Monday, March 29, 2004

The Scotch

A friend of mine with a misanthropic sense of humour has recently taken to transferring the comic vitriol usually directed against Jews and homosexuals to the Scots. I don't think he really hates 'the Scotch', any more than he hates Jews or gays (hey, he even has some very close Jewish friends), it's just easy to use them as targets for his hyperactive wit. Aside from the fact that they seem to be able to decide government policy in England whilst apparently leaving us very little power to influence anything on their side of the border, I would rather not be so bold as to attack Scots or their fine land. In fact, having just returned from north of the border, I can say I've been very much refreshed by my weekend break - some coastal fresh air and sunshine is always welcome. In fact, I'm refreshed enough to write about Scotland's best export.....

No, not Scotch whisky, but Teenage Fanclub of course. Anyone who knows me will no doubt attest that they are one of my favourite bands. Why? Not because of their musicality - they are more than adequate players, but not particularly audacious or inventive. It's because of their sublime songwriting - which is as honest, affecting and touching as anything I've heard. They are a band I hope never try to reinvent themselves - they don't need beats or samples to make their music sound fresh. Instead, it's a chiming, timeless sound, strongly influenced by great American pop music - The Byrds and Big Star particularly. Their critics find them too close to Big Star's sound for comfort - but they miss the fact that, initially at least, they found favour in America with the same community that lauded Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Their critics are also blind to the subtle evolution in their sound - from the melodic but grungey sound of 'Bandwagonesque' and 'Thirteen', through to the full harmony and country-tinged melancholy of 'Grand Prix' and 'Songs From Northern Britain'.

Like the Beatles, they are blessed not just with one or two great songwriters, but three. Norman Blake has been the most consistently and dependably marvellous, from early classics like 'God Knows It's True' and 'The Concept', to the quietly ambitious 'Did I Say', a beautiful new tune recorded for their recent greatest hits collection. He has always been able to capture straightforward emotional truths with a sincerity that always seems natural, never earnest. A simple declaration of love in a Norman Blake song never sounds trite or sentimental, just joyous and life affirming. 'I Don't Want Control Of You' is arguably his most direct and most successful song, with a glorious melody and crystalline production that not even an unnecessary cheesy key change can ruin. Gerry Love has been more unpredictable - occasionally edgy, otherwise direct, he often reaches similar results to Blake through a more roundabout process. His advice for us to 'Take The Long Way Round' is worth heeding, 'Going Places' has a delightfully catchy arrangement and 'Sparky's Dream' was a rare and much-deserved chart hit. Raymond McGinley has tended to be more obtuse. enigmatic, even occasionally more aggressive. He has taken longer to really impress as a songwriter. On 'Grand Prix' he produced two gems, the strident opener 'About You' and the slightly bitter 'Verisimilitude'. His best song is, unsurprisingly, his least convoluted and most shamelessly direct, 'Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From'. I simply adore this song - from the delicate vocal harmonies that only come in during the second voice, to its subtle modification of traditional pop song structure, even its comedy golckenspiel part is heartwarming, and is always visually exaggerated during gigs. His contribution to the greatest hits package -'The World'll be OK' is also brilliant - a slow-burner for sure, McGinley's songs always seem slightly more intellectual and deliberate, but it features some genuinely excellent guitar playing and a touching lyric.

I love this band because they are reliable. When you go to a TFC gig, you know what you will get - there will be no confrontational shunning of popular songs, there will be spirited performances, exhuberant guitar solos that buzz with energy rather than ego or virtuosity, even some amusing onstage banter. There will be no visuals or performance art. Just the songs, which surely speak for themselves. It's criminal that these songs have always been so undervalued and under-promoted. 'Grand Prix' looked like it might join the Britpop bandwagon - and it was so much more worthy of gold or platinum status than Menswear, or even Supergrass and Oasis. Event though it sold respectably, there were no number ones. Nevertheless, they soldier on, despite lack of record label support, and are currently making a new album. I simply can't wait.

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