Reviewed by John Brady
Tuesday, April 13 1999, 11:23 PM
I first heard the Pastels' single Heavens Above! in late 1989. The song was one of the gems on a compilation of early 80s British and Scottish pop music I had recently bought. At the time I was starting to get into indie pop in a serious way and Heavens Above! marked a watershed in my appreciation of the genre. The song set the standard by which I would judge other pop songs and bands in the future.
Looking back on it, I liked the track so much because of the way it playfully subverted standard pop song conventions. It's a catchy tune with lyrics about love that have been written in the best bubble gum pop tradition. But it isn't all sweetness and light. The song's traditional elements contrast sharply with Steven Pastel's off-kilter vocal stylings and the decidedly lo-fi playing of the rest of the band. Heavens Above! is certainly a pop song. But its a sly and ironic commentary on pop music. In short, it was cool and I loved it.
Things have changed since then. I no longer buy seven inches with the same cultural abandon anymore. In fact, I really don't listen to that much indie pop. The Pastels have also changed somewhat. After releasing album after album of swirly, lo-fi pop throughout the 80s and 90s, they changed directions and released Illumination, an album whose roots are more post-punk and space rock than pop. And even independent music has changed. It no longer dominates the 'scene' like it did at the beginning of the nineties, but instead has been forced to share the cultural stage with other genres, most notably hip-hop and electronica.
Illuminati, Up Records most recent Pastels release, reflects this important change in the pop cultural landscape and indicates the possibilities that exist for cross-fertilization between genres. An album of remixes of songs from the Pastels last album, Illuminati is a cultural hybrid of sorts. It combines the pop idiom of the source material with the re-mix, one of the dominant cultural forms of the electronica/electronic dance genre.
The result is a good, but not great album. Certainly the list of contributors is impressive. Many of the luminaries from the international mixmaster jet-set are present including Stereolab, Cornelius, To Rococo Rot and Jim O'Rourke. Their presence hasn't resulted in a compelling album though. Make no mistake, many of the songs on the album are good, even entertaining. This is especially true of the cuts by Stereolab and Mouse on Mars. The track by the Make Up/Mighty Flashlight is also exceptional. More of a traditional cover than a remix, it features the insane falsetto of Ian Svevonious, who proves once again why he is the Prince of independent music.
But the majority of the songs on the album depart too much from the spirit of their source material. In other words, many of the attributes that make the Pastels enjoyable and interesting to listen to -- their offbeat interpretation of pop music, the lo-fi aesthetic of their songs, the playful subversion of pop aesthetics -- aren't reflected in Illuminati. They've been lost in the (re)mix.
That's unfortunate, because it makes for a less interesting album. And it also means that the contributors to Illuminati failed to fully capitalize on one of the cultural resources of re-mixing, namely its capacity to facilitate a 'dialogue' between the source material and the remix. When done correctly, this dialogue can help the listeners gain a new appreciation for the original material. But that's not always the case here because at certain moments its too hard to hear the distinctive voice of the Pastels.
Ilumminati is an Up Records release