Ever experienced the sinking feeling that the world's supply of tunes may be running out? Me too, and then along comes an album like "Thirteen" which completely reaffirms your belief in rock 'n' roll, life and things like that. O.K., they may occasionally be other people's tunes, witness the blatant steal from T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" that opens side one, but in company like this there really isn't any cause for complaint.
Teenage Fanclub are a Scottish quartet, forever slightly famous for being the living embodiment of the until recently late lamented Big Star (the album title, which is shared with a Big Star song, being an example). Their previous two proper albums, "A Catholic Education" and "Bandwagonesque", married the seventies spirit of proper songs with modern indie attitude, and gave them a hard act to follow with the much-delayed, rumour-shrouded difficult third album. But now it's here, and it's marvellous as well.
The first time I played "Thirteen", I was convinced I'd heard these songs somewhere before, but couldn't work out where. Then it suddenly struck me: TFC had road-tested them when I saw them during their pre-Glastonbury mini-tour...and whereas there they sounded promising, now properly finished they're awesome. Best bits of a consistently wonderful selection include "Hang On", which pilfers the aforementioned T. Rex riff before collapsing into a lengthy string-driven instrumental passage, the singles "Radio" and the sublime "Norman 3", possibly the year's best love song, "Fear Of Flying" and "Tears Are Cool" and the closer "Gene Clark", which begins with seemingly endless guitar soloing like "Everything Flows" in reverse. "Thirteen" is undoubtedly better than "Bandwagonesque" and consequently far better than we could ever have dared hope for. It's already The Times' album of the year (but then again, so was The Boo Radley's "Giant Steps" six weeks earlier), and for me there's been nothing to touch it, except maybe Saint Etienne's "So Tough". If you want to know where all the tunes have gone these days, "Thirteen" shows that they've all joined Teenage Fanclub.
TEENAGE FANCLUB/JULIANA HATFIELD THREE/THE POSIES Manchester Academy 2/12/93
An interesting triple bill this, especially as both supporting acts have recently toured as headliners. The Posies have the attraction of containing 50% of the recently revived Big Star, Juliana Hatfield is Lemonhead Evan Dando's perennial sidekick, and Teenage Fanclub are...well, I'll get to that later.
My garbled day-after notes refer to The Posies as "Soul Asylum playing Big Star by numbers" and that seems to sum them up. Like many bands I've seen recently, if I was interested in them before I'm not now.
The Juliana Hatfield Many: they just seem to keep popping up, don't they?? I've never been a fan, although I'll grudgingly admit that they've improved since Reading, and, according to my mates, since their last Manchester gig two months previously. Some quite nice songs, including a blatant Eurhythmics steal in "Here Comes The Pain", but regrettably not a hit.
Teenage Fanclub, however, just keep getting better and better. They were excellent in a tiny venue during their Glastonbury warm-up tour, and familiarity with the new material they were then road-testing and a larger venue hasn't harmed the experience at all. They played just about everything you could reasonably expect: "Hang On", "The Cabbage", "Radio", "Norman 3" (blissful), "Commercial Alternative", "Escher" and "120 Minutes" from the new and very wonderful "Thirteen" album, over half of "Bandwagonesque" (including (at last!) "Alcoholiday"), "God Knows It's True" and, of course, at the end of the encore, "Everything Flows", which becomes less a song and more a long-lost friend every time I see them play it. I thought they cut it a bit short tonight, but since the guitar soloing at the end could happily go on forever, in my humble opinion, such editing was inevitable.
Perhaps to bait critics who accuse them of being nothing more than record collection rock, they covered "Mr Tambourine Man", the 1910 Fruitgum Company's "Goody Goody Gumdrops", "Ballad Of John And Yoko" and five-second long renditions of "The One I Love" and "Lay Lady Lay". And if that weren't enough: "We're gonna do two songs by Alex Chilton...". Cue mass hysteria from the three Big Star fans in the audience, and flawless renditions of "September Gurls" and "Free Again".
Complaints? A few: there was no need for the second encore...no band on earth could follow "Everything Flows" and expect to top it, so when they returned to the stage I was trying to reclaim my coat, and it came as a bit of a shock. Also, nowhere did they find time to include "Tears Are Cool", "Fear Of Flying" or "Gene Clark", three of the best tracks off "Thirteen". Finally, only one song from "A Catholic Education" - a crime or what? None of this, however, can detract from the fact that Teenage Fanclub are one of Britain's best bands, both on record and in concert. Join their club.
TEENAGE FANCLUB Deep Fried Fanclub (Paperhouse/Fire)
TEENAGE FANCLUB Grand Prix (Creation)
Exhibit a: "Deep Fried Fanclub" is a comprehensive selection of Teenage Fanclubs Paperhouse era singles, with the odd previously-unreleased titbit thrown in to attract the hardened collector. A fine idea in theory, maybe not so successful in practice. You get two undoubted classic examples of long-haired six-string frenzy, the kind of songs that can only be written by someone who is convinced that they are Neil Young, in the evergreen "Everything Flows" and "God Knows Its True", a smattering of interesting-from-a-distance-but-sloppy-close-up cover versions ("The Ballad Of John And Yoko", Neil Youngs "Dont Cry No Tears", Alex Chiltons "Free Again" and The Beat Happenings "Bad Seed"), and the balance of the dozen tracks made up by aimless, half-arsed instrumental b-sides called stuff like "Weedbreak" and "Ghetto Blaster", and decidedly underwhelming alternate versions of tracks from their fine debut album "A Catholic Education". In sum, "Deep Fried Fanclub" is not an essential listen, and the interested would be better served by any of their excellent proper albums, or maybe even the stunning "What You Do To Me" EP, which mixes pop thrills, Big Star samples and T Rex covers into an irresistible four-track sampler. But a few minutes spent in the company of "Everything Flow"s dizzying guitar outro will teach you all you could ever want to know about virtual reality.
Exhibit b: "Grand Prix", a product of the 1995 model streamlined, bearded and new-drummered Teenage Fanclub, and already lined up for just about every music rags pop thrills album of the year. Fair enough, theyve always been exemplary at three minute hook, line and sinker-laden gems, and theres evidence aplenty here of that talent - the wide-eyed romance of recent single "Sparkys Dream" and "Dont Look Back", for example, and the rose-tinted, maudlin "Mellow Doubt" (geddit?). But TFC are even better at gigantic, resonant songs with lyrics that tiptoe through the windmills of your psyche and guitars turned up to eleven all over the place, usually with a side order of singalong "Hey Jude"-esque riffing to fade - see the aforementioned "Everything Flows", "Alcoholiday", or practically all of 1993s cruelly and unjustly maligned meisterwerk, "Thirteen" for evidence - the like of which is entirely absent on "Grand Prix". What youre left with is a very approachable, hummable and likeable Teenage Fanclub album, but one with no concealed depths or expanding riffs, nothing dangerously addictive. In an alternative universe young marrieds would play this at dinner parties instead of Simply Red. Which is great some ways, but a bit frightening in rather more others. Judgement suspended for eighteen months.
TEENAGE FANCLUB Songs From Northern Britain (Creation)
The sixth long player from this Scottish beat ensemble (hence the deliberate irony of the title) sees them head even further towards the cosy-cardigan-pipe-and-slippers end of the market than on 1995s disappointing (to me and my sister, if not to every music reviewer in the world, it seems) "Grand Prix". But, while early listens suggest that Teenage Fanclub mightve metamorphosed into the Val Doonicans of the indie world, prolonged exposure shows that "Songs From Northern Britain" is a case of never mind the (lack of) volume, feel the depth.
To place things in their proper perspective, in olden days Teenage Fanclub albums used to contain crackling, scorching guitar anthems that were one part Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their firestarting best to every part perfect Big Star melodiousness. But, following the difficult turnaround that was "Grand Prix" the broths ingredients now appear to be one-third extrapolation of the last three tracks of Big Stars "#1 Record" album across the last 25 years, one-third prime Byrds ("Fifth Dimension" and "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" at a guess) less the production gimmickry and one-third gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies.
Theres a glow about this album; it has an atmosphere of quiet contentment (although emphatically not smugness) that is seductive and beguiling. The gently flowing, rolling melodies and unpretentious lyricism, the note-perfect but totally unshowy musicianship, heck, even the sleeve photos of what I would guess to be the Scottish countryside (theres a picture of Loch Laggan Filling Station amongst them), all add up to a package that will probably never sound dated. Take the latest single, for example: "I Dont Want Control Of You" starts with a few seconds of birdsong (about as flash as Teenage Fanclub ever get) before evolving into a strummy number emphasising the importance of dialogue and growth in a relationship. Harmonies all over the shop, wave upon wave of crystalline guitars, in isolation it must sound staggering, but here its just another fabulous Teenage Fanclub song on another fabulous Teenage Fanclub album.
They may never again record songs as downright thrilling as the five-minute guitarfests from the past that are "Everything Flows", "The Concept" and "Gene Clark". But everybody moves on (well, everybody whos name isnt Gallagher), and to be honest the loveliness of the 1997 model Teenage Fanclubs music suggests thats not as tragic a loss as I mightve previously thought. As with "Grand Prix" it still sounds a little bit like theyre trying to be Simply Red with cred, but when the results are as moving as this all is forgiven.
TEENAGE FANCLUB Howdy! (Columbia)
The last time they poked their heads above the parapet Teenage Fanclub arrived bearing "Songs From Northern Britain", an unassuming but genuine bundle of Byrds jangle and Beach Boys harmony filtered through a Scottish sensibility that was so laid-back it was practically horizontal. It teetered perilously on the border between relaxed and uninspired, but always seemed to pull back in the right direction at the last possible moment with the assistance of a gorgeous hook or a few lines of lump-in-the-throat homespun philosophy. Between then and now they've lost a record label (being one of the more unfortunate victims of Alan McGee's career change from record company magnate to cantankerous old get) and mislaid a drummer. Have they triumphed in adversity?
Sadly not. The main problem with "Howdy!" is that it's so desperately, excruciatingly dull. Since the glory days of "Thirteen" it's been customary to forage a little deeper into the mix of each successive Teenage Fanclub album to discover where the tunes have been buried, but here you could dig until you come out the other side and still not locate anything remotely hummable. Everything here sounds utterly polite and well-mannered, like the offspring of some gruesome laboratory experiment involving alternative guitar rock and muzak. There's no bite: everything slides past, nothing stops to engage head or heart. With the possible exception of their made-for-America oddity "The King", this is without a shadow of a doubt the thinnest gruel ever to be marketed under the Teenage Fanclub moniker. Adding insult to injury Sony's vinyl pressing is rubbish, and the hamfistedly-designed sleeve doesn't stoop to actually listing the track titles.
Admittedly these seem to be disappointing times for major artist releases, and perhaps efforts such as this are further undermined by the excellence of works by hungrier, newer (or at least re-invigorated) bands such as Shack, Delta and Doves, but something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with Teenage Fanclub, plunging them into a decline that I sincerely hope isn't irreversible.
TEENAGE FANCLUB AND JAD FAIR Words Of Wisdom And Hope (Geographic)
Jad Fair has been operating on the outermost fringes of indie for a quarter of a century. For much of that time he was a member of Half Japanese, alongside his brother David, but he has also recorded albums with Daniel Johnston, The Pastels, Phono Comb and Yo La Tengo, and has been venerated by the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Teenage Fanclub are a formerly fantastic Scottish band, who, over their last few albums, have buried their many qualities progressively deeper under a blanket of sunny amiability, to the point where their "Howdy!" long player was an unmitigated disaster, along with the Super Furry Animals' "Rings Around The World" a depressing lesson in how former Creation mavericks and Sony money and marketing were a self-defeating combination.
It appear as though Teenage Fanclub are playing the role of a higher class of pickup band in their dalliance with Jad Fair, but in providing and playing all the music behind Fair's rambling, childishly endearing vocal performances they emerge with equal credit from this ramshackle but charming collaboration. For the first few tracks at least, "Words Of Wisdom And Hope" is a real tonic, "Fresh as a mint pancake" as Fair declares during "Behold The Miracle". Naturally, this erratic pairing is not for everybody, with Jad's impish, yelping vocal style and unstructured lyrics probably being the major sticking point. But in the background the Fannies plug away with probably their least elaborate music since the play-in-a-day contract filler that was "The King". It's as if they've deliberately divested themselves of every trace of their usual influences (The Byrds, Big Star), but instead of leaving the expected big, empty nothing here they play pure, distilled loveliness. The music is more about droning, repeated riffage than melodic flights of fancy, but it matches Fair's outpourings note for word as aptly as probably any band could. Special mention must be made of Katrina Mitchell's angelic background vocals: she makes a simple "da da da" sound like a glorious, cascading torrent of poetry.
So for a while "Words Of Wisdom And Hope" is fabulously invigorating, the tumbling wish-fulfilment of "Near To You" and the delicate tracery that is "I Feel Fine" in particular. Despite being American there's an aroma of English whimsy to Fair's lyrics that suggests Robert Wyatt or Syd Barrett, and a dewy-eyed romanticism pervades the album - he's clearly a man in love, and not afraid to shout about it. But "Words Of Wisdom And Hope" is also a long album by Teenage Fanclub standards, stretching lazily out to well over 50 minutes, so material that would have made a diverting EP soon becomes grating. Nevertheless, Teenage Fanclub haven't sounded this alive and alert in years, and this is also probably about as close to the old mainstream as Fair's erratic career path has yet taken him. The heavyweight 190 gms vinyl pressing sounds lovely too, despite the necessarily lengthy sides, crammed with analogue wonderment.
TEENAGE FANCLUB Man-Made (Pema)
Its been a long wait for Teenage Fanclubs proper follow-up to their 2000 major label misadventure Howdy!, an underachieving album that was uncomfortable to listen to if not to make. The yawning interim gap has provided the palate-cleansing Jad Fair collaboration Words Of Wisdom And Hope and a compilation on which the Fanclubs sweet tunes were almost overwhelmed by the rank stench of contractual obligation. Now, with their first release on their own label, we have Man-Made, a title that perhaps hints at the way the album contains 45-odd minutes of blokes singing and hitting, plucking and strumming things
Man-Made initially underwhelms, being very much in the style of their 1997 album Songs From Northern Britain. It takes several plays before the songs reveal their treasury of delicately observed emotions, and you start to appreciate the small yet significant space that separates satisfied from smug. Its a comfortable-sounding album, but as much as it doesnt confront or provoke the listener its also continually questioning itself: as Gerard Love sings on Time Stops, There is more to learn than I aim for/So much under the sun that I should play for. (And how can you be disappointed by a song that uses the word precepts in its lyric?) Perhaps it has something to do with the recording, mixing and performing assistance of John McEntire of Tortoise, whose presence seems to nudge the songs away from the wrong side of soporific. Theyve still got the expected Byrdsian jangle and gentle, warming humility, but they also model an extra layer of intrigue that draws the listener in, past any impressions of superficial similarity.
The album arguably crests on Only With You, with its tender melody and lyric of subtle sagacity; the way the band fade out, leaving the songs fragile piano part exposed at its close is a move of underplayed genius. Feel is something of a power pop composite, sharing its title with a Big Star song and its fuzzy hook with The Posies Flavor Of The Month. On Fallen Leaves the lines Come on over/The futures here themselves a subtle nod to the bands vintage marvel Norman 3 which would be the stuff of empty cliché in anybody elses hands here sound like the sincerest pearl of profundity. Its a rare, rare gift. The sun-dappled optimism of Flowing is, perhaps surprisingly, not maintained during Born Under A Good Sign, which sounds more like something haunted and pursued than its title might suggest, especially the shards of Eight Miles High that lacerate its lengthy guitar solo.
If theres no immediate variety here, Man-Mades relaxed amiability sets it so apart from most modern rock it seems churlish to complain that every track doesnt unleash a dazzling display of its own. If you can accept that Teenage Fanclub are unlikely to ever again squeeze out albums as awesome as Bandwagonesque or Thirteen youll find much to admire here.
TEENAGE FANCLUB / YUCK Academy 2, Manchester 27 May 2010
Yuck are more promising than their name might suggest, being an American quartet vaguely reminiscent of Wheat with added Dinosaur Jr. fuzziness. Their drummer's afro suggests he's on day-release from an At The Drive-In tribute band, and some of their songs seem sufficiently familiar to send me later scurrying to iTunes to determine whether I've heard them on a cover disc or sump'n, which, it turns out, I haven't.
Teenage Fanclub's set majors on the kind of unfailingly polite, exquisitely crafted jangly poptones they've been refining for the last decade-and-a-half. There are many tunes from their new album, "Shadows", as yet unheard by me due to a perpetually-pushed-back vinyl release date, and they sound totally of-a-piece with songs from "Grand Prix", which feature surprisingly heavily in the setlist, and "Songs From Northern Britain". But it's only towards the end of the evening, when they reach even further back through their discography, that their performance goes from good to great: "The Concept" prompts the first mass singalong of the night, they encore with "Star Sign" and "Everything Flows" makes for a staggeringly awesome closer. Tragically, for me if not for anyone else, their perpetually underrated masterpiece "Thirteen" isn't visited at all.
So, yes, they're very fine, and they can still bring the slightly backward-looking rock when they choose, but it's a shame they don't choose to more often. A lovely concert, and not at all in the pejorative sense.
TEENAGE FANCLUB Shadows (Pema)
It’s both a strength and the undoing of Teenage Fanclub’s increasingly rare album releases that they practically review themselves. Like its predecessors stretching back a decade and a half or so to “Songs From Northern Britain” and beyond, “Shadows” contains a dozen mellow, jangly pop constructions, their Big Star guitars topped with Byrds and Beach Boys harmonies. Although some examples are better than others – the charming, chiming “Baby Lee”, for example, or the exquisitely lovely “Dark Clouds” - nothing presented here fails to hit the mark. “Shock And Awe” offers a gentle, unshowy lyrical nod to Dillard & Clark, and from its archaic title in “When I Still Have Thee” is a delicate delight.
What’s missing, though, as with every Teenage Fanclub album since the high watermark of “Thirteen”, is the craggy, obstinate edge that made their best work so compelling, a little sour to even out the pervading sweet. Added to which, there’s a slight sense of shoulder-shrugging to “Shadows” that undermines what impact it might have. The fact that it’s taken almost two years to get from recording studio to record shop could be taken as a measure of its timelessness, but also as a sign that it doesn’t exactly burn with topicality. It also seems to function more as a songbook than an album, with the feeling that its contents could be rearranged in any random sequence without diminishing, or enhancing, their effect. There’s no compelling narrative arc shaping “Shadows”, a lack that’s emphasised by the way the tracklist alternates rigidly between the work of the band’s three principal songwriters. That’s not to say that it was simply thrown together, but it does suggest an album and a band that prize democracy over art.