The omens didnt look good at first: Mr Wellers third solo opus came packaged as a flabby box set, puffed up with Peter Blakes sketches for the sleeve design and a glossy booklet stuffed with excepts from Paolo Hewitts forthcoming portrait-of-the-artist book, fergawdsake, it does make you think what the scrawny youth with the skinny tie whose songs usually ended with a bawled "Oi!!!" would say. Things didnt improve on actually listening to the thing, when all I noticed were the blatantly pilfered tunes - "The Changingman" is the Electric Light Orchestras "10538 Overture", albeit with inferior lyrics, and the horribly portentous "Porcelain Gods" smacks of The Beatles "Come Together" (ironic, considering Pauls Weller and McCartneys contribution to the "Help" charity project) - and the tacked on Moog noises that make you think its 1971 again and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is at the cutting edge of techno.
But give it a week, see the weight come off. "Stanley Road" may not be the greatest of Wellers works but its not a Style Council album either. Buried beneath the stodgy production are some fine, chugging, Creedence Clearwater Revival-y riffs and poignant lyrics ("Out Of The Sinking" and the title track, for example), and the sort of delicacy youve no right to expect from an ex-mod ("Broken Stones", "Wings Of Speed"). "Woodcutters Son" is prime Traffic photocopied, even down to Steve Winwood banging away on piano, and even the cover of "I Walk On Gilded Splinters" summons up a modicum of voodoo. Other notables on the guest list include ex-Blow Monkey Dr Robert, Young Disciple Carleen Anderson, Mick Talbot (the other half of the Style Council) and Noel from Oasis, surely Wellars spiritual godson. So although its not "Wild Wood" all over again, "Stanley Road" should, deservedly, keep the Modfather in Ocean Colour Scene bootlegs for some time to come.
PAUL WELLER Brand New Start (Island)
Fine new single from The Modfather in which he sings gruffly about making a brand new start, sweeping out the yard etc. etc. Could be Crosby, Stills, Nash & Youngs "Our House" three decades later after the kids have grown up and left home and the parents have got divorced. Other incentives to purchase (or not) include new song "Right Underneath It", which sounds like the product of a machine designed to crank out generic Weller b-side fodder 24 hours a day, and "The Riverbank", a new version of the old Jam flip "Tales From The Riverbank", apparently recorded for an animated version of "The Wind In The Willows".
PAUL WELLER Modern Classics (Island)
Did anybody actually ask for this? Given that, in his Jam days, the Modfather was so fiercely protective of his fans interest regarding trivial things like value for money that he rejected the option of endlessly milking his albums for singles material (undaunted, Jam fans bought imports pressings of "Thats Entertainment" and "Just Who Is The Five OClock Hero" in sufficient quantities to propel them into the top 30), the fact that the immodestly titled "Modern Classics" mines just four albums worth of Wellers solo material suggests the heavy involvement of the dread money-grabbing hand of The Man, especially as theres but one new composition contained herein (which, predictably enough, is also his new single...)
Anti-record company rant over, my next observation is that collecting all of Wellers singles output together in the same space and time doesnt actually do it or him any favours. Whilst there may be a fair slew of near-classic (if not classic) tunes here, bunched up close and personal like this you may start to experience the nagging suspicion that most of them are, well, kinda similar: mid-paced chuggers that reek of craftsmanship, toil and sweat. Which might well be groovily authentic in these Noelrock/Ocean Duller Scene-worshipping days, but in my opinion it all ends up being an inferior summation of Wellers solo gifts compared to the lasting peak that is the "Wildwood" album, the closest any mortal has come to synthesising the true spirit of Traffic at their peak (something well worth attempting, incidentally).
So..."Sunflower", "The Weaver", "Wild Wood", "Uh Huh Oh Yeh", "You Do Something To Me", even the new song "Brand New Start" are all classics of their type. If you like them theres nothing amongst these 16 tracks that will cause offence, and "Modern Classics" is certainly a pleasanter way of passing an hour than spending it listening to anything by The Style Council. But absolutely nothing here is fit to knot the skinny tie of Jam classics like "Going Underground" or "A Town Called Malice". Wellers rebirth as The Modfather may well be one of the most heartening comebacks of the decade, but the press releases boast that hes "the finest British solo artist of our generation" kind of shows up the paucity of the competition.
PAUL WELLER Days Of Speed (Independiente)
"Days Of Speed" collates 18 solo Paul Weller performances, recorded throughout Europe during 2001. Heralded in some quarters as a triumphant creative rebirth, reaction around here was rather more muted. Of course, it's great to hear him acknowledge his past and play some Jam songs again ("English Rose", "That's Entertainment", the source of the set's title, and "Town Called Malice" appear here), and slightly less great to hear him dust off the Style Council songbook ("Headstart For Happiness"), and a smattering of b-sides are aired to make the cognoscenti think, but generally "Days Of Speed" doesn't offer quite the entertainment fest it might promise.
Certainly the audiences are howlingly appreciative - although you might wish that the caterwauling one concertgoer adds to "Town Called Malice" could have been subtly mixed out, and you can track the conversations in the Dornbirn crowd like it's "Live At Max's" or something. And Weller isn't slacking, either: these are full-throttle, committed performances that offer up the occasional sly moment of wonder, for example the looping chorus of "The Loved" during which he's seized by the same spirit of exclamation that had Van Morrison singing in tongues during "Madame George", or the folksy strains of "There's No Drinking After You're Dead". But much of the material on display veers disappointingly towards the workmanlike, with the gorgeous pastoral Traffic pastiches of the "Wild Wood" album elbowed out in favour of his bluffer later work. And most of the songs here find Weller swimming in a protective green sea of reverb (listen to "English Rose" or "Love Less", where the effect is at its most distractingly obvious), almost as if he's playing Phil Spector tricks to artificially bulk up his one-man band. Added to all of which, Independiente's vinyl pressing is not brilliant, sounding distorted on what should theoretically be simple material to reproduce well. As with the new Charlatans album, the faithful will seize upon "Days Of Speed" as if it were manna from heaven, but it does little to convert sceptical unbelievers.
PAUL WELLER Wild Wood (Go! Discs)
Wellers second solo album retains its bucolic, dewy freshness even 15 years after its original release. It tempered Britpops rising tide of self-aggrandisement with the rootsy, rural vibe of prime Traffic; if Kings Of Leon had been born in Berkshire they mightve sounded a bit like this. It helps that Weller seemed to be practically exhaling good ideas at the time, giving the album an effortless that would be lost on later albums that rapidly locked into a spiral of diminishing returns. It never stops, with brief instrumentals and reprises pushing up in the gaps between the tracks, the sonic picture fleshed out with Mellotrons, Moogs, Hammonds and horns, and even the songs that evolve into twisty, turny, if tentative, jams dont outlast their interest.
Its difficult to pick highlights from such a consistent bunch of songs, but, if pushed, Id nominate the title track, a pitch-perfect evocation of a hazy, baking hot summer-in-the-city afternoon, Shadow Of The Sun and Moon On Your Pyjamas, one of Wellers loveliest compositions despite edging towards drippy, Imagine-esque saccharine sentiment.
I was pretty pleased to find a sealed vinyl copy of the 1994 reissue. Despite suffering from thin vinyl and longggg sides (exacerbated here by the inclusion of the somewhat plodding standalone single Hung Up as an extra track) it puts in a game sonic performance, bringing a modicum of air and sparkle to what can sound a surprisingly dull album on CD.