Thick Pigeon – Subway – album reviewThick Pigeon

Subway

Les Disques du Crepuscule

Vinyl/DL

Released 19 February 2021

A new collection of the singles recorded by New York electronic duo Thick Pigeon from the years 1981 to 1991, originally released by the Les Disques du Crepuscule, Factory, Operation Twilight and Factory Benelux labels. Along the way they were produced by Steve Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order, who also both guested on the Wheels Over Indian Trails single…Ian Canty homes in on the Pigeon’s trail…

Thick Pigeon, a duo of singer/bassist Stanton Miranda and multi-instrumentalist Carter Burwell, emerged from the same New York art/no wave scene that spawned Lydia Lunch, James Chance and DNA among others, though TP came along a bit later in 1981. Stanton and Carter’s main preoccupations prior to Pigeon were in other art disciplines. Miranda was a ballet dancer and would later act, landing small roles in a number of films, including The Silence Of The Lambs. For his part, Burwell came to the band with a background mainly in filmmaking, but had played in The Same and Radiente in New York prior to his Pigeon involvement.

But despite their disparate artistic backgrounds, they banded together in music for Thick Pigeon, a studio based project that recorded fitfully over the course of a decade, studio sessions being dictated by their other interests/activities. In total they released the album Too Many Cowboys in 1984 and five singles over a ten year period. The latter are collected on Subway, titled after their 1981 debut single.

It is that debut that kicks of Subway the album and this gives the listener a smart first impression of what Thick Pigeon might be about. They predated the codification of electronica by some years and there is a total serenity and sense of wonder in the near spoken vocal that is immediately apparent. An unrushed air that to me seemed to share something with Young Marble Giants in terms of a downbeat cool feel, if not quite sounding like them.

Subway is a beguiling opening gambit and it is followed by Dog, where the band shift gears towards something a tad more upbeat. There is a change in emphasis too, as this song is surged along by a series of rhythmic clicks that back a big percussive beat. A brief Jingle Bells Rock comes next, where they inject their very own calm weirdness factor into the perennial yuletide standby. This was the Thick Pigeon side of a joint seasonal single released with The French Impressionists on the Operation Twilight label. Then Tracy + Penny comes in with an arresting mixture of dub accoutrements and samples, where an enviably chilled effect is achieved. Could Portishead have been listening?

Much weirder follows with Sudan, which made me think of The Residents’ more claustrophobic and eerie works of around the same timeframe. With its queasy deep bass and some just about audible jazz skat singing, it sports an unsettling but gripping atmosphere.

Babcock + Wilcox, the title a reference to a US boiler maker, ends in considerable discord. But for the greater part of the running time this is a cracking dance tune somewhat reminiscent of the mighty ESG, with Stanton’s bass really grooving things along. Beginning with a hip hop rhythm, Jess + Bart (Thick Pigeon loved the + sign) has the vocal providing the melody, which dovetails smartly with the beats and Germanic samples.

New Order pair Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert, who also produced the band, guest on Wheels Over Indian Trails. This was pretty much a solo effort from Miranda as Burwell was busy with film music commissions, but it still kept the quality level high with again some true dancefloor appeal. Equipped with an alternately menacing and then smooth bass run, this is a finely constructed electro dance tune. It’s followed by Riding, which is built around a Dragnet kind of bass. This is where the band hit their peak on a satisfyingly wry pop song that in another, better and stranger world would be a number one. Subway the album concludes with a second festive track in Blue Christmas. The old Elvis hit is rendered near unrecognisable, with a barely audible voice buried by rough synth stabs.

Thick Pigeon on Subway are depicted as very much an always evolving beast and their adventurous approach helps to keep this collection fresh and very interesting. You can see their no wave roots showing through occasionally. But they were careful to push forward towards pastures new, rather than just adopting the already existing punk/funk thing. In doing so TP managed to anticipate electronica and were able to cross over into dance music whilst retaining their edge. At their best, they still sound great today. Thick Pigeon may be far from the most dynamic name in the world, but their music certainly had spark, invention and style.

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All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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