Catenary Wires: Birling Gap  CD / LP   (Shelflife Records)

Release date: June 18, 2021

Bio: Indie pop comes of age.

The Catenary Wires feature Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, once of Heavenly and Talulah Gosh. These early bands, once denigrated for being ‘fey’ or ’twee’: the wrong kind of female, have been re-evaluated in recent years. Their songs, apparently sweet and fizzy, were always smarter and darker than they seemed, while the band were radically independent, and an influential part of the movement that became riot grrrl.

In the Catenary Wires, Amelia and Rob are still in love with making pop songs with complex messages. This, their third, album is full of melody, and rich with backing vocal harmonies – but now the tunes are vehicles for startlingly honest adult concerns: the fractured relationships, anxieties, passions and politics of people who live on an island that’s turning in on itself. The Catenary Wires know that pop music is just as good at conveying dark, difficult emotions as it is at celebrating teenage love. The Go-Betweens and XTC proved that, and this record has comparable ambitions.

Birling Gap is a significant place. On the South Coast of England, it’s where steep chalk cliffs resist the rough seas of the English Channel. It’s where iconic images of England are created and re-created. A landscape beloved of patriots – the sturdy white cliffs standing proud and strong against the waves. It’s also a place where people, despondent and doomed, have thrown themselves off the cliffs. It’s where The Cure shot the Just Like Heaven video. It’s where romantic lovers go for passionate storm-tossed assignations. It’s where Shakespeare sent King Lear, blind and abandoned, hell-bent on self-destruction.

The album depicts England, not just in its lyrics, but in its music. The Catenary Wires have listened to the songs and stories England has comforted itself with over the decades, and re-imagined them. Canterbury Lanes presents a duetting couple, old now and worn down, but still aspiring to put their band back together, hoping to rekindle the idealistic flames of the 1970s. (The arrangement hints at the acoustic guitars and harmonies of those long-lost Canterbury Scene bands.) Mirrorball, fizzy with syn-drums and Casio, presents another couple – middle-aged and unattached, who find unexpected love at a retro 80s disco. Lost in the maelstrom of 80s commercial pop, they find that, for the first time in their lives, those hackneyed expressions of love and desire actually do make emotional sense. In the 70s-flavoured pop of Always on my Mind love appears again, almost by surprise, conjured up by an old photo in a pile of memorabilia.

Cinematic, filled with murky, fuzzy guitar, is about the hostile environment England creates for unwanted outsiders. Three-Wheeled Car is about a nostalgic old couple, gazing across the waves at Birling Gap, feeling smug about their Englishness. It makes oblique reference to the Kinks – probably the greatest pop chroniclers of English life – but also wonders if those once radical songs are just part of the nostalgia industry now. Maybe that’s it? Maybe England is at the end of the road. The old couple in Three-Wheeled Car certainly are.

The last two songs on the album, Like the Rain, and The Overview Effect, are anxious love songs, set in a fragile world. Those white chalk cliffs at Birling Gap are, in reality, eroding very rapidly. They are emblematic of a proud, self-regarding nation, but they also represent impermanence, erosion and environmental change... which takes us back to the opening track. Face on the Rail Line is a love song set in the now, but shot through with the anxiety and paranoia that we all feel, living at a time when we are constantly in contact, but rarely communicate the truth.

The Catenary Wires are a five-piece band. The other members have an impressive musical pedigree of their own. Fay Hallam was in Makin’ Time, and now releases records in her own name. She is seen by many as the best Hammond organist of her generation. Andy Lewis played bass in the Weller Band for many years, and has more recently worked with Louis Phillippe and Judy Dyble. Ian Button played in Thrashing Doves and Death in Vegas. These talented musicians elevate the songs, taking the arrangements onto another level.

The proud DIY spirit of indie music is still very much alive in the Catenary Wires. The album is produced by band member Andy Lewis. Rob and Amelia make their own videos on zero budgets. They’ve created a venue in a barn in the middle of nowhere in Kent. And now they have started their own record label, Skep Wax. The label has already released indie hit records by Swansea Sound (which Rob, Amelia and Ian are also involved in).