Review Summary: Blissful power pop from Scotland's finest melodicists.
It's now considered one of the greatest follies in the history of rock criticism. In late 1991, when faced with the task of compiling their compulsory list of the year's best albums, Spin magazine decided to bestow the title of 1991's best album upon Bandwagonesque
, the second full-length by Scottish power-pop revivalists, Teenage Fanclub. Perhaps that doesn't look much when stated in such simple terms, but consider the competition - Nirvana's epochal Nevermind
, My Bloody Valentine's heavenly Loveless
, Talk Talk's wildly influential Laughing Stock
, Slint's similarly important Spiderland
, Pearl Jam's mega-selling Ten
, Metallica's even-more-mega-selling Metallica (The Black Album)
, U2's career-defining Achtung Baby
, R.E.M.'s breakthrough Out of Time
, Red Hot Chili Peppers' career-defining-breakthrough BloodSugarSexMagik
, Massive Attack's revered Blue Lines
, Primal Scream's dance-rock touchstone Screamadelica
, A Tribe Called Quest's masterpiece The Low End Theory
, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera....
In addition to the competition, what makes this decision seem so odd now is just how out of time (excuse the pun) Bandwagonesque
was. 1991 is now remembered as the year of grunge; the year that alternative rock broke the mainstream. All around them were bands who took their influences from the likes of Black Flag, Black Sabbath, The Velvet Underground, or from jazz or ambient music (in the instances of Talk Talk and Slint). Either that, or they were dallying in ecstasy or marijuana, documenting the dance scene that had been built around Britain's drug culture. Hip-hop was still in full swing, having come of age spectacularly in the late '80s. Shoegaze was still around, if ebbing; post-rock was just crawling out of the womb. The names 'Sub Pop' and 'Rough Trade' still inspired fresh awe. It was a time when being cool was crucial. Even the terminally un-hip U2 were effectively trying to recreate David Bowie's coolest albums by debunking to Berlin with Brian Eno. This is what we're told to remember about 1991, and the years immediately following. And yet here were Teenage Fanclub - a band so shameless in their adoration of classic power pop that they blatantly referenced Big Star by naming the follow up to this Thirteen
. Their music was all jangly guitars, three-part harmonies, and joyous melodies, with not even a hint of extraneous guitar noise or dance beats - good old fashioned songcraft was the order of the day. It was more Badfinger than Badmotorfinger
, and nothing around them sounded like they did. If they deserved to be crowned as 1991's greatest band, that's the reason.
And yet, here's the REAL folly behind all this - by 1995, Teenage Fanclub had basically fallen off the radar entirely. Grunge had gone supernova and taken over, and there didn't seem to be any room for classic, well-written, feel-good pop songs. Grand Prix
was a commercial non-entity, and the reception to it effectively sured that Teenage Fanclub would become a cult concern for the rest of their days, destined to only be noticed by the hardcore fans they'd earned by being so damn good at what they do. Had Grand Prix
been released in 1965, 1975, or 2005, people would have swooned over it, and yes, it probably would have made many end-of-year Top 50 lists. But in 1995, nobody cared that one of the most perfect pop albums of all time was right under their noses. Now that's REALLY stupid.
is where Teenage Fanclub perfected everything that originally caused people to pay them any attention. The harmonies, the happy jangle, the sunny disposition were all in place, all delivered with more confidence than on any Fannies albums before or since, and the songwriting is frankly stunning. They'd also perfected the art of referencing their influences liberally without sounding like copycats, or even sounding dated. These songs still sound fresh, 12 years later.
Crucially, too, all three of the band's songwriters were firing on all cylinders. Previously, Norman Blake had been accused of stealing the show, pushing Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love into the background. Not this time around. In fact, although the first three tracks are all excellent, it's Blake who suffers from the comparison - while his "Mellow Doubt" is a lovely stripped-back number that many bands would kill for, it's not quite as good as McGinley's "About You" - just its opening line, sung by all three of the band's songwriters, is as catchy as the common cold. I've been singing this song for days. And yet, "Sparky's Dream" is even better than that - its bluesy slide guitar intro giving way to one of the best pop-rock songs ever written. Gerard Love contributed that, and you'd have no trouble claiming that it's actually he who steals the show here were it not for "Discolite", the only true song here which doesn't quite maintain the high standards set elsewhere. It's a stunning opening trifecta, and it shows just what a unit this band had become by this point - consider it in these terms, the terms of three furiously talented songwriters operating as a near-democracy and churning out an album that's shockingly consistent as a result, and it becomes the power-pop Revolver
What follows those three tracks is just as good. As a matter of fact, the quality only slides on two of the album's 13 tracks, one of which is a throwaway experiment called "Hardcore/Ballad", which closes the album (and even that isn't bad, per se - just a little underwhelming). But by that point you basically don't care, because each one of the other 11 tracks is a sun-drenched pearl. Even the song titles are great - who else could write a song called "Versimilitude" and follow it with "Neil Jung", probably one of the best puns in pop history" That track stands as another album highlight - a gently soaring song with dark undertones that suggest it could be about rape, statutory or otherwise. You never know. Blake's remaining two contributions, in the form of the bouncy "Tears" and the Beatles-esque "I'll Make It Clear", offer more standouts.
The real jewel in this album's crown, though, belongs to Love, with "Going Places". This song is the very essence of a lazy summer committed to record; the melody is as lackadaisical as they come. And yet, while it's a great song at heart, what really elevates it above the rest of the album is the guitar arrangement, which constitutes a masterclass. The first verse brings together two guitar parts that actually sound more like four, without sounding at all crowded; quite the opposite, in fact. A mandolin then gets thrown in, before the second verse strips things back to one scattershot electric guitar. The third chorus is announced a bar early by a distorted electric guitar coming in early - one of the oldest moves in the rock book, it sounds like it was invented just for this song. It's a song full of nuance, and one stuffed with ideas that would be almost unbearably cliche in lesser hands. But, for that, it sums up Teenage Fanclub's greatest strength - the knack of taking something old and tired, and making it new and exciting.
True, some people were listening when Grand Prix
was released - fellow countrymen Belle & Sebastian, Travis, and The View were all heavily inspired by this record, as were The Magic Numbers, Death Cab For Cutie, and Camera Obscura. I'd wager that Elliott Smith, another famous Big Star fan, owned a copy too - several of his vocal melodies resemble those found here. Yet, nowhere near enough people heard this record then, and nowhere near enough are hearing it now. Even now, in a time when music has expanded beyond all reasonable expectation to include all manner of styles and sounds, there just aren't enough albums like this. It's a pop album, and nothing more, but it's absolutely everything pop should be - fun, affecting, and intelligent without being preachy or smug. To return to the story of Bandwagonesque
- this album deserves to be seen atop several 'Best of 1995' lists, because it stands up to any album released that year, including one by this little band called Radiohead. If you're a fan of songs (and who isn't"), I can't recommend this highly enough.