Teenage Fanclub – Shadows

Maybe it’s just me, me right now. Maybe it’s because it is actually Autumn. Maybe it’s because it’s late afternoon / early evening and automatic lights are starting to trigger outside my window. I can see lights and reflections of lights in the windows around me, and the outline of a tree, still leafy and green at this time of year but slowly turning into a shadow. And it all seems to blend in nicely with the sound of Shadows.

If Songs From Northern Britain was summer, and Man-Made was Autumn, then Shadows is just a little bit later that same Autumn. It is, following the pattern for Teenage Fanclub albums at this point, not a radical departure for the band. It is also, again typical of Teenage Fanclub, a lovely thing, full of sweet melodies and harmonies, mellifluous rhythms and subtle instrumentation and arrangements.

As ever, song-writing duties are split evenly among the three writers, each getting the now customary four tracks. Whether by accident or by design, the album can even be chopped into four sections in which McGinley follows Blake follows Love every time. Are Teenage Fanclub starting to overdo it with the “familiar old friend” nature of their albums?

Well, yes and no. If, like me, you reach Shadows at the end of a long stroll through all the Teenage Fanclub albums, listening to almost nothing else for a couple of days, it can be a bit of a struggle to recall distinct moments. If, on the other hand, this is your first time, there’s no reason not to love Shadows as much as Man-Made or Howdy!

For the most part the songs unfold slowly and without drama; “Baby Lee” is something of an outlier here with its bouncier sing-along melody. Compare and contrast with the track that follows it – “The Fall”, a sleepy lyric underpinned by gently simmering organ that tumbles through a cyclical guitar interlude and out into a contemplative ending:

The leaves on the trees shield my eyes from the sun
But the leaves that I see they won’t be there for long
When I light a fire underneath what I was
I won’t feel sad only warmed by the loss

“Into The City” picks up the reins and cruises for two more minutes before boldly falling away to nothing, only to rebuild once more. After “Dark Clouds” and “The Past” there’s a lull going into the second half of Shadows; “Shock and Awe” reaches out for an elusive energy, while “When I Still Have Thee” is unremarkable save for the anachronistic last word of its title. “Sweet Days Waiting” is the epitome of timeless, but it’s left to the slide guitar beauty of closing track “Today Never Ends” to provide the true highlight. Despite being in keeping with the mood of the rest of the album, it is at the same time uniquely and exquisitely beautiful, existing in its own time and space.

The sunlight pours in through my windows
I travel back in time
The past’s a place where chaos stays indoors
The time you borrowed arise tomorrow
Today’s the day that never ends

This is music to drift away with, next to a warming fire, a glass of single malt placed nearby. It’s not soporific – at least not in the sense of boredom that word tends to suggest – it’s just that at its center it’s music that is still: music that beckons you on in and takes good care of you. No bad thing, if you ask me.

Teenage Fanclub – Man-Made

After all the acoustic lilting scattered across their previous trilogy of albums, Teenage Fanclub returned after a five year gap with a gentle fuzz and buzz on 2005’s Man-Made.

From the outset, on “It’s All in My Mind” and “Time Stops”, it’s clear that there’s a more reflective mood to Man-Made than the cheery optimism of yore.

Everything’s illusion
And I flatter to deceive
My life is going fast
It’s make believe

It’s not so much an album that expresses, openly, the warmth of its happiness, more an album of wanting, longing:

Say you’ll come ’round and watch the dark go light
To be near, to realise more time to talk
Oh if we had more time to talk

It’s the fading Autumn light to the summer picnic of the albums before it. Or, it could just be Man-Made represents the growing older and growing maturer of three song-writers. Between Howdy! and Man-Made Teenage Fanclub had released Words of Wisdom and Hope (a collaboration with Jad Fair) and “best-of” album Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-six Seconds. Going back to Songs From Northern Britain, it’s only the band’s second studio album (excluding that Jad Fair collaboration) in eight years.

Clearly no-one is in much of a rush to get this stuff out there, and that’s another vibe that pervades Man-Made. Even when it threatens urgency, as on “Fallen Leaves”, lyrics are delivered with a sense of “but, you know, whatever” hanging in the air after them. Returning drummer Francis MacDonald keeps it reined in, refusing to let an insistent guitar solo run the song out of reach.

See a simple spark
Bleed a burning flame
And it feels so now
Everthing’s so near
Oh, come on over
The future’s here

There are jazzy almost soulful hints to “Save”, the kind that you might normally expect to find on a Lambchop album, and an almost anarchic (by the controlled standards of Teenage Fanclub, at least) series of piano interruptions to “Born Under a Good Sign”, a song that seems to mark that time in the studio when produced John McEntire wasn’t watching and they let all that otherwise restrained, pent-up energy spill out into the track.

These last two are, of course, Gerard Love compositions. Along with “Fallen Leaves” and “Time Stops” they make for another impressive quartet of driving/driven melodies from Love. Over the course of reviewing these albums, he’s gradually stood out as the writer whose songs have the most impact on me.

I’m not exactly struggling to find the right words here, but I’ll level with you: reviewing each of Teenage Fanclub’s albums back-to-back it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find new ways to describe the effect of listening to each album. How many different ways can you say “here’s another suite of sweet life-enriching, controlled, softly embracing, gently uplifting power-pop songs and ballads”.

Teenage Fanclub – Howdy!

For whatever reason, at the time Howdy! was released I never seemed quite able to penetrate its surface. It felt like a weak copy of Songs From Northern Britain with one or two standout tracks amid much mediocre meandering.

Familiarising myself with it once again now, though, I feel like perhaps I judged it too harshly. Perhaps it was just the wrong album at the wrong time. There are not many bands who can continue to excite me over a sustained period of time, album after album: R.E.M. were together for over 20 years while I was a fan, but as much as I loved them then and do now there were some pretty severe bumps along the road, chiefly Monster and Around The Sun. But just as those albums felt both fresher and more intriguing given a second chance, the same too with Howdy!

It starts strongly with “I Need Direction”: a powerful shot in the arm that makes for an interesting beginning after the closing lyrics of Songs From Northern Britain (“If you’re looking for direction / Don’t forget to set your seat and go / Take an easy road / All you need is information / Everything is there to know”). Here, we’re back in you and me vs the world territory:

Honest I’d feel fine
if you were to be mine
I need direction to take me to you

Propelled by sunny 60s “ba-ba-baa” harmonies and an organ solo, it’s a bit of a misleading start to an album that’s mostly upbeat but somehow slightly overcast. This slightly less sunny mood may come from the relative strength of Raymond McGinley’s contributions to Howdy! “Happiness”, “I Can’t Find My Way Home” and “The Sun Shines From You” are all really great love songs, even if it does feel as though he’s trying to remodel “Your Love is the Place Where I Come From” each time. “My Uptight Life” is even better, throwing in a call and response lyric and an extended, heartfelt outro:

All my life I felt so uptight
Now it’s all alright

Gerard Love, meanwhile, also skirts quite close to at least one of his tracks from Songs From Northern Britain with “Near You”. By this stage you should be able to tell pretty reliably whose song is whose: once you’ve figured McGinley and Love out, what remains must have come from Norman Blake. On Howdy! he doesn’t deliver his strongest set of tracks, with closing acoustic track “If I Never See You Again” the highlight, while his other three songs are as well-crafted as ever but just lacking a little of the magic he’d so often shown before.

After a few listens, Howdy! reveals itself to be warmer and more comforting each time, and listening to it now I have no problem putting it with Grand Prix and Songs From Northern Britain to form an excellent trilogy. Listened to in the context of more recent work, particularly by Love and Blake in Lightships and The New Mendicants respectively, it also ties the past to the present in a pleasantly unexpected way.

Teenage Fanclub – Songs From Northern Britain

For all the supposed narrative peddled (on these pages and elsewhere) about how Thirteen was seen as a disappointing follow-up to Bandwagonesque, and Grand Prix suffered as a consequence, the chart placings of Teenage Fanclub’s albums show a different story.

It turns out that from Bandwagonesque to Songs From Northern Britain, each Teenage Fanclub album peaked higher than the previous one: Bandwagonesque reached #22, Thirteen #14, Grand Prix #7. Songs From Northern Britain cracked the top 5, reaching #3 in the summer of 1997, behind The Prodigy and The Spice Girls, ahead of Texas and Radiohead; as such Teenage Fanclub were mingling in some pretty high-selling company at this point.

Although their singles continued to struggle to make much impact, Songs From Northern Britain also gave the band their first and only top twenty single, with “Ain’t That Enough” climbing to #17.

“Ain’t That Enough” is one of two Teenage Fanclub tracks that Nick Hornby selected in his book 31 Songs. He writes:

It is important that we are occasionally, perhaps even frequently, depressed by books, challenged by films, shocked by paintings, maybe even disturbed by music. But do they have to do all these things all the time? Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please? Just every now and then, when we’ve had a really shitty day? I need somewhere to run to, no more than ever, and songs like “Ain’t That Enough” is where I run.

As a response to the song, and to the album, it is as eloquent and as on the money as you are likely to find. It also sums up a lot of how I feel about the act of listening to music in general. I like some of the difficult stuff, the awkward sounds, the weird, the droning, the complex, the angry noise, the reactionary statement, the sound of protest. The howling. But when it comes to the crunch, you will find me, more often than not, digging melody, a few simple words, a harmony or two, and perhaps a brief and unshowy solo. All of these can be found throughout Songs From Northern Britain; it’s an almost perfectly enjoyable listen.

Here is a sunrise – ain’t that enough?
Clear as the blue sky – ain’t that enough?

From the opening chords of “Start Again”, it is the sound of a band whose members feel completely comfortable and happy together, and perhaps its no coincidence that Blake, Love and McGinley each contribute four tracks to the album. Lyrically it deals with the simple truths that often elude those less at ease with their world, musically it deals in arrangements and styles that come from resolutely, confidently, following your own lead. Teenage Fanclub never seemed all that concerned with what anyone else was doing: here they revel in choosing their own path, taking the road less hyped. During the more acoustic moments they sound like a greatest hits package of all the groups that have ever sat round a microphone together, guitars in hand: The Byrds pop in and out; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young say hi.

It’s an album of closeness and intimacy that often uses distance and space to express itself: “Speed of light stars and planets” (“Speed of Light”); “I feel the planets surround me, they gather round me” (“Planets”); “My souvenir of my time on this sphere” (“It’s a Bad World”); “Heaven’s revolving sin – seasons change everything” (“Winter”). There’s a big bad world out there, it seems to say, but just as that big bad world is really only a tiny speck in a much bigger universe, together we can make our own world, and make it safe.

I don’t care about where I’m going
because I’ll be there and so will you

Occasionally, a younger version of Teenage Fanclub crops up. “Start Again” works its way up to a multi-tracked guitar solo, and “Can’t Feel My Soul” packs a surprisingly fuzzy punch from McGinley’s trademark guitar-work. “Mount Everest” combines the slacker cool of old with fireside harmonies, and more fuzzy guitar, reminiscent of the Neil Young homage of “Gene Clark”, pairs up with a simple but effective piano melody.

Songs From Northern Britain is not a difficult album. It is not a heavy album, either. “It’s a Bad World” is about the least delicate moment, but it’s only as tough as the Big Star sound it replicates. Besides, its weight is partly illusory and comes from following the almost gravity-free “Planets”, with its languid sense of time and space, threatening to float off on its beautiful string arrangement. It is, however, a rich and rewarding album for those times when you just need to sit back and appreciate a peaceful moment or two.

When I’m on my own I’m lost in space –
my freedom’s a delusion.
Your love is the place where I come from

Teenage Fanclub – Grand Prix

You’ll remember, I’m sure, the episode of Friends where Ross is being indecisive, unable to decide between the two girls who are inexplicably crazy about him. In his hour of need, he enlists the help of his geeky buddy – you know, the one with the computer (or should I say “compuper”) with all its RAM and megabytes and whatnot. So you’ll also remember that the problem with Julie was that she was not “rachum”. Or possibly “rachem”. It’s hard to be sure because we never see the printout that contains the comic potential energy driving the episode, but I’m pretty sure it’s one of those two options. Either way, it’s a hilarious technology-based misunderstanding that seems in no way forced or stretched. Nuh-uh.

Do you have a point?

You know, you’d think I would.

The point is this: one thing you might feel about Grand Prix – perhaps the first thing you might feel about it – is that it is not Thirteen. Or in the style of the Friends scriptwriting team, you might say it’s not “Thurston”.

I know that doesn’t really work, because that was truer of A Catholic Education than Thirteen, but hopefully you get the gist…

There is no choice
What I must do
Nothing is greater
Than to be with you

And it also doesn’t really work because Grand Prix’s fundamental un-Thirteen-ness is what makes it work, not what drags it down. Thirteen wasn’t Bandwagonesque 2, and that was partly its downfall, but come Grand Prix it’s as if the band members have had their crisis talks, been through the awkward raising of issues, bickered about who trod on whose toes, and found their collective happy place where all the chief song-writers can contribute a few songs to the album, while still keeping the consistency levels high.

The result is the first of two giant steps into melodic rock that Teenage Fanclub took after the failure and critical backlash that they endured with Thirteen. Gone almost entirely are the rumbling guitar undertones, replaced by a full and total confidence in the melody to carry the day. Right from the opening chords of “About You” it’s clear that the vibe has changed: as much as Bandwagonesque was criticised for exhuming the Big Star body of work, surely Grand Prix pulls the same trick, albeit with a different sound. And it’s a sound that’s familiar and comforting while at the same time bringing its own verve and style. It’s a sound of fun, happiness, and eternal timeless bliss. Drum fills and harmonies and bright sunny guitars abound; underrated gems like “Don’t Look Back” are better than almost anything on Thirteen, but here they all slot in next to each other so effortlessly you could start to take them for granted. The whole album evokes a freewheelin’ summer of love feeling.

If I could find the words to say
The sun shines in your eyes
So brighten up my city sky

It’s another in the growing line of Gerard Love classic compositions, joined on Grand Prix by “Going Places”, “Discolite”, and the endless pool of pop joy that is “Sparky’s Dream”, a song so matchlessly brilliant that it spent two weeks in the singles chart, peaking at #40. Either side of it, “Mellow Doubt” led the way by soaring up to #34, while the puntastic “Neil Jung” only reached #62.

Going nowhere
couldn’t take the pain
and left it there

Hats off once again also to Norman Blake, for the perfection that was “Neil Jung” (quoted above) and “I’ll Make it Clear” – two songs that continued to show him to be a crafter of timeless songs.

The fallout from Thirteen was brutal and wrong-headed. It’s a classic example of “you had your chance…”, the pop phenomenon whereby you get rapidly built up and have precisely the same arbitrary amount of time to prove yourself to be something other than a one-hit or one-album wonder. There’s also a hint of the “you didn’t sound like this when I fell in love with you – I’m not sure I know how to feel about you any more” about it. We’ve all been there – when bands we adore skirt awkwardly close to genres we abhor. But trust me: it’s ok.

That Friends episode, by the way, was called “The one with the list”. It originally aired on November 16th, 1995. A few weeks later, Teenage Fanclub released an EP called Teenage Fanclub Have Lost It. Could that title be any less accurate?

Teenage Fanclub – Thirteen

Critically underappreciated on its release, Thirteen was not the triumphant breakthrough that the response to Bandwagonesque had suggested would be on its way from Teenage Fanclub. Its biggest crime – its only crime really – was to be that album with a hair-cut and a shave.

I’d love to hear your sound
On the radio

Produced by the band themselves, Thirteen takes the sound of Bandwagonesque (itself already cleaned up from A Catholic Education) and tries to sculpt it into a more radio-friendly form. Although the songs are almost the equal of those on Bandwagonesque, the excitement suffers as a result. Whereas the rumbling guitars underneath the melody of earlier songs pinned everything together and even managed to enhance the sweetness of the melody, on Thirteen the balance is just nudged out, leaving a less rounded sound.

On “Norman 3”, while the one-quarter song, three-quarters outro formula just about works, the bass is all over the verse leaving the guitar to footle around ineffectively in the tiny amount of space it’s given in the mix. Raymond McGinley’s guitar then gets over-layed with a soft rock filter that leaves the mix feeling all sweetness and no savoury. It still tastes pretty good, it just doesn’t thrill.

You won’t leave your mark on me
I’m protected by an honesty

Where it works better is on the songs that look more to the future sound of Teenage Fanclub: “Song to the Cynic” and “120 Mins”, nestled together in the middle of the running order, provide a tender pair, with a downbeat note but uplifting harmonies. Here and there, little moments of surprise and wonder light up songs, like a chord change out of the first verse of “Radio”, and a segment out of the first verse of “Escher” that takes that idea and extends it brilliantly. Then there’s the whistle into the outro of “Fear of Flying” and the “hey hey hey!” refrain that repeats to the end.

Song-writing duties and credits are spread throughout the band on Thirteen: even drummer Brendan O’Hare gets in on the act with the short but enjoyable instrumental “Get Funky”. Norman Blake sprinkles some of his pop stardust on “Commercial Alternative” and “Ret Living Dead”, but it’s Gerard Love’s compositions that make the biggest impression, particularly the three longest tracks on Thirteen: “Hang On”, “Fear of Flying”, and “Gene Clark”.

I’m going underground to reassess just what I’ve found

“Hang On” opens Thirteen in style, with a dose of heavy guitar that soon gives way to a spot of sunny power pop, which itself steps aside for an outro led, unexpectedly, by the sound of a flute and a string section. It’s like a baroque version of “The Concept”. “Fear of Flying” does what “Norman 3” couldn’t and pushes the rhythm guitar forward just enough to count, and then skilfully segues from slacker anthem to a non-stop organ party. And then there’s “Gene Clark”, which shows its love for Neil Young by lifting the whole of the solo from “Cortez the Killer” and dropping it into this album-closer. It’s a rare moment on Thirteen that gives the same involuntary thrill as the best moments on Bandwagonesque, and just like it didn’t matter if those wouldn’t have happened without Big Star, it’s foolish to think less of “Gene Clark” for the same reasons. Just listen to the guitar sing, and weep.

Still not quite as good as it could have been (I can’t really say “should have been” because it’s not like I’ve ever followed up Bandwagonesque with anything, or even created Bandwagonesque in the first place), Thirteen certainly deserved a better reception than it was given on its release, and is well worth dipping into if you don’t already know it.

Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque

“Don’t you just want to eat it all?”

It’s not, in a musical context at least, a question I’m asked very often. Once in fact. And the “all” in question wasn’t Bandwagonesque, Teenage Fanclub’s second (third if you include The King, and yes I’m even boring myself with my insistence on mentioning it) album and early masterpiece. But the subject of my friend’s gluttony at the time is not strictly relevant. The reason I bring it up (believe me, no pun intended) is that it’s a very neat expression of how, at its peak, when you’re under its spell, music can make you feel. The music you love the most, the music you can’t help loving, can make you happy, sad, angry, euphoric… the precise emotion is up to you: no-one can tell you how to feel, but there should always be a lack of control over part of that response.

When a lyric makes you smile but you can’t quite figure out why. When a musical moment gives you a chill or makes you want to start crying for no apparent or logical reason. When you just want to listen to the next song even while you lose yourself in the one that’s currently playing. When you wish you could listen to a whole album at once.

When it finishes and you fumble for the remote control and feel for the play button.

When you’re supposed to be writing a review of one of your favourite albums of all time, and you end up just listening to it, lost in thought, and realise you’re just going to have to play it once more and maybe, just maybe this time you’ll have enough brain for both.

She wears denim wherever she goes,
says she’s gonna buy some records by the Status Quo.
Oh yeah… oh yeah.

Teenage Fanclub - The ConceptThen again, when the album is Bandwagonesque it opens with “The Concept”, and if we’re sticking with the food analogy, this song is practically a meal in itself, albeit one that has to be savoured not devoured. It’s a three part paragon of power-pop: a 70s rock section leads into a dreamy sequence of “ahhh-ahhh”s more beautiful than a young indie fan could have thought possible in late 1991, before a mind-melting guitar solo brings it home.

“The Concept” sounded incredible enough without knowing much of A Catholic Education at the time. To hardened music hacks who would have known that album but also would have been familiar with Big Star, the gap – the chasm – from Teenage Fanclub’s debut to this must have seemed a confusing mix of the completely familiar and the utterly unexpected.

What seems like a blink of an eye later I’m singing along to “I Don’t Know”, waiting for that loopy, bendy lead guitar to rise and fall over the crunchy distortion of the rhythm guitar, and look I’m sure there’s a better way to put that, but ohmygod “Star Sign” has already started, its pulsating intro has been and gone for a second time, and the relentless melody is all over me.

Do you know where you belong
And is your star sign ever wrong?

Love’s bass and McGinley’s lead guitar work wonders through “Star Sign”, pairing up to create the song’s addictive melody, while more crunching guitar underneath provides the inward tension that holds the piece together.

Then there’s “Metal Baby”, “Pet Rock”, “Sidewinder”, “Alcoholiday”: all largely cut from the same cloth, but hey – when you’re on a roll why fight it? Somewhere in the background a guitar rumbles, every now and then there’s a little lead-in and then an explosion of sound or a solo, while the boys sing about girls.

But it just sounds a lot like Big Star, people have complained. (Or, “it sounds like Status Quo”, as I was once told. Fair cop, I was listening to “What You Do To Me” at the time). Well isn’t that a shame – one of the many bands to cite Big Star as an influence, but the first to truly mimic their template, and Big Star having blown themselves over and out in two to three albums. There’s nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your album sleeve when those threads look this good on you.

Finally, some important admin: it’s often said that Spin magazine selected Bandwagonesque as its album of the year for 1991. So far so true. It is often also said, however, that Bandwagonesque took this accolade at the expense of Nevermind. Not quite true: it took the award at the expense of Nevermind and every other album released in 1991. For the record, Nevermind finished third behind Out of Time, yet I don’t hear anyone going on about how Bandwagonesque won “instead of” Out of Time, or how R.E.M. somehow ousted Nirvana from the not very coveted first of the losers spot.

What we should be saying, perhaps, is “blimey – that’s a pretty decent 1-2-3, isn’t it?”. Except for Nevermind, that is, which probably belongs a bit further down the list.

Spin has since lost its bottle and tried to backtrack from what was patently the correct decision back in 1991, talking up Nevermind, while not doing the same for Bandwagonesque, and I’m sure that’s motivated by pure love for the Nirvana album, and in no way a pathetic and craven attempt to fall in line with the views of the many and a desire not to appear as a cultural outlier.

Teenage Fanclub – The Peel Sessions

I usually don’t stray too far from studio albums for One Band One Day, but on this occasion I’m very happy to make an exception for Teenage Fanclub’s Peel Sessions EP. Recorded in August 1990 and transmitted the following month, the EP was released in 1991, shortly before the band’s second (usual caveat: if you don’t count The King) album Bandwagonesque in November 1991.

The Peel Sessions EP captures Teenage Fanclub at a cross-roads between the murk of A Catholic Education and the gleaning glam leanings of Bandwagonesque. It’s the sound of a band unmistakably growing in confidence: listen to the way “God Knows It’s True” thunders along driven by the furious energy of the rhythm section, while Raymond McGinley’s guitar is promoted from incidental solos to genuine lead, as he takes the song’s melody and makes it his own. “God Knows It’s True” is one of two Norman Blake compositions on the EP, the other being “Alcoholiday” – the only one of the EP’s songs to appear a studio album (“God Knows it’s True” was released as a stand-alone single at the end of 1990, while “So Far Gone” was a b-side on that single, and “Long Hair” appeared as a b-side to “The Concept”).

The other two tracks, “So Far Gone” and “Long Hair”, were written by bass player Gerard Love. In time this song-writing split would be extended to include contributions from Raymond McGinley as the band gradually moved away from being dominated by Blake’s compositions. Of Love’s two songs here, “Long Hair” is the pick – only two and a half minutes long including a generous fade-out but a great example of his ability to create magic out of simplicity. On “So Far Gone” he reveals himself as the clean-cut counterpoint to McGinley’s grungeyness, setting the vocals slightly higher for less of that slacker-vibe, more of the later, lighter Fannies sound.

http://youtu.be/_C2-H-pNY_0

Teenage Fanclub – A Catholic Education

There are two immediate yet contradictory impressions of Teenage Fanclub’s debut album A Catholic Education. The first is that it doesn’t really sound quite like the band they would later become (and at the same time, not quite like the album it’s often painted as). The second is that after the opening instrumental track Heavy Metal you are launched right into one of their defining moments: “Everything Flows”.

In its album incarnation “Everything Flows” is a touch over five minutes, but if you’ve heard it live, or are familiar with the superb session version recorded for BBC Radio 1, you’ll know it as a longer and more expansive track. On A Catholic Education it sounds weighed down, seems slower, almost trudges where it should be sprinting, as it does on those other versions, separated from the rest of the album.

Here on A Catholic Education it is given the same production sheen as the tracks that surround it. That is to say: no production sheen at all. There’s a roughness to this album that veers from charming to frustrating. If “Critical Mass” had been recorded five years later, it could have slotted perfectly onto Grand Prix, but here it is all shaky harmonies and Pavement guitars.

The ramshackleness and slacker cool works better on A Catholic Education‘s more stoner-sounding cuts: “Heavy Metal II” is one part can-barely-be-arsed instrumental jam to two parts audition piece for future lengthy instrumental workouts. If you ear-squint hard enough during “Don’t Need a Drum” you can make out a future Fanclub sound that’s a little bit Grand Prix, a little bit Howdy!, and maybe, just maybe a touch Bandwagonesque.

The two tracks that share the album’s title, “Catholic Education” and “Catholic Education 2” are atypically strident with their lyrical attack on the church (“You want to turn your back on everything”) but you could be forgiven for not being stopped in your tracks by the sentiment, landing as it does in the midst amiable grungey meanderings, and some delicate baa-baa harmonies. You might also be distracted by how the introduction to Catholic Education 2 reminds you of the lengthier fade-in to “Star Sign” from Bandwagonesque.

Listening to “Every Picture I Paint” it starts to become clearer where the Dinosaur Jr comparisons tend to come from. It turns out that with a bit of extra urgency, but with some part of the guitar palette absent you get a sound somewhere between J Mascis and and Sonic Youth. But it’s unfair, really, to compare A Catholic Education to Dinosaur Jr, mostly because it’s usually done with the understanding that this is the weak copy, and that Mascis is the real deal. While in a sense it’s a compliment to be compared to someone who can wring such startling beauty from an electrical guitar, Raymond McGinley isn’t Mascis, Mascis isn’t McGinley. What they do share, however, is a skill in pulling out just the right solo at the right time, and while Mascis might make his sing with impressive range, McGinley knows the power and beauty of the right words, softly spoken. On A Catholic Education he isn’t quite there yet, but there are glimpses of the near future, notably on “Don’t Need a Drum” and “Everything Flows”.

A Catholic Education is a better album than many people give it credit for – often dismissed as a feeling-their-way album chiefly of interest for one towering song. As magnificent an early statement of intent as “Everything Flows” is, it’s worth delving into the rest of this album: there are other highlights to be found, and if nothing else it’s a revealing insight into the development of the first Teenage Fanclub masterpiece, Bandwagonesque.

Teenage Fanclub Day

As Queen were on the verge of topping both the album and singles charts at the end of 1991, the latest issue of Vox magazine was published. Attached to that December 1991 issue was a free cassette – Live and Unreleased – featuring 14 exclusive tracks from the BBC Radio 1 Mark Goodier show. Alongside less remembered names like The Dylans, Milltown Brothers, Paris Angels and Spirea X, the last track on the tape was a stunning version of “Everything Flows”, a track from Teenage Fanclub’s first album, A Catholic Education. In contrast to the album version, it rips along, and Raymond McGinley’s guitar solos (if you can call them that) are note perfect.

Various Artists - Live and Unreleased

It was, almost certainly, my first taste of Teenage Fanclub; knowing I wanted more I booked an appointment to see the music doctor, who conveniently doubled as my one and only friend of truly grand musical taste.

“You’ll probably like this, then” he said, handing me his copy of Bandwagonesque.

“Great, but I don’t have a CD player yet” I replied, downcast.

“Well, I don’t know, just go and buy it on cassette then, and stop whining”.

“Thanks, doc.”

So that’s almost certainly what happened. Except that by “almost” I mean “not completely”, and by “certainly” I mean “possibly”. So basically what I’m saying is that not completely possibly I bought Bandwagonesque on cassette shortly after its release. What I do know for sure is that I loved it so much I bought the company tour poster. Later when I upgraded from twin cassette boombox to hi-fi system, I did what any self-respecting Teenage Fanclub worshipper would have done, and also upgraded that tape to a shiny compact disc.

At the end of 1993 I saw Teenage Fanclub play one of the greatest gigs of my life; in 2000 I saw Teenage Fanclub play one of the greatest encores of my life (“Long Hair” and “Everything Flows”). In between they released various albums of greatness using their mastery of the tunesmiths art. They’ve slowed down since the turn of the millennium, and with just two albums in the last 14 years we’re well past peak Teenage Fanclub now, but members of the band have been busy knocking out some excellent work elsewhere: Gerard Love under the name Lightships, and Norman Blake alongside Joe Pernice in The New Mendicants.

There probably won’t be time for me to get to those new projects before the end of the day, but perhaps I’ll be able to add reviews at a later date…

For today, then, here’s the running order. Note that I’m ignoring The King: released not long before Bandwagonesque it’s sometimes dismissed as a contractual obligation album, and even though the band have at some point denied this claim, I’m going to go with it. If nothing else, it adds a pun to the title of Thirteen that wouldn’t work. Oh, also I don’t have a copy of The King to hand…

Sadly this means missing out on a splendid cover of Madonna’s Like a Virgin, so here ya go:

Fun stuff. Anyway – back to the day’s order of events:

  1. A Catholic Education (1990)
  2. The Peel Sessions (1991)
  3. Bandwagonesque (1991)
  4. Thirteen (1993)
  5. Grand Prix (1995)
  6. Songs From Northern Britain (1997)
  7. Howdy! (2000)
  8. Man-Made (2005)
  9. Shadows (2010)

If that lot doesn’t put me in a sunny disposition by the day’s end, I don’t know what will.

Teenage Fanclub Day 2

The Auteurs – How I Learned to Love the Bootboys

“Of course I love the old songs, from New Wave to Murder Park” sings Luke Haines on “Future Generations”, from the fourth (we weren’t expecting another one…!) album by The Auteurs. See what you can do when you cut out the hallucinogenics and stop throwing yourself off Spanish walls? Isn’t life grand and there for the living after all?

Having succeeded admirably in his intention, stated or otherwise, to alienate what was left of The Auteurs’ fan-base with the brutalism of After Murder Park, it took Luke Haines another five years to release a fourth album under the band’s name. In the meantime he had indulged his twin passions of seventies terrorism and funk with Baader Meinhof, an album whose advance promos were sent to music magazines under the pretence that they had been delivered to the record label’s offices with express instructions to pass them on or face the deadly consequences. As you do.

Then, In 1998, together with Sarah Nixey and John Moore, Haines released England Made Me, their first album together as Black Box Recorder. WIth Nixey providing cut-glass lead vocals, England Made Me might lull you into a safe world of waves ruled, but it’s really only the passive to After Murder Park’s aggressive. “Life is unfair. Kill yourself or get over it”, Nixey sings through “Child Psychology”. Moore and Haines somehow managed to provide Nixey with a single, “The Facts of Life” worthy of Top of the Pops.

And then, 1999, and a fourth and final Auteurs album. It starts with “The Rubettes”, Haines cocking a snook at – or possibly embracing – the 70s one-hit mega-wonders, purloining their most famous lyric for his chorus. Then back to 1967, the year of Haines’ birth, and a song that could at least partially be taking place in the mind of his own father (and given Haines’ future predilection for getting into the head of, among others, 70s and 80s British wrestlers, this is entirely plausible). Indeed, it’s with the benefit (does it ever offer anything else) of hindsight that How I Learned to Love The Bootboys makes the most sense. In 1999 it was a slightly perplexing combination of glam, disco, something that if it wasn’t Britpop was at the very least doing a passable impression (“Some Changes”), minimal electro (“Asti Spumante”) and anti-mysticism (“Sick of Hare Krisna”). Mixed in was “Lights Out”, typically Auteurs but with a bit of Radiohead space-indie engineered into the mix.

Of course, no-one bought How I Learned to Love the Bootboys, but if you haven’t cottoned on by now to the fact that this is immaterial, then you haven’t been paying attention. Or perhaps you’ve been paying attention, but cherry-picking the songs, the quotes, the moments at the same time: either way, Luke would approve.

To conclude the story of The Auteurs, I offer two quotes. First, Haines, from “Future Generations”:

Future generations will catch my falling star

And now, Paul Tickell, who directed Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry’ for which Haines provided the soundtrack:

Success is more and more measured on financial, monetary terms. Obviously on that level Luke is not successful

I’ll leave you to decide with whom you side. Perhaps you will conclude that they are both right.

The Auteurs – After Murder Park

After the relative failure of Now I’m A Cowboy, and the irrepressible surge of Britpop, it’s tempting to describe After Murder Park as more of the same, only more so. In order to understand what’s going on in After Murder Park all you really need to know is that it includes a song called “Unsolved Child Murder”, and that this song was released as a single. Surprisingly light on its feet, acoustic with a walking cello line, it does nonetheless deal in completely unironic fashion with the disappearance of a child – inspired by an actual occurrence from Luke Haines’ own early years, but with largely invented details. Like the rest of the album it leaves the humour, biting or otherwise, behind. For this, The Auteurs’ third album the lyrics might still be incisive, but no-one’s laughing anymore: “People round here don’t like to talk about it: presumed dead – unsolved child murder”.

After Murder Park arose out of the ashes of the Now I’m A Cowboy tour, during which Haines took copious amounts of drugs, and sent abusive letters home to the record label, before hurling himself off a wall. Recovering with the help of more drugs – prescribed this time, naturally – he composed an album in which he has long since lost interest.

The rest of us, and I include myself in this I have to confess, lost interest almost as soon as the album’s release date came around. I bought the single “Light Aircraft on Fire”, but not the album. In a way, I think that was mission accomplished for Haines. Art is not for the man on the Clapham Omnibus for Haines – if you get it, you get it, but if you don’t he doesn’t care. Not too many people “got” the unremitting darkness of After Murder Park. It’s a shame, because it’s musically more varied and rewarding than you would probably imagine, from the visceral organ and guitar attack of “New Brat in Town”, to the almost wistful “Child Brides” and its surprisingly affecting chorus refrain – ‘throw yourself at the tide – I’ll see you on the other side’.

Still, it remains perhaps the perfect anti-Britpop album – a statement of furious intent from one of the original (supposed) Britpop vanguard proving, or perhaps going out of his way to prove, that he was not one of the gang, that his invitation had been delivered to the wrong address. Back in his “Yanks go Home” interview with Select in 1993, Haines had dismissed the nostalgic glances we Brits liked to cast at entertainment like the Carry On series of films: After Murder Park seems very much like nothing if not a stretched out version of the same argument.