The Trashcan Sinatras are one of my favourite bands, but I couldn’t say exactly why.
To be sure, they are a very good little pop outfit, specialising in gentle indie-rock with that Scottish touch I like so much (see the Popinjays, the Proclaimers, Simple Minds, Belle & Sebastian, the Associates, the Rezillos, Blue Nile, Teenage Fanclub, Idlewild, the Fratellis, I could literally go on like this all day). But there's something rare and hard to pin down about these guys that makes them somehow stand out even from the aforementioned insanely-talented bunch, in part because they so infrequently put out albums. In the almost 19 years since I got in on the ground floor with these guys (thank you, college radio!), they've only put out five studio albums (counting this one!). If I had to pick another band as simultaneously satisfying and aggravating, it would have to be China Crisis (who really should just bloody reform already!).
It's probably the craftsmanship that plays a role. They work on these songs for years, surprising considering their roots as a cover band (and the many "unofficial" compilations of covers, demos, b-sides, live tracks and ephemera that the band have put out themselves).
There's also a certain consistency despite the long wait times. These guys only rarely “rock out” (though they do in fact do so sometimes), preferring the thoughtful and slower path, the mourning ballad or the wistful memory. They once actually abandoned a finished album (a set that eventually was re-written and developed into Weightlifting), feeling it “too dark” in light of their torturously bad relationships with record labels (the band once had to sell their recording studio and declare bankruptcy due to unscrupulous record-company financial arrangements).
But when you're in the mood for songs as lonely as the moors, less twee and 60’s-influenced than Belle & Sebastian but not as strident as the Proclaimers, you're probably in the mood for the Trash Can (sometimes called Trashcan, it's not been very consistent over the years) Sinatras, the best damn rainy-day band around.
So, armed with an advance copy of their fifth album due out in mid-July, In the Music, let’s have a look at what the Shabby Road alumni have been up to ...
ITM begins with a disturbing note of synthesiser and drum machine (not something they're known to use) for an intro before the reassuringly familiar sound of echo-y guitar and 70s drum tempo floods in to start up the first song, “People.” The lyric isn’t one of their best, but the arrangement is as comfortable as an old sweater, even as uncomfortable images of “People ... who need people ...” drifts across one’s mind (either the band lifted the hook, or there's just no way to sing the word "people" without having it sound Streisand-ish).
“Easy on the Eyes,” though, is classically unique Trashcan material, a song that would have fit in comfortably on A Happy Pocket or I’ve Seen Everything. More of that lazy, free-wheeling pace, clever wordplay in the lyric, ghostly backing vocals and shimmering guitar work (with a soulful bed of organ work) that flows together so seamlessly that you're not even shocked by the surprise sitar solo (!) in the middle-8. When this band plays like this, the individual ingredients become hard to distinguish and the sound becomes as coherent as water.
“Easy on the Eyes” by Trashcan Sinatras from In The Music
As if by contrast, the title track “In the Music” effortlessly turns into a showcase for each individual member. Bell-clear production lets us pick apart Frank Reader’s vocal from Stevie Mulhearn’s (terrific) keyboards, Davy Hughes’ decidedly funkless bass, Stephen Douglas’ steady drums to Paul Livingston’s soaring guitars and so on. This is a tune Hall & Oates would have been proud to have written, and that’s no insult.
Another aspect that has probably kept these guys out of the mainstream is their clear fondness for lo-fi type arrangements. A good example of this is “I Hung My Harp Among the Willows,” which is as college-indie as you’re going to get. It’s a kind of traditional Celtic folk dance, a bit out of place ... till you realise that Frank Reader is brother to (former Fairground Attractions singer and enduring solo legend) Eddi Reader, and this is the sort of thing she does all the time (a typical example using this song can be found on YouTube). The band wrote this song for her, but throw their own version of it in, though they typically take the sombre ballad approach to it rather than the jig-causing barn-burner style that it really calls for. Sometimes, it must be said, the Trashcans are too laid back for their own good.
As if conscious of this, the next track “Prisons” is a much more bubbly, rocking little number that reminds you why they were initially compared to the Smiths when they first appeared, that catchy combination of upbeat melody with darkness-laced lyric. It seems to remind the band (for the first time since “Welcome Back” from Weightlifting) that it’s actually okay to be rockers from time to time.
Never fear, pot smokers, they get right back to the dirgey-pop Radiohead-meets-Paul-Williams sound with “Should I Pray,” cementing that mid-70s vibe with backing vocals from no less than Carly Simon. Yes, she’s still alive, though you wouldn’t know it from the flat and lifeless complementary vocal she provides.
Still, that kind of gentle (but never quite “soft”) rock is what we’ve come to expect from the band, and they're damn good at hitting the right combination of intelligent arrangements with pretty melodies and expert playing (such as with the track “Morning Star”), a trick many bands can do occasionally (hello, Gin Blossoms) but not this routinely.
Speaking of Paul Williams, his “Rainbow Connection” signature style is all over their “Oranges and Apples,” a tribute to Syd Barrett that the band originally wrote for a tribute project and released as a (UK only) iTunes downloadable single. Somehow, the Trashcans make this work, evoking both the era of Syd as well as the man himself. Speaking of iTunes, it’s a shocking state of affairs that only their debut, Cake, is available on the US and Canada versions of iTunes, whereas in their native UK there's nothing at all currently available (Fez and Wild Mountainside got pulled, apparently). One hopes that EMI’s licensing of In the Music and Universal’s forthcoming reissues (plus bonus tracks) of their earlier studio albums will rectify this dearth of downloads.
Another typical example of the Trashcans’ style is “The Engine,” the penultimate song on the album. The mental image I always get is these Five Hungry Joes trapped in a leaky VW van cruising the lonely roads of the highlands trying to scrape together gas money.
The closer, “I Wish You’d Met Her,” (also the album’s first UK single) reaches for just a bit above their already-high standard and gets even more 70s than they had up to this point (which is really saying a lot!), reaching almost into Little River Band territory (!). How they make this work I know not, but I hope they can shorten the gap till the next one.