A GUEST POSTING by CRAIG McALLISTER
If ever a band were to benefit from a Greatest Hits collection – and I use the term ‘Hits’ very loosely – The Trashcan Sinatras would be that band. With the right marketing and management and all those things that the Trashcans are seemingly so averse to, or just plain bad at, a TCS Best Of could do for them what similar collections have done for acts like Crowded House or James, acts whose definitive compilations are owned by every second home in the UK (pre Spotify statistic, clearly) and as such have helped those acts become household names. If the purpose of a compilation is to bring the artist’s music to a wider audience and perhaps encourage new listeners to dig deeper into that band’s back catalogue, then notwithstanding record company politics, bankruptcy and the shadow of misfortune that seems to lurk around every corner the Trashcans are about to walk ‘round, they really should’ve put one together by now.
Over a course of nigh on 30 years as a living, breathing, touring, recording band (their origins go even further back) they have amassed a small but perfect back catalogue; just 6 studio albums and twice as many singles over their course of time, with the most recent, Wild Pendulum, a still-fresh two years old.
Somewhere along the way they changed from the triple Trash Can Sinatras to the double Trashcan Sinatras (my theory is it’s something nasty to do with lawyers and the avoidance of hefty demands for heftier bills) but they’ve managed to maintain, nay, nurture and grow their magical way with a well-crafted tune. Every one of those half dozen albums oozes tuneage, melody and the world-weary uplifting melancholy that has come to define the band in recent years. Now based between California (original members Frank Reader and Paul Livingston) and the West of Scotland (Davy Hughes and brothers John and Stephen Douglas), their songs take longer than other bands’ to arrive, but when they do they’re as finely tuned as a workshop-fresh racing bike; lean, beautiful and designed for the long road ahead. The Trashcans’ music endures. At their recent Glasgow show in Oran Mor you could’ve put together a brilliant 20 song set of material they chose not to play.
I’ve been there with them since (almost) the very outset. The mid 80s in Irvine was a fertile breeding ground for creative talent. There were dozens of original local bands. Amongst others, the scene (and it really was a scene) gave the world the polar-opposite writers John Niven and Andrew O’ Hagan as well as Andy Kerr who’d go on to play in short-lived 4AD ‘baggy’ act Spirea X, and the Trashcans.
When they signed to Go! Discs at the end of the decade, the Trashcans bought a run-down studio in Kilmarnock, renamed it Shabby Road and rented out rehearsal rooms to many of their pals in local bands. I think I’m right in saying a pre taps-aff Biffy Clyro would often take advantage of the cheap rooms to thrash out their own Nirvana-lite, Asda-priced take on grunge as they hatched their plans for bearded world domination. My own band (Sunday Drivers, since you’re reading) was downstairs, directly underneath the Trashcans’ room. Occasionally, in- between our enthusiastic clatter and arguments over who was playing too loud, you’d hear a snatch of Only Tongue Can Tell thudding dully through the floorboards. Sometimes, I’d come in to a band rehearsal and find a tape on top of my amp with a wee note from Paul – “Here’s some new tunes, what d’you think? They might end up as b-sides at some point.” They were great at that, the Trashcans. If they trusted your opinion, you got to hear their new recordings ages before anyone else. All those tapes and notes I still have, of course.
At Shabby Road the kettle was always on. If you were lucky there might’ve been milk in the fridge. If you were really lucky you might’ve spotted Half Man Half Biscuit playing football in the ‘garden’ at the side or The Stairs blagging guitar strings or a pre-fame John Grant hanging out with his band The Czars. And if you were really, really lucky, you might’ve been there when John Leckie mixed the band’s third single Circling The Circumference, giving it one of those epoch-defining Stone Roses whooshes in the middle. I was fortunate enough to sit in as Worked A Miracle, from their 2nd album, I’ve Seen Everything was magnetised to tape with producer Ray Shulman at the desk. He pondered adding a cello to the mix as he was quite taken with how PJ Harvey had used one on her just-released debut LP. He also told a funny story about working with Bjork while Stephen reassembled his drum kit in the corridor outside the studio office. The acoustics were better there, it was agreed. Heady days.
Anyway, the compilation. As with those recent TCS gigs, you could leave out a perfect set of songs and still go home thrilled at what the band played, so it goes without saying this is an impossible task. You can disagree, debate and deliberate, but you can’t argue that, as far as 10-track introductions go to bands, this is one of the finest you could ever hope to hear;
1. All The Dark Horses
When all the wrongs of the world are righted and the error of peoples’ ways pointed out and repaired, All The Dark Horses will play forever on an endless loop, gaining momentum and gathering new fans with each consecutive giddy play. It’s ultra-melodic, features a great wall of gnarled and chiming guitars and the funkiest bassline (funky isn’t a word you’d normally associate with the TCS) this side of Parliament. By the time the band has galloped their way to the key change and the Hawaii-by-way-of-Hurlford guitar break, you may well be crying tears of joy. I am in happy floods as it plays right now while I type.
I’ve Seen Everything is the 2nd Trashcans’ album and was recently voted 2nd-best Scottish album ever in a poll in the Glasgow Herald. For a long time it was my own personal favourite TCS album, the rough ‘n ragged follow-up to the pop sheen of debut album Cake. ISE is full of great Trashcans tracks, yet for this compilation, only two tracks from it make the cut.
Even the services of a top producer (Ray Shulman) couldn’t quite clean up the scuffs on the knees of Hayfever, and why would you want to? Rolling along on a piano line that’s eerily reminiscent of Foreigner’s Cold As Ice – a happy accident, surely. Surely? – Hayfever has oft been a pivotal Trashcans’ live moment. Despite one foot half-dipped in sophisto-pop, it packs a punkish punch, with a great swelling build as it nears its chaotic end. “Moscow’s in Ayrshire, what’s the problem?” asks Frank. In concert, that “problem” is often phrased with a Johnny Rotten-esqe roll of the r. Prrrrrroblem. Seek out the live version from Paris’96 if you want to hear it done with feeling.
3. I’ll Get Them In
By Trashcans’ standards, I’ll Get Them In is a fairly low-key track. When A Happy Pocket was released and toured it was regularly aired on stages from Perth to Portland but in recent times it’s dropped off the radar a wee bit, which is a shame. It’s carried along on an easy to play descending acoustic guitar riff, some trademark TCS major 7ths in the chorus and gentle warm and understated Hammond towards the end.
I’m picking this track for purely selfish reasons. I’ve never asked any of the band directly, but I’m fairly certain that huge chunks of the lyrics relate to a night spent in The Crown in Irvine with Paul, the future Mrs Pan and myself. Paul, just back from a US tour showed us photos – the band in airports holding guitar cases, mainly – and told us stories of the tour.
The “anecdote about the argument with the singer from Jellyfish,” and “the secretive call to some friends of mine for the gift of £20, just enough to get us pished,” certainly fit my memory of the time, so I’m claiming the glory of being the inspiration.
Paul’s “second-hand jacket from the fire brigade” was sold on a subsequent tour to Ian McNabb of The Icicle Works. As far as I know, he still wears it to this day.
4. The Safecracker
The Safecracker is a masterpiece in lyric writing and uplifting melancholy. It tells the story of a crook caught out by a combination of the moon, misplaced nails and general bad luck. It’s the melody attached to the brilliant lyrics though that elevates a simple story song into the dizzy heights of greatness. “As fly to tarantuala, as jugular to Dracula… to me and my Ford Spectacular, you’ll be drawn.” That’s a line worthy of Tom Waits, that is.
Musically, it features that classic TCS thing of John’s acoustic guitar carrying the tune while Paul’s electric adds the light and shade, the dynamics to it. The dulcimer seemed to be a favourite instrument during the recording of The Safecracker’s parent album A Happy Pocket, and it’s all over this track like a happy jangling rash.
One of the finest songs in the band’s back catalogue, The Safecracker has long been a staple of live shows. The extended second verse – “they call me thrifty….I count out £2.50…” – when it builds and builds before dropping once more to the chorus is always sublime, even if the chorus steals just a fraction of the melody from Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend. What’s the world coming to though if a song about stealing can’t purloin the odd decent melody here and there, eh?
5. Got Carried Away
“You shoulda popped into the studio yesterday,” mentioned Paul as I bumped into him in Kilmarnock’s King Street on a day off from recording. “Norman Blake was there so we got him in to do some vocals on a new track. I think you’re gonnae like it. The whole album actually. Wait till you hear it. It’s gonnae be massive. And I mean ‘Rumours’ massive. Believe me!”
On record, Got Carried Away rolls with lazy abandon, the drums falling in behind the rhythm of the twin guitars, the simple bass line keeping it together. Franks’ vocal is terrific, a world-weary and lightly toasted croon of resignation. “Hey, it doesn’t matter,” he accepts. “Hey, we’ll work it out.” Slide guitar weeps all over the verses. Electric guitar chimes throughout the chorus. The moonlighting Norman Blake provides those slightly hard-to-hear harmonies.
Again, once those worldly wrongs have been righted, Weightlifting (Got Carried Away’s parent album)may well go on to be the equal of Fleetwood Mac’s gazillion-seller. Until then, it’ll sit proudly at the top of the tree; the best Trashcan Sinatras album so far.
6. Obscurity Knocks
The sadly prophetic debut single- number 86 with a bullet and almost* all downhill from there-on in – introduced the world to the Trashcans on a bed of frantically scrubbed acoustics, a lightning fast solo straight outta Roddy Frame’s Big Book Of Flashy Fretboard Wizardry and an unashamedly Scottish vocal. Early Trashcans was packed full of word play and clever puns and Obscurity Knocks runs the whole gamut. “The calendar’s cluttered with days that are numbered,” it goes, and in terms of those damned chart positions (should such things still matter to the band) it probably is, but despite their lack of commercial success, the TCS plough gamely ever onwards.
Recent live shows have seen the band play Obscurity Knocks with something approaching a feral post-punk aggression and you’ll be hard-pushed to find anyone who has a problem with that.
*Hayfever is the highest-charting TCS single, having crept to the dizzy heights of number 61 in 1993
7. How Can I Apply?
It’s Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time, innit? Well, it is, until the chords kick in and How Can I Apply? skims along like a well-polished stone across the River Irvine, a mid-paced TCS shuffler with the band drawing upon all their strengths; a melody to die for sung beautifully, chiming guitars, a slinky solo (the twang’s the thang, baby) and some beautiful, understated keyboard work. Nothing more need be said about one of the band’s most enduring numbers.
If you were to Google an audio dictionary and look up the word ‘sublime’, it would play you Usually.
Usually is a grower. It’s not got the pop-hit feel of others nor the introspective melancholy that defines much of TCS’ slower material, but it has a terrific intro (subtly panned from speaker to speaker) that repeats a couple of times through the song; all tumbling, echoing, climbing, shimmering guitar notes. Clipped guitars make way for arpeggiated runs, wonky chords and a subtle string section. “Slide out of my life,” sings Frank with resigned despair, as Paul’s slide guitar wah wahs its way into orbit, flying on a rocket ship made once more from gossamer-thin major 7ths. Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers once told me, with spot-on accuracy, that Usually was the equal of a Bacharach ballad.
That part when the vocals fall over one another – “Usually, usually, usuall-ee-ee…” Pure Beach Boys. And there ain’t no greater praise than that. Usually wouldn’t at all sound out of place on any one of those under-appreciated 70s Beach Boys albums. I wonder if Brian Wilson has ever heard it.
9. Orange Fell
Orange Fell is all about the crescendo. It always reminds me of Twin Peaks music; pretty, far-off and slightly sinister with a sudden, final ending. It’s a fantastic mood song and would sound great sound-tracking a scene in a David Lynch movie. You can sing it, but it’s more likely you’ll just want to turn it up and let your head swim in it. “Drifting….drifting…stickleback waters…” It’s a song about childhood or of days gone by or of failed relationships. Actually, I don’t have a clue what it’s about. Like all the best music though, I’ve my own interpretation.
Listening to it as I am right now, it takes me back to summer holidays of a childhood long-gone, of playing down at the River Annick in the same spot where the police frogmen searched for the body of Sandy Davidson in 1976, of times when summers lasted entire years and the weather was always sticky hot. “Come home when it starts to get dark,” we were told in the days long before mobile phones. When the sodium started to burn on the streetlights and the orange fell, casting its fiery glow into the twilight, you headed home. Wee Sandy never, ever did.
I think I’m correct in saying this is Guy Garvey’s favourite Trashcans’ track. Wouldn’t he just give his right arm, or even his Elbow, to write a track as perfect as this one.
A rarity, an obscurity, a beauty.
“Blue soft light on Ailsa Craig. The feelin’, freewheeling’ up Electric Brae.
And lettin’ all I have roll away, was dare I say, defiance of science in its own way.”
If you’re from Ayrshire, this’ll make sense. If you’re not from Ayrshire you’ll still marvel at the majesty of such a great lyric. Straight from the land of Burns, it’s pure poetry.
Like all the best TCS songs, this starts downbeat and low-key then soars in the chorus. It ebbs and flows between the verses, enhanced by all manner of sky-scraping eerie slide guitar, full fat acoustics and a terrific piano line, creeping around the periphery of the main instruments but pinning the whole thing together.
As I type I’ve just noticed, for the first time, a complementary backing vocal somewhere low-down towards the end. See, the Trashcans sometimes make you work for your listening pleasure, but it’s all the better for it.
And there you have it. Ten tracks o’ Trashcans.
Folk’ll say, “But you didn’t include ______ or _____ or even ______.” Pure and simple, the Trashcans are victims of their own high watermark. As far as sequencing goes, it generally gets slower as it nears the end, a coincidental metaphor for the band’s output with each successive album. Feel free to re-sequence or stick on shuffle – this is music for pleasure, so play it as you fancy. And play it often.
Craig McAllister, 28th August 2018