Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pulco (ex-Derrero) Releases Small Thoughts: A Review

In the realm of American indie, lo-fi always seems to connote music without a lot of ambition, and with a certain purposeful laziness.

However, in other parts of the world -- New Zealand, for instance -- lo-fi describes the prodigious output of a real tunesmith like Chris Knox.

And now add Wales to that list of places where talented artists are producing quality music on modest budgets.

Operating under the moniker Pulco, Ash Cooke, former frontman of Welsh indie-rockers Derrero, has brought forth a wonderful new album, Small Thoughts, out 20 June on the Folkwit label.

Sure, there's no big production here but there are big tunes and big ideas -- a song about Flemish painter Jan van Kessel, for example! -- so that lo-fi label doesn't seem like a bad thing at all.

"Machines/Mind" cranks forth like the best of the aforementioned Chris Knox, while "Place Lid On Me" has a lovely melody that recalls Cooke's earlier band as well as Stephen Malkmus if Malkmus was trying to wrap his hooks around a solo Lennon tune.

"Night Owls" recalls not Lennon, but McCartney, specifically "Blackbird".

There's a real intimacy here. As an artist, Cooke is clearly making the most out of the benefits of home recording. The songs sound at once of-the-moment -- off-the-cuff, even -- and yet, there are bits of tenderness and lovely melody that many mainstream acts would kill for.

With the addition of his kid's speaking voice to "Seahorse: See Sheep", it's indie rock as family memento. Both experimental and melodic, the song is perfect headphone music.

A vaguely Vini Reilly-ish guitar line anchors "Travel Lodge Mirror" before the spoken word bits kick in. Is Cooke singing in character or as himself? Either way the effect is one of soul searching.

My favorite track on the record is "Return To Undersea Adventure" with the backwards tapes (?) and ringing guitar sounds recalling both the music of some thriller film soundtrack and the trippier bits on the underrated C'mon Kids (1996) by Boo Radleys; Cooke's voice does sound a bit like Sice's at some spots on this collection!

"Jan Van", about Dutch painter Jan Van Kessel, brings a slight blues edge to the rhythms at work here.

The ominous piano that opens "Oxbow Lake" leads into another burst of near-spoken word self-reflection. The sinister edge clouds what is otherwise a rather upbeat song and that tension keeps the song interesting until some retro blips-and-beeps and a crunchy acoustic guitar arrive and things end amid a bit of laughter from Cooke.

"Data Perils" sounds like the work of a full band and the somewhat downbeat melody line is ornamented by a plucked guitar and insistent drum machine. Hovering somewhere between side 1 of New Order's Brotherhood (1986) and that Sice ghost again, the song is inward looking where other moments on the record are pastoral and expansive.

It's not an accident that I opened with a reference to the glory days of the New Zealand scene; like the boom of bands around The Chills, Wales enjoyed a similar sort of indie musical renaissance following the early chart successes of Super Furry Animals.

And while the only Welsh band I heard played in bars during my one visit to Cardiff in 2000 was Stereophonics, there was a real sense of place to the best Welsh indie of the 1990s and up.

So, that said, the highest praise I could give Pulco is to say that while the scale may be smaller, the music from Cooke now is just as rich and warm in spirit as that made a few years ago by his earlier Derrero.

If John Peel were still alive, he'd be spinning Small Thoughts with the same kind of enthusiasm he once showed for Derrero.

Pulco on Folkwit records:

Pulco's blog:

For song samples and downloads from Small Thoughts, check out Pulco's page: