a) Fantastic pop songs that sound timeless and current at the same time? Check.
Evidence – Patio Song & Drive That Fast, Diamond Dew & Gorgeous Love, Spanish Dance Troupe & The Third Time We Opened The Capsule.
b) Complexity coupled with accessibility? Check.
Evidence – pretty much all of Barafundle, most of Strange Free World and Love is Hell.
c) Bloody stupid names that completely scupper any chance of widespread commercial success? Check.
Evidence – Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci!?!?! I mean…come on! Kitchens of Distinction!?!? You must be joking, right?
Which is such a shame in both cases as, in my opinion, both bands deserve to be held in much higher esteem these days than they seem to be. As if to underline their status as the nearly men (and woman) of British pop, Gorky’s hold the record for the most top 100 singles not to crack the top 40, a feat they achieved 8 times, their best three efforts making 41, 42 and 43!
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci formed in the late 80s in Carmarthen and their early records sound as though they were made by a band that had little to no expectation that anyone else would be hearing them. So I suppose the band’s choice of moniker makes sense in that respect. But even in the mind-boggling weirdness that is their first album (Tatay) little pop gems reside, seemingly tossed off and somewhat adrift in a sea of in jokes and wilful awkwardness. However, by the time Gorky’s came to record Barafundle they had begun to learn how to construct an album – much of the playfulness remains intact but it’s now measured and used sparingly, never coming across as glib or gratuitous. And, for my money, it’s all the better for it.
I first heard Gorky’s music when I caught Patio Song being played on the radio at the time of its release in 1996. It was a revelation. I had been aware of the group for some time – it’s hard not to notice the name after all – but I had dismissed them as being something far too silly, a novelty group along the lines of Sultans of Ping or Carter TUSM. Yet here was a song sent from the gods, a beautiful, picked arpeggio, a wondrous melody, a couple of Slint like minor chord guitar runs tempering the sweetness and a blinding extended coda sung entirely in Welsh. Patio Song would still rank as one of my favourite singles from the 90s and at the time I found it irresistible. I bought Barafundle very soon afterwards, probably encouraged by the fact that the album was named after one of those breathkingly beautiful Pembrokeshire beaches I have visited so many times over the years. And I’ve never looked back.
Over the course of the last few weeks I have been listening to Barafundle pretty much non-stop and whilst doing so, I have struggled to find a way to adequately describe the music contained within. I’ll have a go but you’ll probably be none the wiser having read this!
You see, about two thirds of Barafundle is prog-punk psychedelia with generous lashings of folk. And, on paper, that sounds horrendous. Yet Gorky’s pull it off magnificently on Barafundle…most of the time. Whilst there are many examples of this style of music on the album, favourites Starmoonsun, Pen Gwag Glas and Meirion Wyllt all manage to traverse the same sort of musical breadth Joanna Newsom was attempting to negotiate on Ys, yet Gorky’s manage it in less than four minutes whilst never forgetting that they are ostensibly writing pop songs. Hence the more avant-garde material on Barafundle never outstays its welcome and, whilst the odd medieval interlude may jar on first acquaintance, the next melodic gem is only just around the corner (often in the same song).
The rest of the album hints towards the more straightforward music that Gorky’s would go on to make in greater abundance on their later albums. Often stunning (Patio Song, Sometimes The Father Is The Son, Diamond Dew) there are also a couple of missteps – I have always found Heywood Lane a bit too twee and Dark Night veers from exquisite to ponderous over the course of its five minutes. But, as a whole, Barafundle sounds as charmingly unpretentious today as on its release twenty years ago when it had the honour of showing all those Brit Pop wannabies that it is usually the outsider that has the best tunes.
Rob listened: A pleasure to hear again. I own ‘Barafundle’, or should I say ‘we’ do. It’s one of a relatively small set of records i’ve wanted myself but have been able to buy for my wife knowing that there was a reasonable chance she’d like it. And lo, under the cover of generosity, another album finds its way onto our shelves.
I like it a lot, but my go-to Gorky’s has always been ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’ which is a near perfect pastoral pop album. It’s 12 minutes shorter and, perhaps for that reason alone, always seemed more to-the-point, well-formed. It’s an extremely easy album to reach for and I did and do so often.
‘Barafundle’ sounds to me like the scrapbook that Gorky’s used to work out many of the ideas they had generated on ‘Bwyd Time’ would distill fully on ‘Dance Troupe’. It’s full of care and beauty and surprise and fun and gentle darkness. I can’t help but wonder whether if their musical venn diagram had included a techno circle, as did that for their compatriots Super Furry Animals, then perhaps they would have had the same critical plaudits showered upon them. Gorky’s really were one of the great lost bands. That’s not to suggest that they went unappreciated, far from it, but that there is another world not that far from our own in which they were having hit singles, rather than loitering outside the top 40, lacing daisies into each other’s hair.
Nick listened: This was lovely and melodic and sweet, but, as Rob suggests, perhaps a little long and rambling – it lost me a little in the second half and onwards, which felt like a shame. I’d not heard it before, though I’ve been aware of Gorky’s for 20-odd years now…