the greatest song of the grunge era did not come from the States
I just thought I’d remind you of the fact.*
*Assuming that is you can overlook this.
Or indeed this.
(From The Vine, 02/06/10)
It’s about revelation.
It’s about the knowledge that life is there for the taking during the long train trips from the Lake District to Glasgow (where the sky suddenly lights up in the final few minutes, during the approach to the city). It’s about the way friendships can outstrip distance. It’s about moving forwards, and staying with the familiar, and trying out the unfamiliar, and feeling secure. It’s about being aware of your own situation and limitations and not minding one way or another. It’s about being depressed but knowing there’s always a way out of the depression: there are apple trees waiting to be scrumped, there are always harmonies waiting to be sung. It’s about believing in the healing powers of your lover’s arms. It’s about spontaneity and continuous reworking, and craftsmanship, and escape into sound. It’s about variable geography.
Shadows is the eighth studio album from Glasgow (and now trans-continental) band Teenage Fanclub; and if I lost track somewhere around the sixth, 1997’sSongs From Northern Britain, it’s only because I felt more than satisfied by what I’d already encountered. Teenage Fanclub have three principal songwriters and singers – Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love – and doubtless a drummer or two to augment them, but really they’re about the three songwriters: the songs they create, the resultant harmonies. Ah, those harmonies: to some, too refined, too harmonic. (My wife swears that she doesn’t understand my love affair with the Fannies, as she hears nothing to differentiate them.) To others, they melt into magic. (I’ll go along with that: even if you can’t pitch-perfect Byrds-ian harmonies, surely the songs by themselves are pure wonderment?)
‘Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything’, the Gerard Love song that begins the album, jangles like guitars always jangled once upon a time, and references subway train rides: deceptively simple, deceptively linear, deceptively wonderful. ‘The Fall’ (Raymond McGinty) switches and turns a little, in a pastoral sense, all the while in a process of self-discovery. The confessedly Go-Betweens-esque standout ‘When I Still Have Thee’ (Norman Blake) could easily have appeared on the initial brace of Teenage Fanclub albums – don’t be fooled by the acoustic guitars at the start – chugging along merrily, and open-eyed, passionately in love with the beauty of life, its near-naïve sentiments echoing classic single ‘Ain’t That Enough’.
“From the Western Isles to the Tasman Sea
There’s a world of men and machinery
But the birds still sing
And the sun shines deep
No, I don’t need much
When I still have thee”
‘The Back Of My Mind’ references Tom Verlaine’s late 70s New York band Television, and sticks to Norman Blake’s favourite four chords. ‘Sweet Days Waiting’ (Love) is a acoustic lament, the most obvious nod in the direction of formative inspiration Alex Chilton. ‘Live With The Seasons’ (McGinty) feels a little bit like The Kinks, with its lyrics drawing upon the pull of nature. ‘Baby Lee’, the second standout from Blake, draws on the group’s pop heritage, boasts a killer key change, and the lyrics are a childish (and Beatles-esque) delight. This is the sort of pop song Teenage Fanclub almost nonchalantly knock out every time they venture into the studio, and why their fans love them so. They’re so unassuming, yet so passionate and so much fun to sing along with.
“Baby Lee I’m only trying to remind you
They had me in mind, oh yeah, when they designed you
Baby Lee I’m always watching from a distance
Oh marry, marry me, oh baby, now I am insisting”
There was a famous review of Teenage Fanclub’s second album, 1991’sBandwagonesque, that rightly but sarcastically compared the record to Big Star’sThird/Sister Lovers and wrongly failed to mention its singular beauty, killer riffs and equally killer harmonies. (I remember receiving the album the same day as a pre-advance copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and played them back-to-back for an entire summer. There was never any doubt in my mind which was my favourite – the Scots.) And this is a problem that has always beleaguered Teenage Fanclub critically – such nice folk, so gentle, so upbeat. Why would they want to create music at all?
Well, because albums like this are the result. Augmented on some of the higher vocals and piano by Euros Childs (formerly of the deeply ace Welsh outfit Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci) and with an entire plethora and battery of various synthesisers etc to back up the trademark guitars, this… well, this is a Teenage Fanclub album to match any other Teenage Fanclub album. Nothing will surprise, but nothing will disappoint either.
They’ve retained the magic.