Not Coming to a Stadium Near You
The lightning speed at which the record-industry race is run these days means lots of bands that don’t fare well out of the gate get trampled underfoot. But while the overburdened CD racks in the stores are a testament to this sad fact, they tell another story as well, about bands that run long and steady in the middle of the pack, making records for small but loyal core audiences. This week two such bands–Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub, who open for Radiohead Thursday, August 7, at the Riviera, and New York’s Luna–released new albums, and though it’s a safe bet neither will shake up the charts, both are satisfying in small ways.
Both bands have more or less made careers of reimagining the work of seminal bands from the 60s and 70s: Big Star is obviously Teenage Fanclub’s guiding light, while Luna continues to tinker with the ubiquitous Velvet Underground model. Songs From Northern Britain (Creation/Columbia) is Teenage Fanclub’s fifth proper full-length, and despite the title, it does the best job of any of the band’s records of integrating all the American influences it has displayed over the years. Its 1990 debut, A Catholic Education (Matador), offered a more melodic, less self-absorbed take on Neil Young-style catatonia than Dinosaur Jr, but to most pop fans the following year’s major-label debut, Bandwagonesque (DGC), remains the group’s high-water mark. With sharper, sweeter harmonies and ringing guitars, it was a gorgeous flashback to vintage Big Star, and a subsequent tour with Nirvana helped the band achieve its greatest sales to date.
It then took Teenage Fanclub three years to crank out Thirteen (1993), a creative and commercial dud. The band had tried to toughen its sound, but as resentful song titles like “Commercial Alternative” and “120 Mins” suggest, the shift seemed unnaturally market-driven. For number four, Grand Prix (1995), Teenage Fanclub went back to what it knew best, letting its Big Star-isms mingle with the country rock of the Byrds, particularly in the lush vocal harmonies. But the record was another commercial failure.
The new album, on yet another label, continues in the same vein as Grand Prix, but the richness of the melodies and the razor-sharp execution make it as pleasurable as anything on Bandwagonesque. Even with three songwriters (Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley), the album sounds of a piece. And though the second half doesn’t flow as well as the first, the record as a whole still registers as one of the best slices of pure pop I’ve heard this year. Some of the catchiest tunes, particularly “Start Again” and “Ain’t That Enough,” have the ring of minor classics–even if they’re someone else’s minor classics.
Teenage Fanclub has gone through almost as many drummers as labels in the last seven years, none of whom has made much of an impact on its sound. But Lee Wall, the drummer on Luna’s new Pup Tent (its fourth album for Elektra), makes a world of difference: his predecessor, Stanley Demeski, who came from the Feelies, knew how to underscore the band’s Velvet trances with an elastic grace and restrained range. Wall’s no slouch, but he lacks Demeski’s subtlety, and the result is Luna’s stiffest record ever.
To make matters worse, bandleader Dean Wareham, who’s been running on the Velvet Underground’s fumes since he fronted Galaxie 500 in the late 80s, seems to have sputtered into a writer’s block. The sleek polish of the band’s last (and best-selling) album, Penthouse, glints on songs like “Beautiful View” and “Tracy I Love You,” but all too often the best Wareham can muster is wooden two-chord drones and disappointingly workmanlike melodies. Lyrics like “Is there a doctor in the house? / In the House of Pancakes? / You’ve got a banana split / Personality,” from “IHOP,” further suggest that he’s really reaching for inspiration. Still, the band operates like a well-oiled machine even on the weakest tunes, and while this record’s not likely to expand Luna’s audience like the last one, it probably won’t cost the band any fans either.
The Isley Brothers have passed through a range of incarnations–from doo-woppers to slow-jam prototypes–since their formation back in the early 50s. A recent reissue of four pivotal albums from the late 60s and early 70s documents one of their most fascinating and influential transmogrifications: from a funky, hardscrabble R & B band into the silky psychedelic soulsters who would strike platinum with the single “That Lady (Part 1)” in 1973. The uneven Get Into Something and The Brothers: Isley, both released in 1969, back Ronald Isley’s sublime croon with lean, powerful grooves. But by the time Givin’ It Back, a covers collection on which they interpreted the likes of Stephen Stills and Bob Dylan, and Brother, Brother, Brother dropped (in 1971 and ’72), the group’s sound leaned heavily on Ernie Isley’s fuzzed-out yet sophisticated guitar jams, which curled like smoke around Ronald’s creamy voice. Besides capturing that key stylistic shift, the two later albums still just plain sound great.
The Stanley Brothers were one of the most important bluegrass bands ever to walk the earth, and now John Fahey’s Revenant label has reissued the duo’s hard-to-find first recordings, made for the tiny Rich-R-Tone label circa 1947 and ’48. Although the Stanleys’ work for Columbia and Mercury still stands as their finest, this CD offers a thrilling glimpse of their formative years.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Teenage Fanclub photo by Tom Sheehan/ Luna album cover.