My review originally appeared in the OC Register. Live photo by Izumi Kumazawa; courtesy of Transfer Media Group
There’s something about the allure of Scottish music. Through the years, the country has spawned an impressive crop of bands that specialize in sophisticated, highly melodic and frequently orchestrated alternative pop.
During the 1980s, the list included Aztec Camera, the Edwyn Collins-led Orange Juice and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. The following decade turned out Trashcan Sinatras and Belle & Sebastian, among others.
The Sinatras, hailing from Irvine – located 25 miles southwest of Glasgow - debuted with wonderful album Cake (one of my year-end top 10 picks) in 1990. Rife with shrewd wordplay and jangly, atmospheric sounds, it found success at college and modern rock radio (KROQ/106.7 FM had singles “Only Tongue Can Tell” and “Obscurity Knocks” in heavy rotation and booked the Sinatras for the inaugural Almost Acoustic Christmas concert) and MTV via influential alt-rock video clip program 120 Minutes.
Sophomore disc I’ve Seen Everything was equally engaging, but arriving at the height of grunge in 1993, it was unjustly ignored. Financial and record label troubles meant large gaps between future stateside releases.
After a six-year absence, the band is finally back with enthralling fifth studio album In the Music. Produced by Andy Chase (Ivy, Brookville), the tunes about love and religion often boast a sunnier-than-usual vibe. Carly Simon even turns in a rare guest vocal appearance.
Returning to a moderate sized crowd at the Coach House (site of several memorable Sinatras gigs) on Thursday night, the sextet delivered a laid-back, yet captivating 90-minute performance heavy on newer material. Lanky vocalist Frank Reader came across like a college professor onstage, albeit one who does minimal talking.
An acoustic-based “Wild Mountainside,” from the same-titled 2005 EP, opened the 19-song set on a quiet note. The track, like another selection played off In the Music, was penned by rhythm guitarist/singer John Douglas and initially appeared on albums by his wife and Reader’s sister Eddi of Fairground Attraction fame.
The upbeat, breezy “I Wish You’d Met Her” was an early concert highlight as Reader added high falsetto bits and lead guitarist Paul Livingston did a short, tasteful solo. He also provided understated sparks at several junctures: namely the watery, Durutti Column-inspired guitar effect on rapturous “All the Dark Horses” and sinister sounds during frenetic older hit “Hayfever” – one of only five songs from the Sinatras’ 1990s heyday.
Not surprisingly, longtime fans were polite in their applause until the few recognizable numbers appeared. Reader sang in a near whisper about esteemed 18th century Scottish poet/lyricist Robert Burns on the idyllic, picturesque “I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows.” It included references to the band’s hometown and customs.
Another tribute - to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett - came via extended main set closer “Oranges and Apples,” all awash in Stevie Mulhearn’s sweeping keyboards and regal piano work a la Burt Bacharach.
Douglas handled subtle lead vocals for the life recollections of “Earlies.” Younger brother Stephen used light brushstrokes on the drums to fine effect here and elsewhere in the show (the sibling was also an asset in the backing vocal department).
Despite a downshifted tempo, Reader strained a bit on the wordy hit “Obscurity Knocks” (granted, there are really no pauses), but redeemed himself on the jaunty “Prisons” by belting out the lyrics and appending a cool snatch of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”
All told, the San Juan Capistrano gig was an exercise in musical elegance. With any luck, they’ll trot out more oldies during a proposed acoustic tour later this year to support a stripped down live album and box set retrospective.
Check out the new video for "People" here:
Remaining U.S. tour dates:
June 8 - Detroit, MI - Magic Stick
June 10 - Boston, MA - TT the Bear's
June 11 - New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom
June 12 - Hoboken, NJ - Maxwell’s
June 13 - Philadelphia, PA - World Cafe Live
June 14 - Washington, D.C. - Rock & Roll Hotel