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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque Music Album Reviews

These vinyl reissues of the Scottish power-pop luminaries’ outstanding Creation Records output showcase a band whose music captures the feeling of living with the music you love.

Earlier this year, a New York Times study suggested that the music of our teenage years becomes the music we love throughout our lives. The Scottish power-pop group Teenage Fanclub have spent their career testing a similar theory. Their preference for familiar sounds is not just a result of their improbable band name or the fact that the connection between their brand of lovesick, harmony-coated, major-key rock’n’roll and adolescence goes back to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Since rising out of Glasgow’s C86 scene in the late 1980s, Teenage Fanclub have been fascinated by how our formative influences grow with us, how simple sounds can carry a lifetime of associations. Like no other band, their music captures the feeling of living with the music you love, in all its permutations of euphoria and complacency and companionship.

As trends have come and gone, the members of Teenage Fanclub have maintained a preternatural knack for blocking out the world. To listen to their deeply consistent catalog is to hear a band that never grew tired of its pet sounds: the melodic precision of Big Star; the tight-knit harmonies of the Byrds; the plainspoken hum of Neil Young; the lite psychedelia of the British Invasion. Occasionally, one influence rises above the others. The group banded together and set off to record their debut, 1990’s A Catholic Education, after attending a Dinosaur Jr. concert, and it shows in the music—bathed in feedback and noise, wary toward life outside the studio. But as Teenage Fanclub grew up, they let more light in.

A new series of vinyl reissues, each paired with two hand-selected bonus tracks, expertly showcases this beautiful evolution. Kicking off with 1991’s breakthrough Bandwagonesque and spanning the following decade, each of these records (with the possible exception of 2000’s Howdy!) has its superfans. So simple and immediate is this music that it’s always been easy to slip into hyperbole discussing it. Oft-repeated legends about Teenage Fanclub involve more famous contemporaries cosigning them at the peak of their influence: Nirvana, Radiohead, and Sonic Youth bringing them on as a support act; Liam Gallagher, in his coke-addled Be Here Now-era megalomania, calling them the “second best band in the world” (after Oasis, of course). In 1991, SPIN hailed Bandwagonesque as the year’s best album, beating out Nevermind, Achtung Baby, and Loveless. It should surprise no one that this band’s biggest partisans have always been critics and fellow musicians.

For all the talk of their perfect melodies and pristine harmonies, part of Teenage Fanclub’s appeal lies in their humility. The early word around Glasgow was that they were nothing special: fun guys to hang out with and talk music, but lacking the ambition to really go anywhere. They seemed satisfied with being underdogs. But they also harbored a singular commitment that made them uncommonly self-aware and sustainable. “We take the music and the actual performances very seriously,” Gerard Love pointed out in a 1990 interview. “It’s the idea of being a pop star that we don’t take seriously.… We don’t see ourselves having the answers to anything. We’re not…”

Bandmate Norman Blake finished the thought: “... visionaries of a generation.”

The only three permanent members of Teenage Fanclub are their vocalists and songwriters: Blake, Love, and Raymond McGinley. Unlike the bands they drew inspiration from, the leaders of TFC never seemed to be at war with one another. They never made their White Album or Tusk, to prove their records came from tortured, conflicting perspectives. Instead, their music seems to blossom out of unity, with each songwriter doing his best to further explore the feelings described by his bandmates. On any given album, you might hear each of them singing a variation of “I’m in love with you.” It’s a dynamic that seems almost pre-rock’n’roll, a team of craftsmen laboring, beyond ego, for the sake of the song.

If Bandwagonesque has stood the test of time as TFC’s masterpiece, it might be largely because it came first. Following A Catholic Education and its mostly instrumental follow-up The King, this was their first release for Alan McGee’s Creation Records and their introduction to the wider world, especially U.S. audiences. It’s crucial that the first things we hear on the record are a burst of feedback and a description of a character’s taste in clothes and music. “She wears denim wherever she goes/She says she’s gonna buy some records by the Status Quo,” Blake sings in “The Concept.” It’s an iconic opener—not just because the melody is so enrapturing, but also because it sets up the reverie that this band and their fans would inhabit. If the music you love is your means of identification—how you introduce yourself at a party, how you get through the day—then this band was speaking directly to you.

As its comically literal music video demonstrates, “The Concept” works better as a foggy daydream than as an actual character study. This is part of the charm of Bandwagonesque: Its love songs, like the swooning “What You Do to Me,” seem more inspired by the genre of love songs than by actual love. Just as “Metal Baby” or the controlled chaos of “Satan” won’t convince you that anyone in this band has ever actually been to a metal show, the love songs sound like the result of long nights spent alone, listening to Double Fantasy on repeat and imagining what it might feel like to confess your soul to someone you really care about. Real devotion came later in their music—for now, just the idea was enthralling enough.

This is why it’s not Blake’s lyrics in the first half of “The Concept” that make the song come alive so much as the the wordless, weightless coda that follows: A heaven-bound guitar solo wraps around Brendan O’Hare’s slow-motion, lighter-waving drums, as three-part harmonies crash like waves against rocks. When the coda arrives in the music video, the protagonist, without lyrics to guide her actions, starts wreaking havoc in the record store, tearing down posters and knocking over shelves. A better visualization might be starting her own shop. Bandwagonesque is the sound of discovery—of finding your voice and naming your mission.

1993’s Thirteen, its gnarlier, sloppier follow-up, had the disadvantage of coming next. To this day, its reputation is far worse than the actual music. After the whirlwind of Bandwagonesque, critics hated this record, calling it derivative (the title was taken from a Big Star song; the closing track was named after Gene Clark) and brainless (“Norman 3” finds Blake repeating the actual sentence “I’m in love with you” more than 20 times). In the press, Blake came across as bitter and hurt and hilarious, mocking flashier bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stone Temple Pilots, and pointing toward the comparative integrity of his music. “We’re the opposite of ‘muscles and crap tattoos’ music, sweaty music. We’re not sweaty, not on purpose, anyway,” he argued to NME. “We write honest tunes, man… Songs.”

Judged on the strength of its songwriting, and not by its inability to live up to expectations or by its production (this new vinyl edition certainly sounds less muddy than the original release), the album remains an ambitious step forward. Love’s contributions in particular are pivotal. “Gene Clark” is one of the band’s great experiments and one of their finest performances—a “Down by the River” jam that evolves into something as sweet and cyclical as springtime. Other tracks, like the patchwork epic “Hang On” and the defiant “Song to the Cynic,” lack the endearing immediacy of Bandwagonesque but make up for it in confidence. “No offense,” Blake told the NME about the album’s bad press, “But I don’t worry about journalists because we know more about music than most journalists anyway.” Thirteen is the last time they played dumb; they would never sound so young or reckless again.

The albums that followed adopted a more controlled, subdued palate—less denim, more cardigans. Gone are any traces of grunge guitars or ’90s angst; McGinley’s guitar solos become more fluid and melodic, like a flute filtered through a distortion pedal; occasionally explosive drummer O’Hare is replaced by the more sedate Paul Quinn. Arriving as the the Britpop boom brought their set of retro influences back into style, 1995’s Grand Prix is every bit as inspired and stacked with hooks as Bandwagonesque—they’re just prioritized differently. “It’s not music for when you’re about to go out,” Love said. “It’s music for when you get back in.”

If Teenage Fanclub once seemed like a ceaseless rush of endorphins, their new sound was a small plane taking off: It seemed to glide on its own, and, before you knew it, was airborne. “Don’t Look Back,” a highlight from Grand Prix, finds Love admitting there’s little he can say to change someone’s mood; with Blake and McGinley’s harmonies aiding him through the final, triumphant chorus, though, he becomes a hero—stealing cars, lighting up the city. In “Sparky’s Dream,” one of their greatest songs, Love sings about someone just out of reach. “Always tried to keep the feeling alive,” he muses. On Grand Prix, TFC take on the same task: Sometimes they soar, sometimes they volley, and, more times than not, they land straight on the heart.

Two years later, in 1997, they returned with Songs From Northern Britain, a wise and ornate record about domestic life. By now, Blake had gotten married and become a father, and he could write brilliantly unguarded love songs like “I Don’t Want Control of You” and “Start Again,” with lyrics as poignant as his melodies. McGinley’s ballad “Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From” paints a similar portrait, as still and persistent as the fireplace in your living room. In both its thematic concerns and its gentle, pastoral tone, Songs From Northern Britain is an embrace of native terrain. Their contentment sounds radiant.

After 2000’s Howdy!, an album of quiet triumphs—the off-kilter rhythm of “Dumb Dumb Dumb,” “Cul De Sac”’s otherworldly drift—Teenage Fanclub started taking longer between records, retreating even further from the spotlight. They now seemed more willing to put the band on hold to gather new energy from collaborations and side projects. Some of the material on the bonus 7''s included with these reissues points toward later gems, like 2005’s electric Man-Made and 2016’s hushed, autumnal Here. Chosen mostly from their deep well of B-sides, these tracks highlight some of the band’s charming experiments (“Country Song,” “Thaw Me”) and unsung gems (“Some People Try to Fuck With You” “One Thousand Lights”). In these ten rarities, you can hear a succinct summary of all the ground they have conquered, as well as what they have left to explore.

For all their subtle evolutions, Teenage Fanclub have devoted themselves to making records that still feel steadfast and timeless—never going out of style, never losing the feeling. It’s a path they set out upon with their first single, “Everything Flows.” “We get older every year/But you don’t change,” Blake observed, then added a caveat: “Or I don’t notice you’re changing.” Lose yourself in something long enough and it becomes its own marker of time, with all its own sunrises and shadows.

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