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Reviews from the Pages of buhdge: Pugwash’s Eleven Modern Antiquities

...from the pages of buhdge
…from the pages of buhdge

Back in the mid 2000’s, we started a popular website called buhdge. buhdge, with an accent on the “h,” was designed to support the weekly Pure Pop Radio Show on WEBR in Fairfax, Virginia, and for many years, it did. For various reasons, however, it lay dormant for periods of time–some short, some regrettably long, and in March 2012, it ceased to be updated at all. It sorta, kinda morphed into a dormant, online catalog of melodic pop music reviews, audio interviews and articles. After nearly two years of inactivity, it will be going away forever, having done its time entertaining at least millions.

Because the content on buhdge is worthy of a second, or even a third, look, we have decided to post some of the best of the reviews and such here. The audio interviews will be ported over to our PodOMatic podcast page. This has, in fact, begun and will continue throughout this year.

So, here’s the first of a goodly number of reviews that first appeared on buhdge. First up: our review of Pugwash’s 2008 album, Eleven Modern Antiquities, as fine a record as Thomas Walsh and company have put out. Enjoy the review, and add the album to your collection if, for some odd reason, it doesn’t already claim pride of place.

Pugwash's Eleven Modern Antiquities
Pugwash’s Eleven Modern Antiquities

Pugwash | Eleven Modern Antiquities (1969 Records)

I remember reading a review of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in which the reviewer described the Floyd as a band that never throws an idea away. The idea of a creative force so keenly tuned into their vision being able to use their every idea to bring that vision to life instantly intrigued me. And today, thinking about the idea of using ideas in such a complete way, I thought of Thomas Walsh, the Dublin songwriter whose ideas and vision fuel the musical engine that is Pugwash the band.

I believe, as the reviewer of The Wall believed about Pink Floyd almost 30 years ago, that Walsh is an artist who never throws an idea away, for he knows a good idea when he hears one. Even more, I believe that Walsh couldn’t throw an idea away if he wanted to, because his ideas are that good. Walsh is a pop pundit who fuels his ideas with his deep-seated love of the pop form, whose admiration of the classic pop sound brought forth by bands like the Move and the Electric Light Orchestra and XTC knows no bounds, who lives and breathes what lies at the heart of great pop music and knows how to mix all of that up and create songs steeped in ideas that sing with melodies and harmony and the odd musical quote, and has the good sense, thank God, to share it all with the world.

This fourth Pugwash album, appearing three years on from the richly-defined Jollity, is a high-water mark in a career defined by such milestones. The title of the album, Eleven Modern Antiquities, is ironic, for how can “modern” creations be antiquities, “relics or monuments… of ancient times,” as the word is defined by Merriam-Webster? Walsh suggests that he is a songwriter writing pop songs today, not as if he were plying his trade in, say, the 1960s or 1970s. His is not a retro art, but a modern art that references and is informed by what has come before–a contemporary art, if you will, that is clearly created in the present. If you get a chill up your spine listening to Walsh’s music–if you’re of a certain age or you’re simply wired to swoon under the spell of a clever chord change, sumptuous melody, or a genuinely inspired lyric–you owe it to yourself to become immersed in this absolutely wonderful music. Top of the pops, in fact.

These eleven modern antiquities are really of a piece, so well do they fit together and alongside each other. The first single, “Take Me Away,” a bright and cheery-sounding, straight-ahead pop song of immense charm, is informed musically by Jason Falkner’s expressive, chunky rhythm and otherwise guitars, and bandmates Keith Farrell and Johnny Boyle’s spot-on musicianship, not to mention Walsh’s beautiful voice, an instrument most certainly to treasure.

Treasure, also, Walsh’s particular, knowing way with a lyric. If the catchy and quite appealing music is the yin of “Take Me Away,” the words are the yang. Walsh sings of a person who doesn’t figure the fairness of those “rich in love” coming in last. It’s “…an answer not to be found,” he sings, leading the person to pray for someone to take him away. To the place where questions have answers? Walsh doesn’t venture a guess, but it’s an important question at the heart of a great song.

Taking stock of one’s own self seems to be a recurring theme in Walsh’s writing. A Psychology Today article titled Love Needs, posted on Yahoo! Health, discusses “…the difference between limerance and love.” “Limerance,” the article states, “is the psychological state of deep infatuation.” But it isn’t love. Is it a component of love, or does love transcend limerance? It’s another question for the ages, deftly handled by Walsh in the song “Limerance,” against a hypnotic, dreamy, piano-infused arrangement.

In the epic closer, “Landsdowne Valley,” Walsh recounts a childhood spent playing, sliding on “snow and ice every winter’s day,” only one of the grand adventures that one can look back on when taking stock of one’s growing up. “I played in Landsdowne Valley every single day,” Walsh sings. “I feel those voices are calling me back.” And then, the turn of phrase that so populates Walsh’s work: “My mind’s achilles heel.” The music is sumptuously realized, mellotrons expressing the depth of memory, until the song implodes on itself and finally collapses under a cacophony of sound, the sound of memories colliding in the haze of remembrance. It’s a remarkable song, and a remarkable achievement.

But all is not implosion on Eleven Modern Antiquities. Two songs, co-written with XTC’s Andy Partridge, stand as two of the highlights of an album steeped in them. The jaunty, wildly imaginative “At the Sea” affectionately recounts the imagination of youth at the seaside, the plans formulated that are rained upon for the purpose of spoiling the fun, at which point kids will be “posing with hankies” on their heads, “sipping our tea at the sea.” The sprightly theatricality of the music, complete with whistles and kazoos and a manic acoustic guitar solo by one Mr. Partridge, bring the song to a plateau that is a joy to behold. It’s the kind of catchy tune that, eyes closed, will transport you happily away.

“My Genius,” another Walsh-Partridge co-write, is one of this album’s most affecting treasures. A nostalgia-tinged, supper club pop song with a sweet melody, about a person whose “genius is out of a bottle,” “My Genius” features pretty background vocals by Walsh and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, who also plays keyboards throughout this album, and neat percussion played by the incomparable Nelson Bragg. Dig the instrumental section, which pairs Hannon’s delicate piano lines with a decidedly-sixties, Beatlesque guitar part.

If there is a centerpiece to this collection of modern antiquities, it is the grand, destined-for-a-Broadway-musical ballad, “Here.” Following on the heels of the gorgeous folk-pop number “Cluster Bomb,” featuring the deftly-performed strings of the Section Quartet, arranged by the invaluable Dave Gregory, late of XTC, “Here” is a simply luminous creation, driven by Hannon’s emotional piano, near to Walsh’s heart of hearts. Here, he wrestles with a question similar to that posed in “Take Me Away”: What do you do when what you long for is just out of reach? To wit, the chorus: “Ever wanted someone but your mind is telling you you’ll fail? Ever needed loving but you come up short again… again… again.”

Special mention must be made of Dave Gregory’s genius that shines like the brightest of lights on “Here.” Gregory’s guitar solo and haunting string arrangement, once again brought to lively life by the Section Quartet, reflect Walsh’s love of all things ELO. This nod to what has come before becomes an integral part of the song’s whole and contributes mightily to what will surely be looked upon by those in the know as a standard for the ages.

That’s what you get with these eleven modern miracles, these eleven modern antiquities that so resonate with the human condition. The whole of this album is a remarkable achievement that will be followed by more remarkable achievements from one of contemporary pop music’s most talented artists. That he speaks to the masses, to the hearts of one and all, is an idea whose time has come. And not a moment too soon.

Alan Haber
March 31, 2008

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