The Just Played Verdict: Yuck ‘Yuck’

Turn the volume up. Dust the record down. Nestle the stylus in the groove. Sometimes music need not be any more complex than that. Anyone who loves their tunes should be able to recall a moment where a riff kicked in on a song and things just felt better. The unexplainable euphoria of the right collection of notes in the right order delivered with enough gusto is part of why we’re all so addicted to music. It’s often the case that the albums which deliver that urgent rush are derivative, simple and noisy. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Having seen Yuck supporting Teenage Fanclub back in May of last year, I was eagerly anticipating this debut. Their nascent live show was energetic and quite noticeably rough around the edges, but what makes them good now made them good then. They’ve heard some great records which made them want to be in a band. OK, for two of them that band was originally Cajun Dance Party but we’re all sensible adults here and we can let that go. Just this once. Add in a drummer who looks like the improbably well fed islander in Lost and attacks his drum kit like it’s betrayed him several times over and things are ticking along nicely.

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The Just Played Verdict: Jonny ‘Jonny’

Remember when Super Furry Animals songs used to go so fast it sounded like they’d implode before they got to the end? ‘God! Show Me Magic’, ‘Something For The Weekend’ and ‘The International Language Of Screaming’ are three which spring quickly to mind. Listening to these songs was a pure, unadulterated adrenaline rush. Still is, actually. Add in a bit of power-pop jangle from ‘Grand Prix’ era Teenage Fanclub and a little of ‘Barafundle’ era Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and you’re somewhere close to the recipe for ‘Jonny’ by Jonny.

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Norman ‘Fannies’ Blake and Euros ‘Gorky’s’ Childs are the unspectacularly named Jonny (named after the photo above, which adorns the album cover) and the music is every bit as good as such a collaboration might suggest. Sun-kissed Sixties jangle crossed with yearning meditations on affairs of the heart appears to be the order of the day, with a few psych-lite moments thrown in along the way. Opener ‘Wich Is Wich’ has the aforementioned energetic SFA charm, while lead single ‘Candyfloss’ possesses the kind of yearningly melancholic chorus which Teenage Fanclub master in, these two wonderful voices combining to charming effect.

Lyrically, ‘Jonny’ has plenty of tales of love pursued and love lost. ‘Circling The Sun’ is a typically classy tale of delirious romance from Blake, with gorgeously crooned lines like “will I stay in your heart, will our days be spent apart?” However, such a delicate touch is not always the favoured approach. ‘Bread’ is a song about the many and varied types of yeasty product, featuring the chorus line “hats off to those who make bread”. At one point, Euros sings “sandwich, baguette or morning toast” only for the backing vocals to kick in, and when you hear this you will accept it for the genius move that it is, with “or morning toast” as if it were the most meaningful phrase in the English language. The phrase “the kind of voice that would sound good singing the phone book” gets bandied around a fair bit. Well, with ‘Bread’, this is a chance to hear everyday words delivered with aplomb.

Cave Dance’ bursts out of the speakers practically begging to be accompanied by a hand-jive routine of some kind, before breaking down into a noodling electronic haze. While there are a number of songs competing for the title, ‘Waiting Around For You’ is the album’s highlight, sounding uncannily like an extra track from ‘Rubber Soul’ which has somehow never previously been noticed. The swaggering guitar and hyperactive organ stabs bring to mind ‘The Word’ and ‘Drive My Car’, whilst the lyrics “the man in the moon is laughing at me” aren’t difficult to imagine in a Liverpudlian burr.

Euros Childs’ solo releases have come thick and fast and quality control hasn’t always been at the forefront of his mind, whilst Teenage Fanclub haven’t really ventured past mid-paced since the Nineties ended. This is no bad thing and they’ve released some beautiful albums, as has Childs for that matter, but don’t be fooled into thinking that ‘Jonny’ can’t be a beautifully sung, charmingly simple and utterly exhilarating listen. Because it is.

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New Music Monday – Teenage Fanclub ‘Shadows’

Cards on the table. To these ears, ‘Man Made’ and ‘Howdy!’ weren’t quite up to the ludicrously high standards of ‘Bandwagonesque’, ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘Songs From Northern Britain’. Both records had much to enjoy and a new Teenage Fanclub record is still a bit of an event for me, so just the chance to hear those songs was enough to sustain my interest. But then came ‘Shadows’. Get yourself a new pair of headphones, a suitably vintage alcoholic beverage of your choice and somewhere to put your aching feet because it’s time to truly get lost in the music once again.

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As ever, songwriting duties are shared equally between Gerry, Raymond and Norman, even though, as ever, you can’t tell that this stunning set of songs weren’t conceived together. Lyrically, there’s plenty to devour, even if they won’t win any awards for inventive deployment of the English language.  “Dark clouds are following you but they’ll drift away” is simple but hugely affecting on ‘Dark Clouds’, a track notable for its complete lack of guitars. “I recorded it with acoustic guitars and I couldn’t quite get it to work so when Euros [Childs] was there I got him to play piano on it, and we just went with piano and vocal and that saved the song. I was feeling a little down when I wrote that lyric,” says Norman. Despite the absence of soaring guitar refrains, it’s a classic example of the Fannies’ knack for comforting melancholia.

First release, ‘Baby Lee’, which you really should have heard by now, continues the band’s long lineage of quite magnificent singles, jangling along at a pace that wouldn’t render it out of place on ‘Grand Prix’, often regarded as their finest record. (It’s not, by the way, that’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, which is about as perfect as any album can ever, ever be) Meanwhile, ‘Shock And Awe’ does little to hide its subject matter: Gerry explains that “the title refers to the recent military campaign, but lyrically it’s probably about the idea of conflict, and instinct versus culture. It’s not something we normally talk about in our songs… It’s not some kind of spokesman for a generation kind of stuff, it’s dealing with a small part of life and what people take for granted. And the numbing nature of modern media. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding like Bono or something.” The rolling harmonies of old are all over the track, accompanied by an emphatic string arrangement, although the small aspect that makes it so utterly unforgettable is a small, echoing refrain that cascades across the early part of the song conjuring a sense of the song floating around in front of you. Sometimes words truly can’t do something justice – when you hear it, you’ll know what I mean.

When I Still Have Thee’ quite openly states that “it’s a modern hymn for…The Go-Betweens,” and it is a fitting reference to one of the great overlooked groups of the last thirty years. Don’t be put off by the presence of the word ‘thee’ in the title, because it’s actually one of the more lively tracks on ‘Shadows’, and rather beautiful in its simplicity. Meanwhile, ‘Live With The Seasons’ is straight out of the drawer marked ‘Slowly building, effervescent strummers’. The lyric explores our place within nature and how we so often find the weather reflecting our moods and feelings: “there’s an ocean of meaning in a lover’s tear. The wind, snow and rain make me feel you” offers a simple but heartfelt sentiment.

The warm, soulful sound of ‘Sweet Days Waiting’ wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard Hawley record, representing an unusually restrained approach from Gerry. The soft pitter-patter of the drums provide an aural hug while the deliciously saccharine chimes of the lead guitar are like a pack of Love Hearts injected straight into the soul. And, while things end with ‘Today Never Ends’, an oddly sombre instruction to live life in the here and now, it’s the very beginning of this album that marks it out for greatness.

‘Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything’ is not only in possession of a fantastically ‘Holy Bible’-era Manics style name, but also a rhythmically soaring chug that simply explodes after eighty seconds into a joyous chorus, with a small but swooping string part diving around behind the repeated refrain of the song’s title. It’s what the Fannies do best: it doesn’t sound like it could seduce a stadium crowd, it won’t garner frequent plays on popular music stations but it will buff the smile of a believer, open the door for the wavering hardcore fan to welcome them back in and, to cut to the chase, offer welcome respite from the more serious business of real life.

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May Reviews – Teenage Fanclub and Tracey Thorn

Here are the three reviews for which I’m responsible in this month’s Clash Magazine. Although there are only three this time out (seven next month, fact fans) what a three they are. I’m including my review of ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’, despite the much longer piece I recently published as this is me reviewing it for a wider audience with many, many fewer words. Roughly the same end result though!

May Reviews

TEENAGE FANCLUB – Shadows’ (PeMa)

Finally, the Fannies explore their penchant for prog-rock and German psychedelia! Ok, so it actually sounds very much like a classic Teenage Fanclub record, but that should be enough to satisfy the discerning ear. After the relatively stripped back ‘Man Made’, ‘Shadows’ returns to the lush, meticulously crafted sound of previous albums. Lyrically, they’re no slouches but, as with so many of their wonderful albums, it’s the chiming guitars and angelic harmonies that truly revitalise the soul. ‘Shock And Awe’, replete with soaring guitar break, is a highlight, while their list of classic singles grows with the cheery ‘Baby Lee’. 9/10

If ever it’s possible to find oneself wanting another 900 words or so to explore an album properly, it was with this one. Keep an eye out for another ‘New Music Monday’ coming soon.. It’s a belter.

THE DIVINE COMEDY – ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ (DIVINE COMEDY RECORDS)

I won’t piss about. This album won’t convert anyone who previously found Neil Hannon’s band unpalatable. Indeed, it rather gleefully ramps up the eccentricity and delights in the study of curious characters of all ages and classes. At times it gets a little too silly, the lazy implied rhyming slang in ‘The Complete Banker’ the true lyrical nadir, but ‘Down In The Street’ and ‘When A Man Cries’ rank up there with Hannon’s finest grand production numbers, the former a shape-shifting musical avalanche which gets things underway. Album closer ‘I Like’ could even displace ‘National Express’ as his annoying pop smash. 7/10

I opted not to make a big thing of ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg’ in this review as a) I had bugger all words in the first place b) it might have completely turned people away. It was tricky trying to contextualise this record beyond TDC fans, but I think it’s a relatively fair assessment. The recent, larger piece explains my thoughts in far greater detail.

TRACEY THORN – ‘Love And Its Opposite’ (STRANGE FEELING)

The distinctive voice of Everything But The Girl, Thorn’s almost effortless vocal grace has been a compelling part of the musical landscape for nearly thirty years. From electronic folk to warm, soulful country, the songs on what is only her third solo record tackle the pitfalls of middle age with a stark honesty, tempered by restrained optimism. ‘Long White Dress’ and ‘Singles Bar’, subject matter made clear from the off, are highlights; the former is mellow and wistful, with a delightfully lilting chorus, while the latter radiates the fatigued disenchantment of somebody lacking motivation in the unfulfilled pursuit of love. 7/10

This might actually be an 8 in the fullness of time, but what do numbers matter anyway? There are some quite magical bits on this, not least the two tracks mentioned in the review. Well worth a listen and a charmingly stripped back accompaniment to one of pop’s most recognisable voices.

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A Week With… 12. Teenage Fanclub – Songs From Northern Britain

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The sad news of the death of Alex Chilton last week sent me scurrying back to my Big Star records and the majesty of ‘Thirteen’, ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ and ‘The Ballad Of El Goodo’ offered a welcome respite at the end of a tiring week. While the songs, and their parent albums, had more than a couple of plays, in amongst them was an album that unashamedly acknowledges its influences, confident in the knowledge that it’s good enough to stand tall in the exultant company of both Big Star and The Beatles. That album, as you may have guessed by this point, was ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ by Teenage Fanclub, a record which I’m increasingly certain belongs in my all time top ten, if not top five.

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The luscious vocals, soaring guitars and heart-melting melodies of Big Star are here in abundance, but that’s not to say that this is simply an homage. ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ is an out and out pop masterpiece. There isn’t a song you’d want to lose, a track to wish away in anticipation of the next or a chorus devoid of a hook. This is pretty much the result of an attempt to calculate how to make utterly beguiling, suitably concise and indefatigably effervescent songs to soothe the soul. It never sounds old, hackneyed or clichéd and I can say, quite unashamedly, that every time I play this record it gives me an undeniable lift.

Start Again’ and ‘Ain’t That Enough’ form a bright, shiny, soaring opening salvo, doing an admirable job of setting out the album’s stall. If you don’t like jangle and exemplary harmonies then this is not the record for you.Having said that, if ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ doesn’t make you truly glad you have ears then I’m not sure I ever really want to know you. I’m not sure you can really feel. You poor person, you. ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’, replete with early seconds of farm noise, slightly confused me as a single choice around the time when the album first appeared, seeming too laid back for an assault on the chart, but, in the context of the record, it’s a simple, affecting love song which would be the highlight of so many other records, but not this one. Not that that’s an easy title to give out.

‘Planets’, with its gleaming guitar part is essentially a live recording of wistful summer evening sunshine while ‘Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From’ is so utterly bare and heartfelt it may have a legitimate claim to being the best Teenage Fanclub song of all time, let alone best on the album. Essentially little more than a gentle strum with some lolloping drums and an occasional burst of restrained, lilting piano, ‘Your Love…’ seems to simple to be special, but don’t be fooled. Listen again and noticed the radiant if relatively muted organ notes serving as the song’s undercurrent, notice the slowly increasingly volume and presence of those trademark soaring guitar riffs and be rendered agog by what is almost an anti-crescendo when the track beautifully manoeuvres itself to a close.

And that’s all without mentioning the sublime Beatles-esque plonking piano of ‘Mount Everest’, the chiming splendour of ‘Take The Long Way Home’ and the unassumingly magical album closer, ‘Speed Of Light’. ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ is a truly special record from a truly special band. I make no apologies for having a second ‘A Week With…’ feature about them for two very good reasons. Firstly, it’s my blog so nur. Eloquently argued, no? Secondly, I genuinely don’t believe that enough people know about this spinetinglingly magnificent collection of music and, with their new album due to emerge at the end of May, it’ll do nobody any harm to get acquainted. I once saw copies of this record, boxed with their second best album, ‘Grand Prix’, selling at £3 in Fopp and considered buying the entire stock so as to give them to the uninitiated. Sadly, I didn’t, but I cannot urge you strongly enough to get yourself a copy. Feel free to come and hurl abuse my way should you, for whatever almost incomprehensible reason, find it not to your liking.

Song Of The Day 35: Teenage Fanclub – What You Do To Me

I’ve been reliably informed that the new album should be with us by the end of May and that is reason enough to have a little smirk on your face this weekend. One of the loveliest bands imaginable and criminally underrated, I featured the Fannies in the third ‘A Week With…’ as I rediscovered the charms of ‘Man-Made’, their last outing from fully five years ago. We need more!

Still, while we’re waiting for more, it gives us plenty of time to keep going over the good stuff. This was before my time, but once I’d found it I didn’t want to let go. Pure indie pop jangle aplenty on this one. And look at their hair!

A Week With… 3. Teenage Fanclub – ‘Man-Made’

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It’s fair to say that some bands find the sound that works for them and keep on keeping on with that same sound, releasing numerous albums with a similar feel. Think Eels, M.Ward and The Magnetic Fields, for example. All are responsible for many wonderful albums, but at least part of our love for some of those records is the endearing familiarity. So, I suspect, it is with Teenage Fanclub. There are two groups of people when it comes to this band: Those who love Teenage Fanclub and those who haven’t heard them. I forever peddle a paraphrased quote from Nick Hornby about how wonderful this lot are so now might be a good time to actually get it right. Just wait there a second.

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Splendid. Barely feels like I was gone, eh? The aforementioned soundbite comes when Hornby is describing their finest album, ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, saying that, “if you’ve already got ‘Rubber Soul’, [it] is the next best comfort food you can buy.” That little phrase has stuck with me since I read it, largely because of how much I agree with it. The music of Teenage Fanclub is never likely to completely revitalise the way somebody thinks about music. It isn’t going to be the kind of music that will have hundreds of thousands of singing along at summer festivals. But, again, that’s part of why I like it. They know what they do well and, for some time now, they seem to have been enjoying exploring what it’s possible to do within those parameters.

Man-Made’ had very little impact on the music scene when it arrived in 2005, wobbling its way to 34 in the chart and fading from view soon after. Keen to avoid numerous overdubs and too many layers of (nonetheless really rather lovely) sound, a slightly less polished sound is evident throughout this album. At first, the desire to avoid too much finessing results in it all feeling like one big piece, occasionally ebbing and flowing, but failing to separate out into clearly defined three minute units. ‘Howdy’, their previous album, took me some time to get into, but after a while it all clicked. I left it late to buy ‘Man-Made’ as a result and it probably hasn’t had the attention it deserved. Even so, the first listen to it this week still provoked the same reaction – there are some nice bits in there, but they didn’t really leap out at me. That said, I’ve started to notice that little bits of certain songs are loitering in my head and repeated listens suggest a more complex soundstage than I’d previously thought. Having used this as an excuse to purchase the vinyl pressing, I’m duty bound to point out that the vinyl sounds noticeably better than the somewhat muddy CD and I can’t help wondering if I’ve only just scratched the surface of this one. ‘Save’ is the really standout, with its charmingly soulful guitar licks and full on Fanclub harmonies, but I wonder if I’m gravitating towards it because it’s the most polished song on the record and, thus, it reminds me of the version of this band I love so much.

The first two ‘A Week With…’ records resulted in the adoring pieces, either describing an album clicking after some time or simply reigniting the old love affair. This one is a little less conclusive. This album needs even more time lavishing on it because, and this is the reason for featuring it, I think it suffers from our ever diminishing concentration spans. If it had come into my life at the time ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ did, it would have received many more initial plays than it actually did. It would have stood a far stronger chance of capturing my imagination. It’s now starting to do that and, on this occasion, I think it might be me and not the record. It’s not been the best of weeks and I think a more charitable headspace might finally cause it to click. I shall be giving it further spins this week and, if this has prompted you to do the same, I wouldn’t mind meeting you back here in a week or two to see if we’ve reached some kind of conclusion. That is, after all, the spirit in which I intended this feature to develop. I don’t want each piece to simply gush about a record. It should provoke a few thoughts, question a few assumptions and sometimes, such as on this occasion, fail to reach a sensible conclusion. Whichever way you look at it, they’re a damn fine band and they deserve your time.