The Pictish Trail – Secret Soundz Vol. 2
Friendship apart, that wasn’t a totally unjustified fear. One of Johnny’s favourite bands is Hot Chip, who I think are fucking dreadful, and his last big release was the disco-tastic* Silver Columns album.
Now, I loved Silver Columns but a Pictish Trail album which explored more Hot Chip leanings might very well not have been my cup of tea, and with the band’s recent penchant for huge, full-band wig-outs I was nervous that the idiosyncratic charm I find so engaging about The Pictish Trail might be a bit smothered.
I have to confess that my fears were not entirely allayed by the pre-release teaser track Of Course You Exist, which I don’t mind and which makes sense in the context of the whole album, but is nevertheless not my favourite Pictish Trail song. I would have said the same about Michael Rocket actually – although that’s a song I have come to really like subsequently, I wasn’t smitten the first time around.
In fact, when you think about it, it’s sort of an odd tribute to this record that so much of it is comprised of songs I knew well before the release, and yet the album still managed to surprise me. Michael Rocket, The Handstand Crowd, Of Course You Exist and I Will Pour it Down (see a really early Toad Session recording of that one below) make up much of the backbone of this record, but having heard those songs I still had little idea of how it would actually feel to listen to Secret Soundz Vol. 2 for the first time.
So, having added a remarkable number of caveats and mean-spirited asides, it’s probably time to admit that I love this album. Funnily enough, it’s not so much the big songs which I have ended up loving, as much as it’s been the filler. Not that there is filler on here per se, but when people call things ‘album tracks’ it sort of implies the same thing. Here there are a good few ‘album tracks’ which, in my view, absolutely make the record.
You probably couldn’t take them out of context all that easily, but songs like Sequels and Wait Until are far less insistent than others on the album, and yet they manage to simultaneously be my favourite to listen to in and of themselves, and also to anchor the rest of the record. Tunes I wasn’t as keen on to begin with, like Michael Rocket and The Handstand Crowd, find a place amongst songs like that which seems to make more sense.
I may have known I Will Pour it Down before this album, but honestly, I didn’t know it as it sounds now. The recording on here is absolutely gorgeous, and perhaps hints at what I mean when I talk about certain songs providing the context.
The Pictish Trail can produce big old pop songs, but whilst they are good, and whilst they flesh out the range of the sound, they are several layers away from what makes this music genuinely special. There is a simple, personal warmth about Secret Soundz Vol. 2 which mirrors its maker, and which gives the listener a real sense of belonging. The slower, more elusive tunes seem to embody that more, somehow. The wobbly synth and twinkling electronics, instead of adding coldness to the more organic elements of guitar and gorgeously delivered vocals, seem to add an approachable charm.
There’s a documentary about the making of this record embedded below. For the last year and a bit Johnny has been living up on the Isle of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, which is where this album was recorded. It’s easy to superimpose impressions retrospectively once you know the provenance of a record, but instead of imbuing his album with a sense of the bleakness or grandiosity of the Scottish countryside, or indeed of the isolation of living in a static caravan on an island with a sparsely distributed population of eighty people, instead this seems to embody the warmth of having a cosy wee home and the increased intimacy of the friendships you make in situations like that.
I’m still not sure about Of Course You Exist, I suppose, but everything else which I wasn’t as keen on in isolation makes sense when pulled back into the eddies of the album. This is a gentle, odd record of strange detours, and one with moments of genuine tenderness and emotional impact.
And by happy c0incidence, the band happen to be playing at The Caves tonight with eagleowl, as the final night in an epic month of touring. You can buy this record there on vinyl, of course, or you can go to the Fence Records webshop and do so there instead. I strongly recommend you do one or the other.
*Yes, yes, I know no-one says disco-tastic anymore.More: pictish trail