Archive for January, 2011

I’m only trying to remind you

January 10, 2011

I tried with Teenage Fanclub. I honestly did. But for years it just didn’t work out.

It all started out so well too. In 1996 I was 13 years old and still delirious with excitement from the swiftly-dying Britpop ‘movement’. The NME – my weekly bible at this point – still occasionally gave nods to the Fanclub, but no matter how reverential the mention, they were hardly plastered across the paper enough for me to pay significant attention as a young pup enthusiastic for exciting new sounds (however retro and… well, not really exciting these sounds may have been). As it was, my pocket money went in other directions. I had Northern Uproar singles to buy! (And, if I’m honest, I suspect I may have been put off by Brendan O’Hare’s beard and the length of their hair. Time, you play cruel jokes on us all…)

By the summer of that year, I had discovered the Manic Street Preachers’ dark and abrasive The Holy Bible. This represented the beginning of a two-year love affair with that band, and is possibly the root of my love for more dissonant, less immediate music (leaving aside my embarrassment as a recovering MSP fan, one hates to use unbearably smug words like ‘challenging’ here, especially given how unchallenging it seems to me now). As far as this story is concerned, however, it caused me to pick up an issue of Vox magazine with a huge feature on the Manics and a free tape. The interview and retrospective on the Blackwood boys was obviously the main source of attraction, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the cover-mounted compilation of session recordings from the then-superlative Mark Radcliffe Show.

This wasn’t the first free tape I’d gotten with a magazine (that prize goes to a fairly unremarkable NME effort the previous Autumn), but it was certainly the first to contain more than a couple of tracks that I’d actually want to listen to. An acoustic version of Suede’s My Insatiable One sparked an obsession with Brett Anderson’s lot (that would mercifully evaporate with the release of Head Music several years later), whilst my first exposure to the intense sadness of Tindersticks still lingers in the memory.

The overall winner from this cassette, however, was Teenage Fanclub’s version of their b-side The Shadows. Devoid of a chorus, it instead featured nothing more than a simple harmonica riff and a gorgeously melancholic two-part harmony. The words were pretty enough to convey a sense of wistful optimism, and before long I found myself playing the song to myself whenever I picked up a guitar. It’s still a favourite, by the way, although I’ve now heard the ‘proper’ studio version, and frankly it’s not a patch on the simplicity and wonder of this acoustic strum-through.

And then suddenly… nothing for a while. The Fanclub’s sixth album Songs From Northern Britain emerged in the summer of the following year, but whilst i knew that Ain’t That Enough was a thoroughly pleasant tune, at the time it didn’t quite grab me as I wanted it to. Another two songs from that album turned up on NME tapes in the lead-up to that album’s release (the Raymond McGinley compositions I Don’t Care and Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From), and again I was unmoved. Young ears discovering the joy of volume in Sonic Youth’s glorious noise are perhaps not quite tuned into the sophistication of those pieces, and I was gleefully unaware of what I was missing out on.

I picked up more songs through free tapes, but it wasn’t until I heard their cover of Sebadoh’s It’s So Hard To Fall In Love in 6th form that they truly registered on my horizon again. Even then it was fleeting. I listened obsessively to the song over a glorious month in 2000, and then went back to ignoring Teenage Fanclub.

From hereon in things get messy. In university I discovered punk, and for a few years would label anything slower than the first Ramones album as ‘boring’. Unless it was reggae or 60s garage. Or Mogwai, oddly. In retrospect 2001 was a pretty exciting time, and a great time to be young, flush with a student loan and high on musical delirium. But I still regret the ease with which I dismissed so much great music that I’d discover for myself later on.

In the end, it was by accident that I got into them at all. In 2006, I finally managed to go to an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, for the first time since unsuccessfully trying to rouse my friends’ interest in 2001. Giddy with excitement, my pals and I started drinking on arrival, which swiftly cut short my interest in the event’s more cerebral bands. After getting thoroughly bored during Electrelane’s set, I wandered into the other live room to see what else was on. Anything that had a chorus or just sounded like a pop song would have done at that point. Happily,  a certain band (guess who?) were onstage, midway through their 1995 single Sparky’s Dream. I knew the song, and I’d enjoyed it as a teenager without being overawed. But it was different this time, for some reason. Instead of leaving me cold, it was drawing me in and surfing the waves of inebbreiated delight that ebbed and flowed around the hall. Next they launched into Everything Flows, quoted in my last blog and largely known to my undereducated ears courtesy of J Mascis & The Fog’s cover version. And then it was over. I’d missed the majority of the set. But by this time it was too late. I felt warm, fuzzy, drunk and thoroughly converted by that song and a half.

Upon returning home, one of the first things I did was buy their most celebrated album Bandwagonesque. Its charms took a while to creep under my skin, but once they did, I ceased to look back. From the opening line of The Concept (“she wears denim wherever she goes / Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo / Oh yeh”) to the final heroic instrumental Is This Music?, the album is an effortless, gracefully wonderful collection of simple pop songs that offer no challenge, dissonance or difficulty. Instead, it gets by on straightforward brilliance. It’s fantastic. I rushed to investigate their back catalogue further.

Four years later, I’ve fallen totally and utterly in love with their latest effort. In an eerily appropriate moment of symmetry with that first song of theirs that had me hooked, the album is called Shadows. It’s wonderful. Like finding an old pair of gloves in a drawer in the middle of winter, and discovering that not only do they still fit, but they match with all your other clothes, and age has not diminished their ability to keep your hands warm.

Norman Blake’s songs are almost always my favourite Fanclub tunes, but with Baby Lee and If I Still Have Thee he may have surpassed even his own dizzy heights. And Gerard Love’s Sometimes I Don’t Have To Believe In Anything is a gorgeously-understated piece of perfect pop – somehow indier-sounding than the Big Star/Byrds material that they’ve become famous for, but by no means schmindie. In fact, in one of those strange moments where a great band begins to sound like those it’s influenced, it reminds me rather of The Delgados, only better.

To close,  I could attempt to sum up everything that I’ve belatedly come to love about Teenage Fanclub, but Andy from the ever-excellent blog/fanzine A Fog Of Ideas managed to do so better than I could ever hope to. It’s not a short quote, but it’s entirely apt:

the fannies aren’t avant garde or edgey or any of those things but what I think they have done that is perhaps radical (if you like) is to make ‘adult orientated rock’ that manages to avoid a lot of the trappings of that much- and possibly justifiably-maligned musical styling: they’re not lazy or resting on their laurels or playing tried and tested chops, they’re not good old boys revelling in histrionics and overbaked mannerisms and the like

what I think the fannies have done is grow old rather gracefully, they play music that’s unaffected and from the heart and I think in a world where there’s so much artifice and copping of moves that’s kind of quite agreeable

which sounds like I’m damning them with faint praise but I actually find that quite significant and winning, uplifting even

possibly they may not be relevant… but then who’s deciding what is or isn’t relevant and what-me-worry?

for me they make music of infinite grace and beauty and I can understand why that might not be appreciated, it’s never been a common currency

and in my best whispering bob harris voice, the following fannies lyrics explain why they appeal so much to me:

here is a sunrise, ain’t that enough?
true as a clear sky, ain’t that enough?
toy town feelings here to remind you
summers in the city do what you gotta’ do

you can call it niceness, if you want, I just think it’s anti-bullshit, or maybe it’s another kind of bullshit but it works better for me than the alternative all day, every day: cynicism, nihilism, misanthropism, all the isms, if you will

it’s better than that, it’s more hopeful

Wise words. I just wish the band and I had gotten along sooner.

Still, better late than never.

“Don’t look back”

New year, new start

January 5, 2011

“I’ll never know which way to flow, set a course that I don’t know” – Teenage Fanclub

A new start always seems like an empty promise. All those hopeful plans and ideas to change seem to fade so rapidly when faced with the humdrum day-to-dayisms that so easily get in the way. In a way it reminds me of that line in Come Out 2nite by Kenickie wherein the teenage narrator surveys the drunken, gleeful chaos of a girls’ night out and announces “I know we’ll always be friends”. It’s as hopeful and sincere as all of those new year resolutions, but equally tinged with a certain sadness when the listener realises that soon those girls will go to college, get jobs or do whatever people do, and the links of that friendship will evaporate, sadly but naturally. It’s a trueism for most of us.

So it’s refreshing that, for once, I’m stood on the precipice of a genuine change. At the start of February, I’ll be kissing goodbye to the deskjob and finally flinging myself at the mercy of the media industry. Well, sort of. I’m certainly ditching business support in an attempt to get paid writing work (rather than the sporadic, unpaid freelancing I’ve done for the past seven years), but before I do that, I’m going back to college.

You see, I never really thought about practical ways to go about becoming a professional music writer. Neither of the fanzines I edited saw the light of day. The student paper didn’t return my emails, so I never pushed them. Even when I started writing under a crap pseudonym for a local reviews site (long since decamped to London), I still didn’t go so far as to send my writing to bigger publications. Forever fearing rejection, I didn’t allow myself to make the effort to take those steps, because it would be easier to daydream than be told I wasn’t good enough. The problem with this sort of fear is that it breeds further laziness, and so by the end of 2009 I woke up to find myself typing my days away under a glass ceiling in a career I didn’t want in the first place. I was overweight, apathetic and miserable. Things had to change.

As 2010 began, I resolved to make those changes. I began using my gym membership more than at any time since being unemployed in 2006. I started to write songs for the first time in years. When the opportunity to join a new band presented itself, I took it, and before long my other band was also playing more shows. Suddenly I was playing music frequently for the first time in years. It was great, but I knew I had to make more of a plan for a life outside of what is essentially a hobby (a furiously passionate one, but a hobby nonetheless).

It was time to get serious about writing.

After some investigation, I formed a plan. It required the humiliating but necessary act of moving back in with my parents to finance it, but it was a plan nonetheless. And so here I am on the verge of it coming into practice. From February, I’ll be commencing my NCTJ diploma at my local community college. You might observe it’s a step I should have taken years ago, and perhaps you’re right. But as far as I’m concerned it’s a step I’m happy to be taking at all. Now I’ve seen what happens when I drift, I want to take control of things.

So 2011 is where things change. When people ask ‘what do you do for a living?’ I’ll have to start replying ‘I’m a writer,’ rather than explaining how I’m making ends meet and then dismissing my ambition with a ‘…but I’m also…’. It’s a big change, but it’s refreshing, and I’m genuinely excited about it. Come the summer, I’ll be searching for an actual job in this business. I’m on my way to being a professional writer.

Imagine.

After the self-indulgent and pointless way I’ve rambled on here, I’ll certainly have to become more focussed.

Anyway.

People in my chosen career tend to sign off the previous year by listing their favourite bands or releases, or prediciting the best artists of the next twelve months. This is an area of pop hackism that I’m looking forward to least, to be honest – the Nick Hornby-esque compiling of lists for lists’ sake. So for now I’m going to enjoy the blogosphere’s freedom to ignore that ominous future task, and instead just tell you about my favourite record of my best year in a long time.

Majesty Shredding is Superchunk‘s first full-length since the appropriately-titled Here’s To Shutting Up in 2001. Not that they’ve been resting on their laurels since then – singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan has been busy with his Robert Pollard collaboration Go Back Snowball, and the ongoing Portastatic project, drummer Jon Wurster has begun a career in radio comedy, and bassist Laura Ballance has run indie powerhouse Merge Records alongside Mac for 20 years. You might be forgiven for expecting this ‘comeback’ to be a cheap cash-in on the success of their peers Dinosaur Jr and Pavement‘s recent reunions. But it isn’t.

For one thing, Superchunk never actually split up. They just took some time out. As Pitchfork rightly pointed out, Majesty Shredding “sounds like McCaughan had another 11 Superchunk-sounding songs sitting around, and the band finally found time to record them.” And they’re all stormers. This may not have the same impact as 1991’s No Pocky For Kitty, or introduce unexpected dynamic changes like Foolish or Come Pick Me Up, but it does contain eleven great songs that… well, that just don’t let up. There’s the hook-tastic Digging For Something, laced with ‘woah-oh-oh’s and nagging guitars. Rosemarie reveals the reverse effect of the bands effect on 90s emo by sounding like the best song late-period Get Up Kids never wrote. Everything At Once resembles Slowdive being given a crash course in fizzy pop-punk and utterly joyous choruses.

Then there’s Learned To Surf. Technically, this isn’t a new song – it first surfaced on 2009’s Leaves In The Gutter EP. But I’m going to argue for its inclusion here by virtue of a) being on this album and b) being utterly superb on every level. It may not just be my favourite song of this year; I can’t think of many records I’ve liked this much in the last decade.

The same goes for the whole album though. It’s utterly wonderful.

No doubt I’ll keep you abreast of my progress with the course.

“I can’t hold my breath any more – I stopped sinking and learned to surf”

HNY, everyone

w x