Review Summary: A catchy, hit stewn guitar-pop album from the Britpop era.
Shed Seven were one of the leaders of the secondary Britpop brigade, which featured the likes of Suede, Gene, Echobelly, Geneva, Dubstar... Pretty much any of the Britpop bands that took The Smiths as their main influence. That said, Shed Seven was always notable among that group of bands for fusing their Morrissey driven influence with the more popular, 'Laddish' culture promoted by genre leaders like Oasis and Blur.
'A Maximum High', Shed Seven's 1996 sophomore LP, showed the band at the peak of it's popularity. Most of the band's biggest hits reside here, such as 'Going For Gold', 'On Standy', 'Bully Boy' and 'Getting Better'. But more than just being a singles album, 'A Maximum High' also ranks as Shed Seven's best overall record.
The album's sound is a very basic but satisfying one, combining The Smiths' jangle pop with scuzzy guitar and sing-along choruses. Except it's more than that. You see, the guitarist of Shed Seven (Paul Banks) is an absolute genius. Seriously.... The man has so much melodic talent that pretty much every note he plays on this album is awesome. So much so, in fact, that any faults that this album suffers from can all be attributed to Rick Witter, the band's frontman.
That's a harsh statement, but the fact is that the only two weak tracks on the entire LP both stem from Witter-related problems. The lovely mid-album acoustic country strum of 'Out By My Side', for example, is pretty much murdered by Witter's out-of-key vocal line, which sounds like he's going through puberty. The other mis-step is the epic seven minute closing track 'Parellel lines', which sees Witter mercifuly drowned out with explosive distortion, but only after an agonizing build-up which puts the vocals into sharp focus over quiet, clean guitars. Witter's lyrics on on the latter track also factors in it's downfall with the likes of "I could fax you at work / Pick you up in my merc / Dig deep in your dirt / It's the in thing to do" being particularly cringe worthy... And that's such a shame, because the epic backing composition by Banks is flat out brilliant.
But elsewhere, Rick Witter is on top form, producing a set of excellent lyrics ("We went to the early learning centre / With the money that I lent you / It's the price of an education") and catchy vocal lines. The best cuts are, of course, the singles with the towering ballad 'On Standby' being perhaps the best Shed Seven song ever recorded, with it's aching chorus of "It's like I've never been born / We concede in the allyways" feeding off an impassioned vocal performance that quickly pushes the singers flaws into the background.
'Where Have You Been Tonight"' and 'Getting Better' are the pogo-pop classics of the bunch, with punchy distortion and strident anthemnics lending the tracks a growling, psudo-punk presence. The jangle pop angle is also well covered by the remaining two singles; the trumpet emblazoned hit 'Going For Gold' and the distinctly Smiths-esque 'Bully Boy', with it's rousing refrain of "I'll fight you to the death!" making for a wonderful sing-along moment. Other album tracks also keep the quality high, with the Stone Roses aping 'Lies' retaining the epic catchy feel of the singles. Electro-acoustic pop ditty 'Ladyman', meanwhile, goes wholeheartedly into The Smiths territory ("I'm a lady / I'm a man / Doing the best that I can") with it's trans-gender lyric sounding very much like it was penned by Morrissey, even including the line "I'll die for my pride / My bones are burried alive"... But despite it's blatant theft, it's yet another fantastic track.
The remainder of the songs are also good, with 'This Day Was Ours' having enough glitter guitar pomp and interesting lyricism ("I'm in the dark all the time / Of that I must be king") to make for an energetic addition, whilst 'Falling From The Sky' has a great swaggering riff that catches the ear and doesn't easily let go... But the best of the album-only bunch is 'Magic Streets', with it's excellent stuttering indie guitar framing a fantastic lyrical ode to the seedier sides of northern England, taking a tounge-in-cheek snapshot of a town overrun by dirty drug abuse, trannies and nefarious men in 'anaraks'. Lord knows why it wasn't a single... Perhaps a little controversial for the time"
In the end, 'A Maximum High' is almost a classic, but is restrained by a couple of tracks that let the side down (Witter!) and a general sense of musical theft... Still, if you're looking for an ultra catchy pop record filled with tons of obvious hits and some rather delightful ties to The Smiths, then you won't find a better britpop record than this one.