When I think about a forgotten album, one that always springs to mind is A New Athens by The Bluetones. Their sixth studio outing, it sits very nicely in this category because on its release in May 2010 it didn't even chart in the Top 200. Clearly, for whatever the reason, it just didn't tempt the public into buying it. The stalwart fans did of course as it’s a topic I've seen discussed many times, but for folks looking to pick up a new album at that time it didn't seem to cut the mustard. Two singles were released on download in June and November 2010, but the lack of interest seemed to be the light going out for the ‘Tones as they split for good in October 2011 following a farewell tour. Was this album meant to be the end though? I really don’t think so, but it does contain some tracks would could be interpreted as a long goodbye.
On its release the album received favourable reviews, scoring well with a 7 out of 10 in PopMatters and 3 out of 5 in Allmusic. This was the first album the band had released since the self-titled The Bluetones in 2006 which itself only charted at 100 and could have been taken as an indicator of things to come. I've read these reviews again recently and both speak highly of the album and how it was “their most earnest pop record to date”.
The opening track "The Notes Between the Notes Between the Notes" is a minimalist, electro song with a repetitive one liner which has something of a slight nod toward bands like Air. An interesting way to begin, but a red herring none the less as by track two we are back to the catchy, acoustic indie rock we know and love and that the band had honed over many years.
Lyrically, the album is beautifully written with songs like the gorgeous "Firefly" being in my opinion one of the best it offers.
You can tell that there is a confidence in not only the song writing, but perhaps the band as a whole with this album as it has something of a laid back approach to it all. Other stand out tracks include the beautiful "Golden Soul", which sits somewhere between Simon & Garfunkel and Buffalo Springfield with its banjo led sound and harmonies while "Half the Size of Nothing" is a bit heavier going in sound and allows Adam Devlin to flaunt a very pleasing guitar riff. Mark Morriss’s softly spoken vocals sound very well rounded and clear to me and I think his range has only got better over time.
Now as a Bluetones fan since the very beginning, I will say that as much as I like this album it’s not my all-time favourite of theirs. That would be their debut Expecting to Fly. "A New Athens" does, however, contain great songs and this album is a fine example of how a band have crafted their trade over the years like a well-oiled machine. I heard Mark Morriss say in an interview recently that he felt this was their best work and that he hopes that it may be something of a slow burner that people will grow to love over time. I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment.
I don't think I own very many albums where every single track is exceptional as I believe there will always be "album filler" songs, and "A New Athens" is no different. I don't adore every track on it, but I certainly don't avoid any of them. It's definitely one that requires repeated listening to really let it get under your skin and this is why I would class it as a forgotten gem.
So I guess I should end with why I think you should listen to this album. Well, The Bluetones were a band that appeared during the '90s Britpop scene, but unlike some of the other casualties of that time they managed to come out on the other side. I think (and this is just my opinion) they were a band that got better over time, but for some reason lost the fans as they went. I have no idea why they didn't stay; it's something that frustrates me quite a lot. I follow life after the ‘Tones with great interest and I think that Mark Morriss has come into his own with his solo work, which is a testament to his ability to craft a beautiful song. A New Athens marks the end of a band that had some great successes, but remain one of the most underrated acts that I can think of. This album has ended up being their swan song and I feel that it's now ready for a bit of love and attention and the audience that it deserves. So why not give it a whirl and see what you think. You have absolutely nothing to lose, but everything to gain.