If you’re a North American like me, odds are you’ve never heard of an Irish band called Pugwash. But if you hail from the U.K. or Australia, it’s possible one or more of your favorite albums might be Almond Tea (1999), Almanac (2002), Jollity (2005), Eleven Modern Antiquities (2008), or The Olympus Sound (2011). Or perhaps you have one of the band’s compilations, including Earworm (2003) or Giddy (2009).
Now, thanks to Omnivore Recordings, on Sept. 23 Pugwash is finally crossing the pond with the release of A Rose In A Garden Of Weeds: A Preamble Through The History Of Pugwash…, a retrospective 17-song sampling of what the group has been doing since 1999. Ladies and gentlemen, the collection is really good stuff.
From the beginning, Pugwash has been led by multi-instrumentalist Thomas Walsh, who’s well-known for being an almost exact vocal doppelganger of Jeff Lynne. Not only does Walsh provide lead and backing vocals, six-string electric & acoustic guitars, but also Chamberlin strings & brass, Casio keyboard, Novatron, Hammond organ, and percussion.
While comparisons to many bands are easy to make, clearly Walsh’s elaborate productions most closely resemble those of ELO. While Walsh has said critics are “lazy” when they point out the influence of The Beatles on his work, well, we’re only calling attention to the obvious. If ELO picked up where “I Am The Walrus” left off, then Pugwash is the next chapter in that trajectory.
And while it might be lazy to note the many links between Pugwash and groups that came before, new listeners might like to know Pugwash amalgamates many familiar sounds in their often experimental mix. For example, the opening track, “Take Me Away” culled from Eleven Modern Antiquities, has the now ubiquitous jangle guitar created by The Byrds. “Anyone Who Asks” features the hard-hitting drums of Aidan O’Grady, who evokes the spirit of John Bonham. While publicity for the album claims the style of The Beach Boys is a major component of the Pugwash sound, that’s only evident on a few tracks. In particular, “It’s Nice To Be Nice” from Jollity appropriately has quotes from Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
To continue my laziness, the presence of the psychedelic-era Beatles just can’t be missed. While “Keep Movin’ On” rides on a Hammond organ melody, the lead guitar copies the sliding notes of George Harrison. From Almond Tea, “Finer Things In Life” is pure post-Fabs John Lennon. While “Anchor” is far from a recreation of “Penny Lane,” the trumpet lines are more than reminiscent of that McCartney number. Speaking of Sir Paul, the title song picks up where “Eleanor Rigby” left off. In fact, the track was recorded with The Section Quartet at Abbey Road 38 years to the day after “Tomorrow Never Knows” was recorded in the same room.
All this being said, it’s wildly unfair to think of Pugwash as merely a pastiche of The Beatles, ELO, or anyone else. For one matter, Walsh’s often clever musical settings aren’t as arena rock dramatic as the late ’70s incarnation of ELO. Walsh, as in the playful electronic sounds of “Monorail,” puts his own original, distinctive stamp on every track. You can see the roots of his musical family tree clearly enough, but these 17 roses sound fresh, inventive, and delightful. There are no weeds in this garden.
To introduce Pugwash to the American market, Omnivore has put together a very nice package, a digipak with previously unseen photographs, a band history, and notes from Fountains Of Wayne’s Chris Collingwood and The Section Quartet’s Eric Gorfain, who recalls the recording of the album’s title song at Abbey Road. For each track, the original album from which the song was taken is identified, which is helpful as the songs were not assembled in chronological order.
In addition, all the lyrics are published as well as listings of all the players, which is also helpful as Pugwash, other than Walsh, was a rotating cast of performers. Of these, it’s worth acknowledging producer and co-writer Keith Farrell, who was a major participant in the Pugwash canon, playing bass, Moog, Hammond organ, and providing backing vocals on more tracks than anyone else outside of Walsh. Credit must also be given to XTC veterans Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory for their songwriting and production contributions.
It’s good that, in the wake of A Rose In A Garden Of Weeds: A Preamble Through The History Of Pugwash…, the line-up that played on The Olympus Sound will be touring the U.S. this fall. The band currently includes Walsh, Tosh Flood (guitar/keys), Shaun McGee (bass), and Joey Fitzgerald (drums). The Irish are coming—prepare yourself by groovin’ with A Rose In A Garden Of Weeds. For we Yanks, it is one of the happiest surprises of 2014.
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