July 14, 2024

The Van Pelt – ‘Artisans & Merchants’ – “A meta-exploration and celebration of the joys of making rock music”

Gringo Records 17th March 2023

Hymning and mythologising themselves on the song ‘Punk House’, The Van Pelt return as their own legend. The track digs into the truth and the image of being a cult band on the road.

With a few years and a couple of mid-90s albums under their belt, The Van Pelt broke up and slipped into minor cult status, appearing only now and again at things like All Tomorrow’s Parties but are back here and, somewhat shockingly, better for the insight and maturity. Often mentioned with the word ‘Emo’, this is a band more inclined to thoughtful post-punk, the Emo tag only justified by Chris Leo’s from-the-heart sprachgesang lyrics and the teeniest bit of shoegazy guitar. A thoughtful band, they have the musical range but like to take some time to explore the inner life and that makes for an interesting listen. That doesn’t mean it’s deep poetic stuff – ‘Grid’ is a rattling, Fall-speed rattle through the hurtling life of gig, food, stolen wallet, talking to girls, seeing a band in a garage, eating cake. It’s like Jonathan Richman gone American punk.

Dragged up in New York City, the band have a nervous energy that vibes with their hometown. The bass and drums make a confident and steady sound for a whole range of guitar styles and the distinctive vocals that conjure up images of middle-aged men drawing up memories of a slice of their lives. Which is what it is; finding a pile of old VHS tapes of their touring brought back images of the time and inspired a creative renaissance as they are relived, reimagined, reinhabited. Nothing is nostalgic and the band aren’t waxing lyrical about golden days. Neither are they moaning about rock and roll hardships, just making lyrical documentaries of snatches of memory, images of fractured life amongst travel and band stuff. Chris vocalises: “The floor is filled with resin on the place where you’re to sleep / if you have enough to drink you can pretend that it’s a sheet”

Recorded in 2021, this has been parked up and waiting for some sun to shine on it. Thanks to Gringo Records we get to hear it and it eclipses the 90s work. The album opens on an anthemic sound with ‘We Gotta Leave’ and hits again on the next – ‘Image Of Health’, which has a great guitar figure and a post-punk chugging riff. It builds to the demonstrative lyric; and you never felt more alive / than when the priest came to read you your rites”. The album has intense but chatty delivery and sometimes sounds like a buzzed stranger bending your ear at a party. It’s a hazy set of memories shot through with frequent moments of extreme clarity.

This is a great example of what re-forming bands could be doing – sod the nostalgia and the ‘hits’ tours, create something new that builds on the legacy. Something that doesn’t mythologise because, God knows there’s enough of that bollocks in rock already. In this case, create an imaginary, dreamed documentary of how it was, because, you know what, inside those band members are the twenty-something year olds that made the music.

A meta-exploration and celebration of the joys of making rock music.

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