Welcome to Bliss/Aquamarine - alternative, underground and indie music.


There's been good and bad news about PINK HEDGEHOG RECORDS since last issue's feature on the label. The good news is that Simon did not end the CD side of the label as soon as expected, and Pink Hedgehog has released a handful of new CDs since last issue. Unfortunately however, efforts to keep Pink Hedgehog alive as a CD label were sadly not successful in today's economic climate and Simon decided once and for all to pull the plug on the CD side of the label. Whilst there are no new CDs planned, Pink Hedgehog will still exist as a download label, and certain back catalogue CDs are still available for purchase. Everything I'm about to review came out since the last Pink Hedgehog feature in Aquamarine and should still be available in some form, whether as CD or download.

Schnauser have now released their second album, The Sound of Meat. Their first album, Kill All Humans, was accompanied by a joke press release claiming the band were Armenian and that they formed in circumstances so absurd that the whole story was plainly a spoof. I had picked up a few clues that Schnauser were actually an offshoot of The Lucky Bishops. Sure enough, Schnauser now admit that they are based in Bristol and include amongst their number The Lucky Bishops' Alan Strawbridge. The music continues in a similar vein to The Lucky Bishops - superb quality psych-pop with rockish elements and zany lyrics - though there is perhaps even more overt quirk-factor on offer here than on The Lucky Bishops' albums. The humour here is weird, dark, and at times quite rude, and perhaps best avoided by those without strong stomachs. Twins of Evil is ultra-melodic psych-pop with a large helping of quirkiness. I Couldn't Fuck A Gorilla, the title being pretty typical of this band's sense of humour, is a decidedly off-kilter instrumental bringing together aspects of silent movie soundtrack, circus music and prog. Nobody Loves Me is brilliant 60s-ish psych-pop. "Welcome to my world of whimsy/Where everything is light and flimsy/And sandwiches are made by Mumsy", intones Alan at the start of the inventive patchwork of craziness that is World of Whimsy - a song that jumps around at tangents throughout, taking in aspects of the quirkier, more lighthearted side of mod and a large quantity of psychedelic wackiness. Homeless features a guest appearance from Simon Swarbrick (nephew of Fairport Convention's Dave Swarbrick) on multiple stringed instruments. Lyrics about being down on your luck and freezing your ass off sit deliberately incongruously with the sophisticated classical-style string arrangement and proggy surrealism. Finally there's an uncredited bonus track that's a spoof on easy listening crooner music. A great album that shows music that is intelligently written with a high standard of musicianship does not have to take itself too seriously.

Pink Hedgehog was initially set up by Simon Felton to self-release CDs by his own band Garfields Birthday. Some of the band's early home and studio recordings have been collected for the anthology Tea and Sympathy, which is out on a label called Songs and Whispers, but is available from Pink Hedgehog. The sleeve proclaims the music of Garfields Birthday to be "Indie Pop for Lost Romantic Souls", which says a lot about where they are coming from. You get summery melodies, ba-ba-bas, vocal harmonies, tambourine, handclaps - but as will be seen, Garfields Birthday are also unafraid to explore musical territories outside of indiepop, making sure their sound is far from one-dimensional. Mad Old Bird is coming from a similar direction to Teenage Fanclub. Eye to Eye has a darker and heavier feel than much of Garfields Birthday's other stuff, with distorted vocals and guitar, and overflowing with raw emotion. Thick Ear nods towards 60s US folk-rock bands such as The Byrds, as well as the aforementioned Teenage Fanclub. Jennifer is old-school janglepop with added psychedelic guitar effects, piano and synthesised cello. Slumberland Blues is a gentle acoustic pop song with vocal harmonies. The Filthy Underground is an ultramelodic song with 60s-style organ, that sits just as comfortably in the mod or powerpop categories as it does within indiepop. The Norm features a massive wall of atmospheric guitar noise and some brooding, almost gothic synth, but certainly isn't all doom 'n' gloom - just check out that hugely catchy chorus! Old England is a minimalistic acoustic song; its melody sounds a bit Oasis-ish at times. I was never a fan of Oasis or the wider 'Britpop' scene, preferring the more underground manifestations of indie music, but Garfields Birthday's take on this sound is much more underground-friendly with its sparse acoustic arrangement and complete lack of arrogance and swagger.

Tea and Sympathy shows Garfields Birthday's roots; the subsequent album More Sense than Money (on Pink Hedgehog proper) shows where the band are currently at. Cool Your Jets is superb catchy powerpop with harmony vocals. I See Shadows is brilliant psych-pop with a strong tune and even some use of horns. Cambridge is a more laid-back number featuring a synthesised string section and sounding influenced by 60s folk (in the contemporary singer-songwriter sense rather than trad folk). Bubbles combines the chugging, energetic noisiness of punk with the band's trademark strong melodies and vocal harmonies. Future Song is super-melodic indiepop with 60s-ish ba-ba-bas. The Garden Wall is jangly tuneful indiepop in the finest mid/late 80s tradition. King Rat is noisepop with vocoder, psychey horns, and the sort of high quality melody and harmonies to be expected of Garfields Birthday. Better Things is heavily influenced by the 60s beat tradition. Garfields Birthday's previous 'proper' album Let Them Eat Cake was, and still is, one of my favourites, full of real feel-good songs guaranteed to cheer up the most miserable of people. This latest album is equally enjoyable, and is quite possibly the most sophisticated example of their output to date, due to the fact that the songs were not recorded in a rush and the band had the time to experiment with new sounds in the studio. With many bands, you take the rawness out of their sound and it becomes bland, but not so with Garfields Birthday, whose songs still pack a punch and are loaded with melody. In short, this superbly well-crafted album gives me hope for the future of indie music!

As well as his work with Garfields Birthday, Simon Felton is also a solo artist, and his second solo album Surrender, Dorothy! is out now on Pink Hedgehog, featuring guest appearances from Anton Barbeau and The Lucky Bishops/Schnauser's Alan Strawbridge, the latter of whom is also the album's producer. In Peepshow, the song itself is reminiscent of the more mainstream end of 90s indie music, but the arrangement is anything but, due to its incorporation of all manner of far-out psychedelic effects. Marbles is eccentric pop with mod and psych touches. Lying Down is introspective indiepop with the unusual addition of Wurlitzer organ, along with an instrumental interlude that combines chaotic guitar noise and atmospheric psychedelic effects. Novelty, previously a Garfields Birthday song, is reinvented here as off-centre psych-pop with some effective use of piano. Compatible is essentially an old-school indiepop song, but with psychey and folky touches from the addition of mellotron and ukulele. Psychedelia Smith lives up to its great title: it's a brilliant pop song with some of the most woozy, spaced-out use of violin I've ever heard, and all manner of off-kilter psychedelic effects. The songwriting on this album is often along similar lines to Simon's band Garfields Birthday, but the guest musicians here add a psychedelic eccentricity that takes the music far outside the confines of the indiepop genre.

Hamfatter are a band I've been championing for years, initially via my old tape label. They have since got catapulted to much bigger things due to appearing on the BBC series Dragons' Den, as well as achieving chart placings in UK and Europe, and getting their music reviewed in mainstream papers like The Sun. Their latest album, Cassiopeia, was funded by Dragons' Den investor Peter Jones, and released jointly by the band's own label Hamfatter Ltd and Pink Hedgehog. The big budget behind the album meant the band had more time in the studio than usual, allowing them to experiment with new sounds and new forms of instrumentation. The title track is gutsy indie music with an off-centre twist, occasionally nodding towards prog and jazz. Money shows the band experimenting with synths, adding spacey bleepery to the catchy powerpop framework, a combination that works surprisingly well. How Sweet It Is (Part II) is indie-rock with a massive, filmic orchestral arrangement. One of Hamfatter's trademarks is slightly off-centre, autobiographical lyrics; Iceland is based around such a story, and the song is fleshed out with more huge orchestration and synth experimentation. BBC VI is an addictive powerpop ode to "the misfit bands that are close to my heart". Musically and lyrically this had me grinning from ear to ear! So We Go is bouncy indie-pop with horns and off-kilter synth sounds. This Is How We Live is a 60s influenced song with Hammond organ. This album may have had a lot of money thrown at it, but there is no sense of compromise or watering down of Hamfatter's sound. This is still adventurous indie music by a band with their own ideas, as has always been the case. If anything, the big budget has enabled Hamfatter to experiment even more, not less. A really impressive album.

Pink Hedgehog sent me a 4-song CDR by The Steve Wilson Band; it's labelled as a demo, but also has Pink Hedgehog's logo on it so may be available from them. I admit to having mixed feelings about The Steve Wilson Band's previous offerings; at their best they were responsible for some very fine jangly old-school indiepop, but much of their stuff was far too polished and mainstream-inspired for my personal taste. That is not the case with this particular CD which I'm enjoying a great deal. Pretty Girl in a Small Town is a jangly pop song combining indiepop, 60s pop and a dash of American folk-rock. Another Rainy Day (I'm Alright) is essentially 60s American style folk-rock, and is delightfully raw. Torn Photographs has shades of 70s easy listening pop, but its sparse, atmospheric arrangement prevents it from sounding bland. When It Comes To You is a country song; country has never been one of my favourite genres, but they somehow manage to pull it off. The 1950s-ish 'ooh-ooh' backing vocals are a nice touch, and the song has a catchy tune that stays in the head. Being a demo, the songs do not sound overproduced, and speaking personally I much prefer this rawer approach. There is nothing here that can really be called experimental, the songs are clearly influenced by existing genres from the past and are pretty easy to pigeonhole, but that doesn't matter on this occasion. There is a genuine, unpretentious feel about these songs, and the stripped-down, uncommercial recording just adds to that.

Peter Lacey has a new album out on Pink Hedgehog, We Are the Sand, which I believe is download only. I wasn't sure what to expect considering his excursions into smooth 80s mainstream-influenced music on the last couple of albums, but We Are the Sand is something of a return to form. There is still a noticeable influence from Stevie Wonder in There's a Feeling, but Peter Lacey somehow manages to transform this style from mainstream soul into sunny niche-market pop. She's a Rainbow is gentle acoustic guitar-led pop with synthesised orchestration; part way through the song it changes style completely, with Peter reciting a poem over a hazy, dreamlike soundscape. Come What May is very lovely folky pop, veering off at an instrumental rock tangent for the latter part of the track. Why? is another Stevie Wonder-ish track; this one actually does sound a bit too mainstreamish for me, but it's the only track here that does. Full Circle is very enjoyable acoustic pop with multi-layered harmony vocals, diverging into some wild psychedelic instrumentation. Time, Less Reason is sophisticated pop, melting into a floaty, atmospheric instrumental piece. An Open Heart is a very moving folk-pop track with more of Peter's trademark multi-layered vocals. Notes from Cornwall (Pt 2) features a guest American poet (not named on the cover of the promo CDR I'm reviewing), narrating his evocative words over a surreal sound sculpture. The album is presented something like a radio show, with mock announcements breaking up the songs, sometimes in the middle of a track. This gives the album a rather piecemeal feel, and the at times quite flippant announcements could be seen to distract from the songs which are very high quality. But I don't feel too miffed at Peter for this harmless bit of self-indulgence, precisely because the songs are so well-crafted. This is pop music that is intelligent and sophisticated, but certainly not overly commercial or bland. There are strong tunes here, and original ideas. Definitely worth a listen.

Mondojetset, comprising former members of Marlowe and Garfields Birthday, have a new album called Ha Ha Ha. It's indiepop, but rather more sophisticated than is often the case with this genre, and with more tendency to experiment with new musical ideas. Sometimes I wonder if it's more appropriate to call their music proper pop pop, but it lacks the blandness and excessive commercialisation of mainstream pop music so I hesitate to do so - but it's certainly fair to say it goes beyond standard indiepop. There's an ambitious, intelligent sound here that is really engaging. They also venture into quirkier DIY pop territory in Jin, a slightly off-centre indiepop tune with witty lyrics about a messy flatmate. The Nineteen Seventies starts off with an old-school indiepop sound, including a bassline that sounds totally Field Mice, but they mix this up with a huge chorus that brings together noisy guitar, shimmering, swirling synth, and do I hear a tuba? Beautiful Swing combines early 90s-ish indiepop with off-kilter glitchy electronica and string and brass arrangements. During their less indie-ish moments I can't help being reminded of The Pet Shop Boys, especially in the melodies and vocal style. Indie kids shouldn't be put off by that though; the music has a definite indiepop heart. This is really high quality pop music with strong tunes, intelligent observational lyrics, and inventive arrangements. I'm enjoying these songs a great deal.

For more info on these and lots more music from Pink Hedgehog, visit www.pinkhedgehog.com


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