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For being pretty big rock stars the world over, the guys in Supergrass are merely successful in the United States at rising above the other guitar-pop bands with cool hair and questionable beards. Which is too bad, because they’re just as capable of making glamorously shiny yet emotionally vacant guitar pop as the next band of the (commercial free!) modern-rock radio hour. No matter how much tired pothead crap they pull in interviews, these fellas aren’t stupid; they know what sells.
From the opening notes of “Moving,” the first track on the self-titled new release, you can tell that a Radiohead-type trip is about to take place. And the second that frontman Gaz Coombes opens his spit faucet to sing, you wonder if that call on hold is from Thom Yorke’s solicitor asking when he should expect the check. Listening to Coombes’ voice gratuitously fill the space established by the band’s crack production team, you gotta wonder whether Radiohead’s success might end up leaving a sour aftertaste several years later.
Because the boys do have some skills, the song moves in a better direction once it’s given a little disco groove, some strummed guitars, and rich effects. A perfectly conceived and executed pop song surely results from these efforts; alas, it’s perfect in the same manner as a new hot young sitcom star on the WB—superficially attractive, but completely lacking the ambiguous qualities that make you want to fuck.
What you find are a lot of affecting moments on failed songs. It’s a shame, for instance, that the hot little guitar riff on “Your Love” gets lost so quickly in the edgeless production. Drowning those few notes in the polish is a subtle mistake, but a band so skilled at producing slick pop vamps should put more effort into adding a little rawness. Or, at least, it shouldn’t actively try to remove the raw stuff from the mix, because it was so close to pulling off something interesting.
When the band manages to make a song work, it’s usually because it’s lifted the material; but often, the musical larceny here is misdirected. Stealing arrangements or other little nuances is fine, or even necessary, in as self-referential a medium as pop music. But when you nick from Radiohead on two out of the first three tracks of your new record, you reap the scorn of critics. And that’s just what Coombes has done by the end of “What Went Wrong (In Your Head),” when the track winds down and the verses have all been sung; our singer doesn’t really know what to do with the remaining space. So he caterwauls in that dippy melodramatic style that even Yorke can barely pull off.
Where were the crack producers? After all, they get paid to warn rock stars about bad ideas. After witnessing this bad soul-man performance, the producer should have taken Coombes aside, said something along the lines of: “Wow, Gaz. Hmmm. That sounds fabulous. What I want to do is try an alternative take with you just sticking to the script. You know, for the remix?” and then erased the bloody first try and moved on.
In a development rarely seen in rock bands, the bassist temporarily pushes these complaints aside one track later. On “Beautiful People,” Mick Quinn’s sneering nasal voice is perfect for the piano-driven blues hoedown, which gets even better when the guitars bloom into a distorted mess. It’s the proper mix of punk attitude and glam drama for this outfit.
With a notably funky start, “Mary” makes a case for Supergrass as a good club band, because it keeps the beat intact when the guitars kick up and the organ starts tracking the action. The whole thing is delightfully Beckish, except for Coombes and some of his unfortunate vocal habits. Like rhyming the last word of each line with that of the next. It might not read as bad as it sounds, but he rhymes some of the following: “Mary,” “ordinary,” “masonry”; “doubt,” “out”; “dream,” “scene,” “scream”; and so on.
Another secret to proper plagiarism involves the source of the theft. Supergrass has heard enough cool action from others to maximize its own talent. It’s clear from the delightful U.K. hit “Pumping on Your Stereo,” that Supergrass is at its best with Bowie-like rockers. Stealing from David Bowie is about as immoral as getting away with tax evasion, ’cause he’d do it to you in a minute. And he really might in this case, because “Pumping,” with its sophomoric yet clever switch between “pumping” and “humping,” makes a perfect glam showcase. If only there were more like it on the record.
Quinn loses the punk-rock sneer of “Beautiful People” on “Mama & Papa,” replacing it with a slightly tender ballad that’s unsatisfying and unfinished. But he turns in a performance that’s better than his voice should allow: Quinn shows an emotional spectrum that bests Coombes’ clearly superior vocal range, because Quinn sounds more sincere.
Sincerity doesn’t always make rock better; the best tracks sung by Coombes never sound truly emotional or revealing. But the artifice and self-indulgence that mark the worst songs on the record need to meld seamlessly with the best moments stolen from others. If you’re going to posture, then the songs had better be perfect. CP