Secret Fields, Spring Reverb, Personality Disorder Temperance League - Neptune Syline (Neptune Skyline Records)
"I hallucinate music. I believe a lot of people do. And it's not always pleasant. I was struck by lightning when I was 15. True story. To this day I play in electrical storms. I figure I'm safe now." - Mike Pitts
These LPs form a trilogy by Portland, Oregon, musician Mike Pitts and his band, Neptune Skyline. Any and each are excellent. You'll recognise much within these songs, but you'll never be able to pin the origin down.
Which means you'll play Neptune Skyline over and over for multiple reasons.
Sure, the man behind them, Mike Pitts, likes film soundtracks (when a soundtrack wasn't a compilation but the music used in the film), and there's certainly an aspect of that (perhaps an echo of the relentless elegance of John Carpenter, perhaps a flicker of PTV). Either way Mike Pitt's guitar and translucent, yearning voice crawls up and into you in a way few others can begin to imagine.
My copy of "Secret Fields" is on sparking white vinyl. If you like vinyl you'll love this: first, Mike seems to be a little odd about money. Every band - and that's EVERY band - tries to recoup the cost of pressing/ recording their record.
Not Mike. They're on Bandcamp because he wants people to listen to the LP. But – he'll give you the vinyl.
No, you read that right.
MIKE WILL GIVE YOU THE VINYL.
All you have to do is pay postage. Which is a damn good deal.
Alright, many people who give their music away make the kind of music you don't want to hear anyway.
Again, not Mike. This is stuff you do want to hear, and over and over.
So - the name of the band might ring a bell. "Nashville Skyline" was Bob Dylan's 9th LP - and as the ever-not-entirely-reliable Wikipedia puts it: ˜Along with the more basic lyrical themes, simple songwriting structures, and charming domestic feel, it introduced audiences to a radically new singing voice from Dylan"...a soft, affected country croon. Hmmm. Now Mike Pitts ain't Bob Dylan, and thank god for it. But in that description, you can expect that at least from these records, as a starting point anyway.
"Secret Fields" and "Spring Reverb" have a dreamy, romantic, seductive quality which has to be heard. Mike has a lovely, yearning voice, and he's mastered a recording technique which makes the vocals sound like they're simultaneously in the next room and right next to you, producing a quite astonishing immediacy. Downloads kind of lose the immediacy, I think, unless you plump for the higher quality download and crack the volume right the fuck up.
The first song in sets the scene with a tight, understated pedal-steel - ˜No more night and day" is the chorus and we're hooked on the singer. Hardly has ˜Baby Grand" died away than we're hauled into "Recidivism", which I can only describe as Fats Waller's ideal boudoir, with a firm pulse driving us into our own heart, examining our own frailties. A trainspotter might notice similarities with the Velvets but really, "Neptune Skyline" uses whatever it can find as a sort of springboard.
I think I might pause here to explain the astonishing beauty of these songs, and their hypnotic quality, reduces me to goo. I am guessing much of the subject matter stems from Mike's ˜troubled private life" (as newspapers might put it) but, hmmm, you know how that Richard Curtis made one rubbish romantic mistake into a series of hugely successful films? It seems that Mike gets about one or two songs out of each circumstance, which must be damn hard to bear, but for us, well. We get the gold.
"Chantepleure" (that's a French word meaning ˜to cry and sing at the same time") swings down upon us and again we're simply swept up. If you ever wondered what on earth Facebook mean by their relationship status "it's
complicated", look no further. The music - god, what on earth is that instrument? A double bass with a bow? Remember those songs in Eraserhead? That extraordinary distant, immediate quality? "Chantepleure" gives you goosebumps
and makes the hair on your head tingle. The playing is impeccable, the arrangements original and hypnotic, the production extraordinary, the result - well, if you ever liked a Mute Records band - any of them, even a single - you
need these records in your collection. "Neptune Skyline" out-Mutes Mute without so much as a nod of acquaintance. Hell, there are moments here where you'd swear it was whatsherface, Nico, singing, but without the pretension and clunky
"Remember Me to Harlem" seems more straightforward, kind of like a despairing, hopeful travelogue. Jesus. Words keep failing me.
And there's another odd thing: you have to play "Secret Fields" and "Spring Reverb" pretty loud which, for kinda reflective, sexy discs this is not what you'd expect. There's an elegance, a half-shrugged intimacy which you just get drawn into.
There's a country kind of feel burring along behind it all too, but you'd have serious difficulty isolating where it all comes from. So you'll do as I did, put the record on over and over again.
Mike starts songs in the most down to earth, personal ways; "Last Song Side One" begins:
"I needed your mattress/ I needed you dumb/ I intended to free you / From any extra income"
Before delving into a romance that coalesces into Mike examining himself with a fine-tooth comb. About this time you find to your surprise that you've been singing along with most of the songs, humming and do-do-ing as the music builds and swirls.
Side Two begins with "Elizabeth", a chapter of perfection, happiness and loss exquisitely expressed:
"Elizabeth/ I've fallen down and can't be saved/ And let your ribbon cut the scissors of my words"
Mike explains: "I'd met a girl at a Halloween party who made her own dolls. Barley talked to her. Walked home alone. Frustrated. Sad. Dreamt that night of great wars and dead love. I woke up and wrote the song in 10 minutes. The recording is a first take."
Well, my jaw dropped as well. ‘Elizabeth’ is followed by ‘Owl War’, clearly intended as the opening sequence for a dark, hugely influential film and creeps along like a murderer under a highway. Look for yourself:
"The Winter Coats" takes us into a dreamy, Beatles-esque area which feels a bit like falling in love, ‘getting sicker all the time, do-de-do’. What a chorus!
"From the Joyce Hotel"… ‘when your lover suits your mood… you love your life but it doesn’t leave you moved’… and this is the only song where, as there’s a haunting harmonica, you might reflect on the younger Dylan, but no, it’s so integral. The moment passes and we’re still sitting with Mike on the hotel bed with his lover who finds herself unable to communicate…
"Epic Soundtracks", a gorgeous homage to the UK group Swell Maps, who harvested a deliberate policy of creating distinctive songs, as well as a smiling nod to the topic; whorls of emotion cover us.
The download lacks a key track, "Euclid Street", which is, of course, equally bloody good.
Pause for refreshment. A little teary.
The second LP, "Spring Reverb", starts with "Motorcades", an urban, disco-esque dream vaguely reminiscent of John Foxx, but then… swirling the wash of hurrying cars, effortlessly proceeds along. Again we’re taken up in Mike’s deadpan vocals, his extraordinarily simple arrangement always leaving us wanting more.
I tell you, I’d like to see this man’s recording studio; "Streets of Town" seems to be using a baby grand piano, and it’s a perfect counter to Mike’s voice. I suppose you might hear a nod towards Cash or Cave in here, but it’s pretty vague; as I say, you’re just harpooned by this.
"Wishless Sea" is gloriously romantic, simple as that. There’s a powerful, lost youth aspect to Neptune Skyline I just can’t get over.
"Shock Suspense Stories" takes us away on an unexpectedly brutal little trip; the period synths being used form that oft-forgotten wall of sound - if Mike Pitts ever decides to substitute synth for feedback guitar, we’re going to be puddles.
"Table of Contents" is a brief return to the terrain we’re now familiar with from "Secret Fields". The lyrics roll through us like distance posts on a road… ’Suggestions remain/ Suggestions are germs/ Kindle the flame/ But at the same time/ remember the burns’. Time, immediacy, loss, love… kind of like a Casablanca of the soul. ‘Open violet/ Open orchid/ Open road’… ‘take what you want/ from what I have/ and make it yours’.
"Ague and Rheum" is lush and lux, Mike’s drained vocal sinking into us with some sort of elegiac passion, laid back and brisk.
"Origin and Myths" - you could be forgiven for thinking this is from an old Spencer P. Jones lp, the masterly control of feedback blending against the guitar wall is just seductive in the extreme. I’d love, love to see a clip for this one.
"Sound Economies Collapse’"despairs, reflects like a dying winter sun against a greystone country church wall. How can you deal with lines like: ‘You can blame the men that hire and pay/ The living wages that men die to try and save/ So their children can enjoy the same’.
"A Good Goddamn" is the sweetest, most delicate song… if you must have a comparison you lazy swine, start with Nick Drake.
"Sehorne Hill" is a beautiful piece of music you can imagine playing over a city skyline as the opening credits roll and the main character is seen tiny and far down the road…
"Despots Tumble" and "The Jilted Ones’"seem to blur together, their careful, natural progressions ringing like a medieval ballad,
"The Jilted Ones’"in particular.
We close "Spring Reverb" with the improbably groovy and jaunty ‘Blanket’, two minutes of sinful sixties fizzy savage reflection, where we ‘talk about how crazy she’s become … it’s getting dark and dark will win’.
Pause for icecream. And refreshment. Not quite as teary. Maybe.
My copy of "Personality Disorder Temperance League" is on a mottled grey vinyl, which is kinda giddy-making if you watch it spin. Of the three, "Personality Disorder…" is probably the bleakest lp, but it’s also the most uplifting and complex. It’s also the one you may find yourself with mixed feelings about, however much you love its briliance.
The instrumental"‘Pink Mist" sets the scene - pink mist is the effect caused when a bullet hits a skull and the force explodes out of the other side… so we’re off to a rather religious beginning… "Dead Girl" follows, grim and beautiful like a bad little boy’s nursery rhyme… if there are any Swans, Mick Harvey or Nick Cave fans out there reading this - you need these LPs. There’s no actual overlap of influence, but by god it’s a naturally similar area. The crushing simplicity is quite incredible, also reminds me of that haunting soundtrack to "Paris, Texas" by Ry Cooder.
"Cinque in Flames" - god knows where we are now, but it’s a dark place, like the Teardrop Explodes second LP recorded during a bad acid trip. Then I recall "Like Leila Khaled Said", and realise that Cinque was the head of the SLA who kindnapped Patty Hearst. I love this track. Hell, Damon Edge would’ve liked this track, probably think he recorded it himself and forgot about it.
"Housing Spiders" is another of Mike’s inspired love songs… broken, filled with the background hiss of real life, and how does this love song finish? Remember one thing while I'm returning your hand/
I'll be listening for your singing/ For as long as I can…’
"People’s Temple", now this is Jim Jones territory. If you don’t know who this ghastly deranged dick is, Google the name and ‘suicide’ and see what happens. There’s been a few terrible songs written or inspired by this gigantically deluded bogey, who tragically caused the deaths of hundreds of people - families, you know. And Neptune Skyline actually nail a real reaction to it, certainly I recall my own horror crawling all over me when I saw the headlines.
"The DAL-TEX Window" is next, and it’s as mysterious to me as it probably will be to you - it is both from somewhere else and from somewhere within. Like you’ve heard this before in some damn nightmare. You know, nails down a blackboard. Politician’s promises.
So I pester Mike on FB and get this: “The Dal Tex Window is in Dealy Plaza. Black River Falls is the town in the book/documentary Wisconsin Death Trip. So this is a record about America's failings. As well as my own.”
"Hello Devil" is like a lost and hammered busker at a busy railway station. God, this man is fallen. Help him, even as he reaches for a redemption he believes is denied him. So… fragile, delicate, bludgeoned, publicly destroyed.
"Station at Black River Falls" … the man is getting married… and this is a gorgeous song of love and loss and echoes round your soul.
"When Will My Eyes Close" moves us closer inside the singer… and here I might recognise certain codas and melodies… but fuck ya. Neptune Skyline is the real deal, and as far as I am concerned - this is the hit.
And I’ve reached the point of no return. "Io", "Burst and Bloom" take me away. Each song, each LP has done this. It’s like ear candy. Gentlemen of even a slightly romantic persuasion… you’re about to discover a new addiction.
If you haven’t got a glimmer yet I don’t know why you’re still reading. I’m going to reach for the bottle and play "Personality Disorder Temperance League" over and over. And then "Secret Fields", and then "Spring Reverb". All three LPs. And I’m going to play them again and again until the sun comes up. Without regret.
Neptune Skyline are like a real-life soundtrack, or an old mate come round to hang out on a Sunday … and the list of comparisons goes on. You can’t rock out to this stuff, nor would you want to (anyway, Mike got his smart punk-pop venom out in a previous band, Kent 3 - see if you can find their lp and 7”s, they’re crackling) and one of the strengths of Mike’s arrangements here is the constant use of contrasts, there’s just so much to hear. What makes Neptune Skyline’s songs so remarkable is their immediacy, they seem to flow out of Pitts in such a quick, natural way - and I understand they’re laid down like that as well.
Neptune Skyline inhabits a very, very special place and just is. If Mike Pitts reminds me of anyone I know, it would be Chris Wiley - genius level music maker, but shy about pushing his own rather incredible wares out there. In fact, Mike fits the bill of a shy genius with a knack for producing measured, strong, confident music which should be heard around the world (his photography is bloody good, too, but that’s another story).
So, to the ratings.
Four bottles at home with the beautiful woman you love. Five bottles in anyone’s language.
Spring Reverb: Four bottles and a glorious sunrise with the beautiful woman who loves you. Five bottles in everyone’s language.
Personality Disorder Temperance League: Five bottles and five whisky shots and lots of vivid memories. Six bottles, and with me that means: buy copies for your friends - and also your relatives who inexplicably like that fat weasel in The Cure; perhaps this will sort them out. Your good deed for the year..
Although the music is also available from Bandcamp , you only want to do that just to check it out. So. Get these on vinyl, from John Adams, 4626 S.E Clinton #68, Portland, OR 97206 USA.
Send Mike Pitts postage, he’ll send you vinyl. I sent US dollars, you might like to send a bank cheque or money order - which are quick and easy to process. (Paypal is too awkward).
Every one of these LPs is worth acting on. If my description hasn’t moved you, don’t shell out. But DO NOT then go and download them from Bandcamp, you cheapskate.
Make the effort and, while you’re at it, it would be a generous - and grateful - gesture matching Mike’s own to include a fair price for the LPs. Why do I say this? Because LPs cost money to record and manufacture, and the man isn’t exactly an oil heir. In fact
I have a horrible feeling that this is how Americans make art - at the expense of food and electricity in their home.
That way he can build up the funds to make another LP. Mike has one recorded and about another three written. Where are the record companies these days? They’re aiming at kids and the dance, drugs and dork crowd, ignoring the rest of us. Neptune Skyline deserve a much wider audience - and our support, if not because talent like this - as I’m sure we all agree - “deserves better than zero distribution and Welfare” (another Pitts quote, don’t ask from where).
I mean, can you imagine any of your friends in your town doing this? And if they did, and you dug their groove, or just recognised their utter and isolating genius, wouldn’t you chip in with a will?
We’ve all bought seriously indifferent music which cost us far too much. Get into Neptune Skyline.