from the In time for Christmas Day EP, self-released, 2000
Put down your Sufjan Stevens xmas box sets, lower that collection of carols by Low, stop the Ze Christmas record spinning, and laugh off the high concept of the Black Arts’ ‘Christmas number one’. Pour yourself a glass of port and draw a chair up to the fire while I tell you a seasonal tale of the Pines.
From what I gather, Pam Berry and Joe Brooker’s meeting had a sinister quality to it, but from the beginning it was clear that the Pines were on the side of the angels. An early scene in the duo’s life sees them sitting round another fireplace, this one in Greenwich, where Pam, the Ella Fitzgerald of American indie-pop, works up a set of songs with Joe, soon to reveal himself as the Irving Berlin of British indie-pop. The songs are then played at parties in south east London living rooms, as well as at shows in church halls, the upstairs lounge bars of pubs, and on one memorable occasion, alongside the stellar line-up of Future Bible Heroes, the Clientele and Harvey Williams at the Black and White Ball at Bush Hall.
What you noticed first at these irregular appearances was Pam’s voice, as perfect as a cup of gently swirling café au lait on a mahogany table. Then the sparky and erudite guitar playing of Joe, underpinning and punctuating the vocals in one man band style, like Billy Bragg if he predominantly played an acoustic and had more of the Marr about him. Then you fell prey to the striking choruses with lyrical touches that stuck in the mind long before it was possible to hear them in recorded form and on repeat.
The Matinée compilation It’s been a while brought the best of those recordings together and proved that the Pines were consistently able to write songs that sound like standards – ‘Baby, you’ll do’, ‘Please don’t get married (without asking me)’, ‘A rainy day’, ‘I see stars’ – songs whose timeless air is only troubled, or given added charm, by the tinges of 21st century Thames estuary in Joe’s singing.
The songs are peppered with parting shots, one-liners and verbal slapstick, often as part of a sung conversational exchange between Joe and Pam, a device that few if any songwriters have better utilised. Neither could many writers artfully and verisimilarly get ‘copy-editing’ into their lyrics, yet songs like ‘Marie Claire’ and ‘Seven clubs’ are literate rather than literary, wearing their learning (and their pop culture) lightly.
For all their wit, the songs never stray far from sorrow; the melancholy mists wreathing them suggest that at the end of the night and after a few too many, jokes will fall flat and the characters will have to face up to their lot. They do so with vision that remains sharp. ‘I always said that you put me in mind of a movie star; I never said which one.’
But before we have a collection of their songs, before they were released via a variety of record labels of mostly diminutive stature or smaller, what the Pines did first was give away an EP of Christmas songs, knowing – possibly from bitter experience – that melancholy is intensified over the festive season. The EP is topped by the first of three originals, ‘Chalet’, and tailed by the American classic ‘Silver bells’ (which appeared on A Christmas gift from Fortuna Pop! that December). Proving the standard of the Pines’ own standards, the tinselly glint of ‘Silver bells’ shares their company quite happily. ‘Chalet’ is a lonesome Christmas blues, impossibly sad, while ‘Miracles’ has that particular pre-xmas melancholy generated by the wearying search for a token that says something – anything – to the one you love. ‘Don’t listen to me, I can’t give you miracles / Just packets of tea and bars of soap’.
‘High Street’ sees things from a parental point of view. The young adult to whom the song is addressed is either far away across the sea, or deliberately striking out for him or herself, spending Christmas with a boy or girlfriend for perhaps the first time, in a necessary rite of passage for both parent and progeny. Mum and dad sing, ‘This time of year without you here, the table’s incomplete.’ Cue a weeping blues harp. Torn paper crowns have long since been cast aside, and a couple of crackers remain unpulled. The tree drops its needles to form a green carpet around the remaining few unopened presents.
These are tales worth telling and moods which merit their capture in song. They bring a kind of comfort to those slugging their way through green bottles and a blue Christmas, and they stand as a deeply evocative reminder to others of Yules that were considerably less joyful than the one they are about to celebrate.