In my inaugural Discogs Challenge post I claimed that my musical wheelhouse has been, since about 1988, “fey honkies playing guitars that go jingle-jangle.” Turns out Discogs has a sense of humor, because the album it pulled up for my second post doesn’t get much feyer or honkier than The Bluebells’ 1984 album Sisters. Even that name – The Bluebells – conjures up images of Dutch schoolgirls frolicking in a meadow before settling down to a lunch of tea and cucumber sandwiches, sans crusts, and you just know at least one band member regularly wears a cardigan and/or horn-rimmed glasses. The band isn’t completely dissimilar from fellow early-80s Scots Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, but the tunes just aren’t the same caliber. It’s all pleasantly inoffensive – quite nice for cleaning the house or grading papers, but it’s not a band that will change your life.
Part of the problem, I think, is the band’s occasional willingness to dabble in instruments and styles that butt up against their otherwise genial indie rock. Opener “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” comes sailing in, buoyed by a gently parping harmonica, and the very next song, “Young at Heart,” brings the fiddle in a virtual hoedown. There’s absolutely overlap between Scottish folk music and American country or bluegrass, and while I can hear the lineage the band is following, the result – especially considering the album’s later songs – comes across more as a band that doesn’t quite know what it wants to sound like. An album like The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues (a record I hope Discogs pulls up for me at some point) makes this instrumentation central to its effect; it isn’t just grafted onto the songs like a Frankenstein’s monster made out of an unholy marriage of mandolins and Marshall stacks. Fisherman’s Blues weaves the instruments into a tapestry; Sisters proclaims, “Hey! Here’s our fiddle song!” We get a brief respite in the really quite nice double-feature of “I’m Falling” and “Will She Always Be Waiting,” but the harmonica makes its return at the end of Side 1 in minor radio hit “Cath.” At least the instrument works better here, accenting the guitars and underpinning the ebullient “Whoa oh” chorus in what is probably the album’s best song.
(Re-reading those last few sentences, it strikes me that maybe I just have something against the harmonica. But I don’t. Promise.)
I don’t mean for this to sound as negative as it does. While I’m not a stone cold fan of The Bluebells, the record fits nicely into my love of bookish indie, beginning with the previously mentioned Aztec Camera and continuing through The Smiths to modern-day nice guys Belle & Sebastian. And, to be fair, Side 2 begins with a hell of a 1-2 punch in “Red Guitars” and “Syracuse University.” On the latter, especially, the band nearly breaks a sweat, abandoning the folk pretensions and relying solely on a churning electric guitar line. But then, as if to say, “Hey gang! We’ve still got some unplayed instruments in the closet!,” “Learn to Love” opens with a brass fanfare and turns into a none-more-Motown stomper, complete with wailing female backing vocals on the chorus. I take back what I said earlier; this is the album’s best song.
(Of course you don’t get the brass or the backing vocals in the above video, but such is the paucity of Bluebells material on YouTube.)
It initially seems as though the album is ending on a subdued note, transitioning to a cover of Dominic Behan’s “The Patriot’s Game” (a flute is present and accounted for, if you’re keeping score at home), but the Falklands-referencing “South Atlantic Way” is a stirring protest anthem complete with martial drums and the kind of ringing guitars we’d expect to find on a U2 album. The song escalates into a dervish of an outro – drums, guitar, and pounding piano combining to almost make us forget the album’s timid openers.
The high points on Sisters are so good that it makes me wish the weak spots were better. It’s obviously not a bad album, but it feels in places like the band needed a better editor, someone to rein in some of their less successful impulses. This was their only album, alas, so if anyone told them, “More ‘Learn to Love,’ less hoedown, please,” we never got to see how it played out.
Next up: Built to Spill’s Untethered Moon (2015)
Read the rules of the Discogs Challenge here.