The Shortwave Set
The Debt Collection
he Shortwave Set are three inventors and drinking friends from South East London who play “Victorian funk” and they have made one of the most wonderful albums of 2005.
Trawling charity shops and market jumble stalls for ancient LPs and battered, antiquated instruments to use as source material, The Shortwave Set stitch together futurist pop songs where ukuleles are juxtaposed with laptops, where second-hand omnichords sit side-by-side with acoustic guitars and clanking, found-sound percussion, and where one can’t tell the samples from what the band themselves have played because they record their own loops and collage them altogether. Add in the delicious, honeyed voice of Swedish singer and guitarist Ulrika Bjorsne to Andrew Petitt’s songs and David Farrell’s peculiar and endearing concoction of programmed textures, and The Debt Collection becomes a beguiling cornucopia of sound.
If there are comparisons to be made, and there always are, then one might name The Beta Band, Avalanches, or St Etienne, but that would never tell the full tale. Lennon has been mentioned by various commentators who know more about these things than I do; The Delgados would probably have been a distant relative once upon a time. Because The Shortwave Set aren’t just about an aesthetic; there’s a serious attention to songwriting here, and the likes of “Roadside” and “Head To Fill” are lovingly-crafted songs first and peculiar sonic excursions second.
It’s a fact which is repeated throughout The Debt Collection. Enticingly idiosyncratic back-story and critic-friendly, eclecto-futurist junkyard ethos aside, “Is It Any Wonder” is a glorious, gorgeous pop song and still would be if a busker were playing it with just a guitar. That is has deliriously ascending piano hooks, fuzzy, tuneful bass lilts and hand-me-down, cinematic strings underpinning its fantastic melody and composition is merely a bonus, albeit a fantastical one.
The brief “Better Than Bad” switches aforementioned ukulele and laptop glitch-judder atop a Waikiki Beach Boys sample. “Slingshot” samples Millican & Nesbitt. Try and figure it out in your head. It works much better on CD. “Figures of ‘62” initially emerges from the same radio-in-a-timewarp-next-door haze as The Clientele but is an altogether jollier proposition than that band’s (admittedly lovely) autumnal melancholy. And if Ulrika’s voice doesn’t break your heart on the chorus of the sublime “Repeat To Fade” when she stretches out the last word over a handful more notes than you imagined, then you don’t deserve to ever fall in love.
To close, “Yr Room” is a charming, sweetly simple song laden with endearing “mistakes” by Ulrika (it sounds as if it’s working to my ears, at least—OK, perhaps the “you have to watch the football in twenty minutes!” moment isn’t what you’d expect from Charlotte Church, but it made me smile), who halts proceedings a couple of times as giggles and imperceptibly missed notes distract her. It reveals The Shortwave Set as people rather than as imaginary, mad scientists concocting other worlds and forgetting the beauty inherent in this one. The Debt Collection is a bizarre, beautiful little record, a little over 40 minutes of wonder pressed onto CD. I’m just gutted that I haven’t cottoned on until now, because this would have been a perfect accompaniment to summer.