It’s been almost fifteen years since Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque took critics by storm in 1991, eclipsing both My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, R.E.M.’s Out of Time and the bellwether of all modern era rock albums, Nirvana’s Nevermind, as Spin Magazine’s top album of 1991. It would appear that the period in between then and now has mellowed the Glaswegian quartet somewhat, as the dingy, ramshackle melodicism has been eschewed in favor of a gentler, more experimental spirit. That is, as much as a traditional Big Star-Byrdsian guitar pop band can experiment without just becoming a collective of trance DJs. The group that once called themselves “The Boy Hairdressers,” and that once recorded an album of instrumentals capped off by a cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in a futile attempt to fulfill the terms of their first contract has obviously fallen victim to the inevitable wiles of maturity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least depending on which vintage of Teenage Fanclub most compels you.
Man-Made is the Fannies’ first record made solely as a collective since 2000’s Howdy! (yes, replete with exclamation point), and their ninth overall, if you count The King, the previously-mentioned instrumental album. After their brief celebrity fling with a fickle American music-buying public, culminating with a performance on Saturday Night Live, they wasted no time in fading to cult status in the wake of the Britpop class of the mid-90’s. Their sound remained much the same, however, though they did show signs of mellowing, starting with 1997’s Songs from Northern Britain. While the group’s foundational sound is still intact, Man-Made finds them much less reluctant to twiddle some knobs, noodle around with some unobtrusive atmospheric touches and abate some of the tempos. This evolution comes around thanks in large part to producer John McEntire, who fronts Chicago indie-rockers Tortoise when he’s not behind the board.
There is no “Everything Flows” or “What You Do To Me” or “Neil Jung” (my personal TFC favorite) on Man-Made, even though tunes like Norman Blake’s “Slow Fade” and Gerard Love’s “Fallen Leaves” do come the closest to hearkening back to their classic period. There’s a sweet, understated grace to many of the songs, and their trademark harmonies are still to be had all over the place. Blake has been seen by many as the de-facto president of the democratic trio by virtue of his past efforts, but with less emphasis on big, shiny hooks and more on texture this time around, all three songwriters have a handful of notable moments. It’s less a record marked by standout singles than one of steady, consistent musicianship, and your enjoyment of the album is most likely going to correlate directly with your own impression of those prospects.
The differences between early vintage Teenage Fanclub and later vintage Teenage Fanclub are noticeable enough on Man-Made, but if you’ve stuck with the band this long, chances are that the changes won’t be nearly enough to scare you away. They haven’t buried their pop element as much as they’ve just fiddled around with it a little bit, as if they were embracing their liberated indie status. It may not rock quite as much as the Fannies’ faithful is used to, but there’s plenty to like here.
Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth
Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype
The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.
Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.
There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.
You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.
It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.
Sum 41 – Order In Decline
Long gone are the days of All Killer, No Filler
Canadian pop-punkers Sum 41 have been remarkably consistent over the course of their last few albums. And while we have never stopped calling Sum 41 a pop-punk band, their last few albums have been less about being fun and bouncy, opting instead for a far more serious flavor of rock music. Long gone are the days of All Killer, No Filler, replaced instead with songs that do their best to mimic Muse’s big stadium anthem feel while not forgetting their penchant for metal licks and hefty solos. Truth is, it’s quite a shame because when Sum 41 were more about being fun and silly, their songs had this incredible likeability to them. Forget All Killer, No Filler, they were at their most fun with their often silly 2000 debut Half Hour of Power.
So what to expect with Order In Decline, their 7th full length? Well, if you like easy-to-digest pop-punk anthems, you best look elsewhere as much of the album spends way too much time taking itself too seriously. Not that the results are bad; songs like “A Death in The Family” and “Out For Blood” do the faux-hardcore/melodic punk thing really well. The chugga chugga riffs, toe-tapping melodies, and Deryck Whibley’s snotty vocals continue the band’s well-refined sound. Opener “Turning Away” doesn’t shy from being a little metal, a little rock, a little punk, and sets the high energy tone for the album. The return of Dave Brownsound for 2016’s 13 Voices has solidified the album’s two-pronged guitar attack, and Order In Decline’s production helps on that front- it’s a loud album, it just doesn’t seem to say a whole lot at times. “45 (A Matter of Time)” is the band’s anti-Trump song, and while it tries to provoke, sounds loud, its cheesy protests of “You’re something to few / But nothing to me / Someone so twisted and sick as can be / It wasn’t the plan / We gave it a shot / You’ve proven a real man is something you’re not” won’t exactly inspire a raging fire within the listener. I suppose if you’re turning to Sum 41 to change the course of the future, we’re all in trouble.
Sum 41 love their ballads too- and Order In Decline’s lighter in the air moment (phones in the air for you kids) is the piano-strewn ballad “Never There”. It’s OK, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of effective balladry they showed with “With Me”. The album’s best moment is the blitzing “The People Vs…” which trades the stadium rock for more melodic hardcore/thrash that a little akin to some of the goofy stuff they did on Half Hour. The meaty riffs, a great solo and the soaring chorus pumps much needed old Sum into Order In Decline, and it’s only a shame there isn’t more of it on the record.
As the album closes with the radio-ready “Catching Fire”, listeners are left with one of these two thoughts. For those who enjoy Sum 41 when they’re trying to be the best big band they can be, there is plenty to like on Order in Decline. They’ve found a consistent, polished, and well-produced sound they first hinted on with 2002’s Does This Look Infected?. For those who found their juvenile, snotty attitude on Half Hour of Power and All Killer to be the quality they most enjoyed will respond to Order in Decline with indifference. At least I don’t hate it.