The Van Pelt – Stealing From Our Favorite Thieves / Sultans of Sentiment (reissues)

Originally active in an era just before the internet’s culture-finding omnipotence – a time when a slew of awkward yet inspired American underground groups seemed to only exist in the pages of zines like Step Right Up, Damn You! and Comes With A Smile, via word of mouth recommendations and through appearances on cassette mixtapes shared amongst likeminded indier-than-thou brethren – The Van Pelt feel like a band this listener should have got to know better.  Now though, after twenty or so years of half-remembering the short-lived ensemble, these thoughtfully curated reissues from Spain’s La Castanya label are here to help this could-have-been-a-fan make a belated proper acquaintance.  Led by guitarist/vocalist Chris Leo (future member of The Lapse and brother to Tim), with a semi-fluid roll-call that also included drummer Neil O’Brien (The Butterflies Of Love) and bassist Toko Yasuda (Blonde Redhead, Enon), The Van Pelt appeared simultaneously in and out of sync, which these two previously long out-of-print platters testify.

The Van Pelt – Stealing From Our Favourite Thieves

Refreshed with new artwork, 1996’s debut Stealing From Our Favourite Thieves might be the more straightforward of the band’s two official studio albums but it’s not without its heterodox charms.  With Leo leading the charge like Stephen Malkmus having been re-educated by Fugazi’s far wirier Guy Picciotto, these are spiky songs which pack oblique agitprop and human relationship observations inside dense lyrical verbiage.  With guitars-bass-drums cranked-up behind Leo’s semi-spoken tones, the LP twists and churns with a meshing of math-rocking, angular post-hardcore and some occasional warm jangle.

In the more aggressive avenues, which dominate proceedings, this gives us a splatter of gutsy anti-anthems such as “His Steppe Is My Prairie”, “It’s A Suffering” and “It’s New To Me”, which feel like the hook-embedding offspring of Rites Of Spring’s eponymous 1985 LP and Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted.  Yet, in the slightly lower-octane moments The Van Pelt’s more understated character comes to the fore, particularly within the rubbery early-Tortoise arrangements of “Simone Never Had This Good”, the nimble yet sprawling “You Are The Glue” and the yearning swirl of album finale “Turning Twenty Into Two”.  Overall, Stealing From Our Favourite Thieves is a restless feet-finding experience, with a nervy ramshackle energy that retains a lot of magnetism.

The Van Pelt – Sultans Of Sentiment

Contrastingly, 1997’s Sultans Of Sentiment is an almost entirely different beast.  Whilst its predecessor’s trebly noise-rock still rears its intensity with not unwelcome and more finessed vigour – on the gnarly yet melodic “Yamato (Where People Really Die)”, the hyper-ventilating “My Bouts With Pouncing” and the defiantly rousing “We Are The Heathens” – for the most part this sophomore set is a languid and loquacious affair.  Featuring Leo’s half-spoken vocals more upfront to allow his incisive urban poeticism command greater attention and housed in sonic frames that are both beatific and bendable, the bulk of the record is an unconventionally erudite pleasure.  Hence, the gorgeous triumvirate of “Nanzen Kills A Cat”, “The Good, The Bad, And The Blind” and “Let’s Make A List” find a sweet melancholic spot located somewhere the between the less darkened corners of Slint and pre-post-jazz phase Karate.

Elsewhere, the dreamy yet impassioned string-adorned “Don’t Make Me Walk My Own Log” imagines a lost Yo La Tengo collaboration with Rex; the bass-led-snaking of “The Young Alchemists” makes affectionate nods to the likes of June Of 44 and Aerial M; “Pockets Of Pricks” feels like a something cut from Wowee Zowee for being too politically-charged; and the closing “Do The Lovers Still Meet At The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial?” builds itself from a Codeine-like meditation into a soaring Lazarus Clamp-predicting epic.  Yet such cross-referencing, although complimentary, still doesn’t quite explain the inscrutable enchantment that makes Sultans Of Sentiment so improbably special and so well-deserving in its restoration.  However, some things in the music world are best just heard, rather than fully understood. This is one such shining example.

La Castanya