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A few years back, Teenage Fanclub was the closest we had to a Big Star for the grunge era: a guitar-pop band with an instinct for huge hooks and a penchant for ultrasweet harmonies that also got pretty busy with the fuzz box. Because Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. were the competition, the Fannies added alt-rock crunch to their songs’ lilting melodies whenever possible—which was most of the time. And the Glaswegian group’s name, just like Big Star’s, was a stroke of genius: “Teenage Fanclub” conjures the innocence of pop music’s Tiger Beat past with an oh-so-postmodern knowingness that puts the whole concept inside quotation marks. “The Concept,” in fact, is the first track on the group’s terrific second album, the still-amazing Bandwagonesque, which famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) outranked Nirvana’s Nevermind in Spin’s 1991 best-of list. “She wears denim wherever she goes,” guitarist Norman Blake sings on that stand-out cut. “Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo/Oh yeah.”
Oh yeah. The band has never hit those Olympian heights again—Bandwagonesque’s highly anticipated follow-up, 1993’s Thirteen, becomes an unmitigated disaster three tracks in—but since the Fannies have continued to ply their power-pop trade with often impressive results and always obsessive dedication. Sure, the group’s post-Bandwagonesque LPs have mostly been hit-or-miss affairs essential for die-hard fans only, but for more than a decade, the Fannies’ unwavering commitment to a sound they clearly love—not to mention their one-album-every-two-years work ethic—has been downright admirable.
Howdy!, the group’s latest long-player, is pretty respectable, too—even if the once-mighty Fanclub had to wait more than a year before seeing it issued in the States. But with their hot-property days long behind them, the Fannies have been free to focus on what they do best. Which means that Howdy! is loaded with the kind of top-shelf Byrdsian pop-rock the group has been cultivating like a fetish ever since turning the volume down from 11 for Thirteen. Singer-bassist Gerard Love’s album-opening “I Need Direction” is a case in point: a lovelorn pocket opus that features some beautiful “bah-bah-bah” backing vocals that alternately channel the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys, and the Association, as well as a verse that the Fannies’ beloved Gene Clark would have been glad to claim as his own. Elsewhere, “Cul de Sac” borrows the main riff from the Bacharach/David standard “Walk On By”—though, naturally, the band mutates it for its own skewed take on easy-listening bliss. As ever, the Fannies try to have it both ways: The track is lovely and twisted, edgy and sweet. And it’s a testament to Teenage Fanclub’s pop smarts and songwriting prowess that the band has pulled it off so consistently for so long without ever making it seem contrived.
At least not much. Occasionally on Howdy!, the group comes on like a Paisley Underground-style retro act, rekindling the melodic psychedelic pop of the Rain Parade’s debut LP or, as the Fannies would likely prefer, the Beatles’ Revolver—to mixed effect. “Accidental Life” is eminently listenable in that vein, gently mesmerizing and nearly swoon-worthy. But the track is also so thoroughly retrograde that it’s hard to give the group the metapop benefit of the doubt that separates its best work from that of fellow travelers such as Matthew Sweet and Velvet Crush. And the quietly chiming folk-pop of the album-closer, “If I Never See You Again,” is winsome enough, I guess, but it would sure sound a million times better if at least one of the group’s guitarists had gotten his Marshall stack out of hock and plugged back in.
That’s another thing about Howdy!: It’s a very delicate album. The band occasionally sounds on the verge of collapse—or as if it’s just waking up after a long and particularly tuneful nap. The string-swept “The Sun Shines From You” is pushed along by a wiry acoustic-guitar riff, but the soft-spoken vocals barely rise above whisper level. That’s also true of the otherwise excitable, horn-driven “The Town and the City.” And the languid “Happiness” is so wistful that it nearly evaporates on contact with the world outside your speakers. Though some records are actually held together by their fragility, Howdy! isn’t one of them.
But even in its quietest moments, the album offers plenty of aural pleasures. Blake, Love, and guitarist-vocalist and fellow songwriter Raymond McGinley practically have graduate degrees in hook-writing and three-part harmonizing at this point, and even on a low-key effort like Howdy!, they can’t resist rubbing your nose in their credentials. “I Can’t Find My Way Home” features gently strummed acoustic guitars, a casually shuffling beat, and a melody that recalls CSN&Y—but mostly Y. “Near You” is even better, an updated take on the group’s earlier “Star Sign” that’s awash in flange effects, horns, and, at long last, a low-in-the-mix layer of blissfully distorted guitar. And though “My Uptight Life” is about as pensive and R.E.M-like as you’d imagine a song with that title would be, the spaced-out splash of organ that’s laced through the track adds a dose of levity that Stipe & Co. could never be accused of at this late date.
Blake’s “Dumb Dumb Dumb” is obviously the disc’s best number, however. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the most raucous, a deconstruction of Badfinger’s romantic guitar-pop wherein Teenage Fanclub threads one of its patented sweet ‘n’ sad melodies through a chunka-chunka chord progression that pans back and forth obnoxiously while Blake seems to acknowledge his band’s dismal career trajectory: “Had a name but now that’s gone/I don’t know where I went wrong.” Needless to say, it’s hours of melancholy fun. Or at least 3 minutes 19 seconds of it. More like that, please.
But less like Words of Wisdom and Hope, the Fanclub’s spotty collaboration with Indie-Rock Hall of Famer Jad Fair. Fair is the once (and future?) leader of Half Japanese, the so-clever-it’s-stupid outfit composed of Fair, his brother, and whoever else could be talked into it that came together in that hotbed of the musical avant-garde: suburban Maryland. On its best record, Half Japanese declared in the title that it was The Band That Would Be King. That, of course, hasn’t quite worked out, but like the Fannies, Fair has kept at it anyway, usually making his most impressive music with admiring collaborators such as Yo La Tengo and the equally wacky Daniel Johnston.
Now it’s Teenage Fanclub’s turn. Fair’s usual strategy is to mix two parts can’t-play-guitar with one part also-can’t-sing to charming DIY effect—a recipe for success whenever his songs hold up and the lovesick lyrics aren’t completely inane. This time out, Fair & Co. get it half right, with Teenage Fanclub more than living up to its end of the bargain, writing all the music and playing with a tuneful restraint that’ll be surprising if you don’t hear Howdy! first.
“I Feel Fine” channels Burt Bacharach again, with precise stereo separation making the most of the ringing acoustic guitars and pretty backing harmonies. “You Rock” features soulfully tremoloed electric piano and a hypnotic, slow-motion rhythm. But album-opener “Behold the Miracle” is the disc’s hottest shot, a simmering, organ-powered rocker that recalls the Velvets’ “What Goes On,” albeit with a pretty goofy frontman singing lead. Here and there, the Pastels’ Katrina Mitchell checks in to sweeten Fair’s vocal delivery, and, mercifully, the band relieves him of guitar-“playing” duties throughout.
Too bad, then, that the words and melodies sound made up on the spot by an inveterate free-associator—or maybe just by someone who left his overstuffed notebook of good love poems at home. Peruse this one from the otherwise remarkably Fanclubian “Crush on You”: “I’m not usually one to boast/But I think you’re the most/Santa Claus on wheat toast/He couldn’t be no better.” Elsewhere, an even more childlike fascination with Frankenstein crops up, with Fair consistently misidentifying him—along with the rest of humanity—as the monster. For the love of God: Frankenstein is the student, Victor, who brought the monster to life and who, once and for all, is not a doctor. Herr Frankenstein never completed his degree, the slacker.
But, like Fair, I digress. Suffice to say that Words of Wisdom and Hope registers as a fair-to-middling performance-art disc by one logorrheic oddball and one fine Scottish backing band. Skip this one and make a date with Howdy! instead. CP