Close Lobsters at The Vinyl District

Those carrying an eternal torch for the epochal C86 compilation are certainly familiar with Close Lobsters. That Scottish band emerged from estimable company with a pair of full-lengths and even made some late-‘80s ripples in the US market before breaking up around the turn of the ‘90s. In 2012 they announced a reunion, and Shelflife Records’ issue of the sturdy, unfussy, and highly enjoyable 7-inch EP “Kunstwerk in Spacetime” offers the first new music from this rekindling of activity.

More than an anthology, C86, a cassette originally offered by the weekly UK periodical New Musical Express, gave a name to an entire post-punk/indie pop movement. As its recent compact disc reissue underscores, this circumstance is long and well documented, though the Cherry Red label’s expansion of the initial 22 selections to three CDs and a whopping 72 cuts (some unreleased) intensifies the spotlight to the absolute hilt; its track-listing reads as exhaustive, possibly even exhausting.

Aside from disc one and a fair amount of the previously available addendum, I’ve yet to hear the revamped C86. Soon to be sure, but in the interim there’s fresh music by one of the participants to consider. Like other bands on the set (and C86 was comprised totally of bands, a facet the Cherry Red box wisely retains) Close Lobsters took full advantage of the good fortune and secured a record deal. But by the dawn of the ‘90s, and again like many of their cohorts, the group formed in Paisley, Scotland in 1985 was essentially done.

Close Lobsters was/is vocalist Andrew Burnett, guitarists Tom Donnelly and Graeme Wilmington, bassist Robert Burnett (Andrew’s bro), and drummer Stewart McFayden. The C86contribution that set them into motion was “Firestation Towers,” a terrific slab of succinct jangle, and they followed it up with two strong 45s, “Going to Heaven to See If It Rains” and “Never Seen Before,” for Fire Records. This material was collected with numerous other tracks including the nifty ’88 EP “What is There to Smile About?” on Fire’s Forever, Until Victory! The Singles Collection.

The Lobsters’ debut LP was ‘87’s Foxheads Stalk This Land, its successor ‘89’s Headache Rhetoric; both were issued by Fire, though in the States they were part of Enigma Records’ roster prior to that imprint’s implosion in ’91. The albums stand up well today, with songs occasionally reminiscent of a less hyperactively strumming manifestation of The Wedding Present (an apt comparison, since David Gedge and crew released a version of the Lobsters’ “Let’s Make Some Plans” in ’92).

The C86 experience is broader than just incessant jangling and stripped-down, intermittently twee melodicism. The biggest names bookend the comp: Primal Scream, splashing huge in 1991 with their third LP Screamadelica and The Wedding Present, whose status was achieved through sheer longevity and laudable consistency across that span.

The Mighty Lemon Drops, Age of Chance, and The Soup Dragons scored sizeable but brief alternative success. The Pastels, The Shop Assistants, McCarthy (spawning future members of Stereolab), and Miaow (with vocalist Cath Carroll) became cult acts. The Wolfhounds, The Bodines, Mighty Mighty and The Servants are now mainly known by heavy-duty C86 fans. And nearly a third of the comp diverts from the scene’s standard profile. That’s the case with Stump, The Shrubs, Big Flame, Bogshed, A Witness, We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It, The Mackenzies, and Half Man Half Biscuit.

Some detractors painted the movement as being out of step with contemporary sensibilities; to an extent it was, in a manner very similar to the punk rock that indirectly fostered it into existence. Various folks simply disdained it because, circa-’86 anyway, it eschewed drum machines, synths and samplers for a “classic” guitar-pop sound. Others blasted it as milquetoast, and a few went as far as to deride C86 as reactionary, though that’s off target; from the celebrated to the mostly forgotten what the bands all shared was a youthful orientation, even as a handful of old souls got sprinkled amongst the upstarts.

The whole reunion impulse is frankly a dicey gambit, but it’s especially so for the aforementioned outfits; trying too hard to reincarnate the spirit of ’86 (or thereabouts) can court disaster like a bad combover, particularly since so many have fruitfully mined this territory in the last 15 years or so. On the other end of the spectrum, straying too far from the sound that made one’s reputation ultimately defeats the purpose.

The reuniting of Close Lobsters began as a fairly modest live affair, the band playing shows in Madrid, Glasgow, Berlin, Hamburg, and New York City; the limited edition 2012 7-inch “Steel Love” b/w “Head Above Water” gathered a ’90 demo and an ‘89 live recording. “Kunstwerk in Spacetime” is their first new stuff since recommencing with full original lineup, and the songs largely succeed; rather than attempting to recapture what’s gone, they elect to look upon the past while inhabiting the present.

Printed on the sleeve is “welcome to the supermodernity of post neo Close Lobsters, Paisley 2014,” and the a-side “Now Time” backs up those words; the track is a chiming fiesta of guitar-pop, with Andrew picking up the instrument and raising the number of strings employed (including his sibling’s bass) to 22, but after a few listens the element that increasingly struck me was the appealingly worn quality of Burnett’s voice.

His tone is a vital component in the equation: the reflective nature of the lyrics, the breadth, crispness, and confidence of the mid-tempo, the intertwining of the guitars, the gutsy soloing in the instrumental break, and most-importantly the anthemic thrust, all of it accentuated by “Now Time” extending beyond six minutes (and on a heavy-duty 70gm 45, no less).

While the delivery is nicely honed, another noteworthy aspect lays in how the tune itself doesn’t feel overly fussed with. This is the sign of a veteran aggregation, for in lesser hands the vibe and length of “Now Time” would likely impact the ear as an unrelenting campaign for use as indie-movie end-credits music. Instead it just glides, though the cut could still function perfectly fine as accompaniment to a filmic denouement (attention budding directors).

Interestingly, “Kunstwerk in Spacetime”’s exceptionally well-designed sleeve lists the poetic inspiration of Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1912 “Le Pont Mirabeau” and A.E. Houseman’s 1896 “Into My Heart on Air That Kills” as recited by the narrator at the close of Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout, so the song’s connection to cinematic endings is substantial.

Flip side “New York City in Space” is shorter but still considerable. The words might be just a mite too nostalgic (for the group’s first trip the US), but in this instance that’s okay since it doesn’t ignore the last quarter century. They jangle as well as before, and if Burnett’s frequent refrain of “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” is remindful of a certain Wedding Present tune, that’s not inappropriate either.

Also of note is the inclusion of a download featuring two remixes. The first, “Now Time Meander (Studio Monkey Mix)” stretches the track to almost eight minutes and raises the danceability quotient as the source remains easily recognizable. The second is parenthetically titled “Spontaneous Pattern Formation Mix”; it significantly ups the gyrational atmosphere to become an entirely new entity.

Neither remix is mind-blowing, but both are worth the trouble. Each helps to reinforce Close Lobsters’ malleable pop side and underline the ambitiousness of this reunion, with the band venturing farther from their guitar-pop comfort zone (after solidly reestablishing it) than they did the first time around. “Kunstwerk in Spacetime” may fall a bit short of the masterful, but there is mastery in its sides, and it’s also refreshingly lacking in a mercantile air. In the end Close Lobsters have pulled off an impressive feat; they’ve managed a return to prior form.

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