In the ’80s, The Pastels evolved the minimalist, garage-crafted punk-rock blueprint into a more contemplative, gentle form, setting the stage for generations of jangly, twee bands that are now a mainstay of the transatlantic indie-pop scene. Like many a trailblazer, however, The Pastels had to settle for inspiring others—particularly in their native Scotland, where they were a formative influence of The Jesus And Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian, and The Vaselines (who began their career on frontman Stephen McRobbie’s 53rd & 3rdlabel)—rather than achieving independent commercial success. As such, Slow Summits, the group’s first proper studio effort in 16 years, has no ambitions of a late-career breakthrough, but provides a worthwhile opportunity to rediscover the band’s gracefully groundbreaking sound.
True, the quietly subdued melodies of Slow Summits are considerably mellower than the rollicking experimentation of those early releases that earned the accolades of Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain. As indicated by the band’s sporadic soundtrack, theater, and collaborative work since 1997’s Illumination, The Pastels have developed a fondness for airy, halcyon soundscapes, and the bulk of Slow Summits floats within a dreamy sonic atmosphere. These are the group’s most sentimental and warm songs to date, none more so than “Kicking Leaves,” with its lush swirls of strings, shimmering chimes, and wistfully relaxed pacing.
Orchestration also marks the soft-rock flourishes of “Night Time Made Us,” which glides its laid-back groove on a drifting cloud of flute, xylophone, and glowing trumpets like a sunny Burt Bacharach tune. At times, the restrained rhythms can make for a restless listening experience (it certainly doesn’t help that idle snoozer “Secret Music” gets the record off to such a languid start), but the unhurried mood does create space for instrumental nuance and a measured emotional flow. On Slow Summits, The Pastels sound not like a long-overlooked cult band making one last grasp at fame, but like a respectable contemporary in an indie-rock genre they once pioneered.