed, Walsh’s hero Jeff Lynne even makes a cameo appearance on “Kicking And Screaming”. Notwithstanding the fact that Thomas’ song writing is so strong and relatable. Selecting the cream of seven studio albums to best represent his twenty year musical history couldn’t have been easy. I won’t go into the omissions, because there is only so much music you can fit on to a single CD, but I can quite honestly say that I could compile another twenty track CD full of songs from the Pugwash catalogue which would be just as strong. Still, it is difficult to argue with the choices made as this is an excellent representation of Pugwash’s output over the years’ and, as a single disc, the self-deprecatingly-titled “Popularity Pending” provides overwhelmingly compelling evidence that Pugwash are, indeed, one of the most criminally underrated acts that ever walked the Earth. Truly, one of the best things about being able to heartily recommend this introduction to Pugwash’s catalogue is that there is so much left to discover after you have heard and (inevitably) loved this. It’s not just for the Pugwash newbies, of course; for the Pugwash obsessive, such as myself, this is an essential purchase if only for the exclusive re-recorded 2019 version of “It’s Nice To Be Nice” which is wonderfully arranged and also features a new, slightly more weathered, vocal by Thomas… plus, of course, you get another timely reminder of exactly how wonderful Pugwash were and still are.

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