Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Norman Conquest

Teenage Fanclub
Songs From Northern Britain

It took the balance of a decade, but in 1997 Teenage Fanclub broke through the heavy press of their influences and made the definitive album of their career. Don't get me wrong, their early work was nothing short of brilliant. However, the preceding albums were all infected with the overbearing flavor of their contemporaries and predecessors. 1989's A Catholic Education was a clear product of the British shoegaze scene, and sounded like it could well have been a collaboration between J Mascis and Kevin Shields. Spin Magazine's 1991 album of the year, Bandwagonesque and it's 1993 follower Thirteen are more reminiscent of the heavy influence Big Star and Neil Young have had on this band. Through these first albums, the band's trio of songwriters (Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley) crafted power-pop anthems rich with harmonies. The ever-present steadying hand of Norman Blake ensured that there was a continuity to each of the albums, and maintained their coherent sound. 1995's Grand Prix was a sort of break with tradition from the earlier albums. It was almost as if one could perceive the hand of Blake relaxing to allow the three distinct styles of songwriting to stand out. Instead of a resultant discord, however, the album stood as their tightest release to date. It discarded with Thirteen's lamentations on the trappings of fame and instead gave us an album lush with personal anthems from a triumvirate of perspectives. Looking back, it appears Grand Prix was a perfect (and necessary) predecessor to 1997's Songs From Northern Britain.

While the title reference's the band's home in Scotland, the album is about many places. The opening track, Start Again, is an homage to the practice of finding one's roots. It's a lush Norman Blake tune with Wilsonesque three-part harmony throughout. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. They sing of going to the country in the highlands and taking the long way round. It's an album about enjoying the place you're in and finding other places you'll enjoy more. It's simply amazing that the album which best describes the artists came so late in their career. The songwriting is split equally, with Blake, Love and McGinley each contributing 4 tracks. McGinley's acoustic takes on Americana can seem out of place among Love and Blake's 'Bellshill Beach Boys' numbers, but his excellent "You're Love is The Place Where I Come From" is a perfect accompaniment. If you're interested in these Glaswegian troubadours, this album is the place to start.


Toothpaste Jones said...

It's so much more interesting when bands blossom, instead of the normal pattern, come out fully realized, make 2-7 amazing albums, and proceed to frustrate fan base for years to come. Spoon and Andrew Bird being some excellent late bloomers.

Cangrejero said...

Agreed (on all counts). I think the beauty of a blog like this is the ability to see how the bands have changed over time.