THE PASTELS The Hits Hurt (Domino)

This, the latest single from the Pastels, is the first I’ve heard of them since their performance in the Melody Maker tent at the Reading Festival on a hot Saturday afternoon more years ago than I’d care to remember, but from what my memory has retained it appears that they’ve mellowed out a bit. Aggie’s vocals seem a lot smoother than memory serves, more singing and less teeth-itchingly annoying acrobatic yelping. Added to which The Pastels have penned a tune of the highest quality in "The Hits Hurt". Being the best fan’s-life song I’ve heard since Wilco’s wondrous "The Lonely 1", it’s a sincere tribute to the visionary underdog, every musician or band whose music you’ve loved to bits and totally failed to interest anybody else in, musically an unusual but totally effective amalgam of Orange Juice and The Field Mice. The other four tracks on this promo CD only reinforce the impression that their next album "Illumination", due out in October, may be a work of fragile genius.

THE PASTELS Illumination (Domino)

And what should arrive in the post a few weeks later? Lo and behold, the latest Pastels album is almost fantastic. Over the space of thirteen tracks they define, create and destroy their own little sound-world that, according to the blurb, has precursors in the work of Sun Ra (cool or what?!), The Beach Boys "Smile", the first Bobby Gentry album (err...), The Beatles’ eponymous double and My Bloody Valentine. All of which is absolutely true, but for me the best way to describe "Illumination" would be the aforementioned Orange Juice and The Field Mice taking on the frazzled, fractured might of Big Star’s apocalyptic "Third/Sister Lovers" album. Check the tension in the structure, the use of the two weapons of silence and surprise - melodies meandering into nothingness, arrangements that breathe and collapse like living things. "Illumination" may be a fragile and spindly construction, but there’s a sincerity and beauty at its heart which allows you to forgive it an awful lot - Stephen Pastel’s flat, blunt vocals for a kick-off, as well as a production that drew universal criticism when I subjected a stack of my friends to it. I’m not even going to moan that I find my interest level plummeting about six tracks in, because I suspect that Pastelism benefits from practising a whole new way of listening that is entirely at odds with the sound-bite-sized attention level of these times. Just tap into "The Hits Hurt", "Unfair Kind Of Fame" and "Fragile Gang" to convince yourself that something shabby, dog-eared but beautiful this way comes.

Buried deep in the press release is this quote from David Berman of Silver Jews (a band forever slightly famous for hanging out with Pavement a lot), which summarises more elegantly the atmosphere I’m flailing wildly around trying to turn into words: "I got your tape yesterday and spent all day listening to it in the car as I drove around doing my errands. I was idling in parking lots letting the songs finish. I want to know how songs that wander in so many directions still retain a centering structure. it really sounds like no one else’s record. In a way it reminds me of a softer more elegant cousin of the first Royal Trux record (my all time favourite)".