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‘m a rock ‘n’ roll star,” proclaims Liam Gallagher in the opening song of Oasis’ debut album, Definitely Maybe, and it’s no small accomplishment that he’s correct—at least in the U.K., where the disc has been widely hailed as the best of its genre since the Stone Roses’ five years ago. Britain produces a seemingly inexhaustible succession of next big things, but few of them manage the sweep and assurance of Oasis. This may not be a great band, but it’s certainly not a small one.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” is actually a curious boast for a band from Britain, which specializes in an exquisite diversity of subgenres. U.K. popsters regularly reinvent the wail, but they usually come up with cagier tags for their music than “rock ‘n’ roll.” The London music press has awkwardly dubbed the latest crop of young guitar-slinging groups “the new wave of new wave,” so perhaps English label-making acumen is in decline. Then again, “rock ‘n’ roll” seems an aptly retro designation for a band like this: All-white, all-male, (presumably) all-straight, and with the customary complement of Irish names, this Manchester quintet is as traditional in lineup as in sound.
Noel Gallagher, who writes all the songs his younger brother, Liam, sings, was inspired to guitar heroism by watching Johnny Marr, and later served as an Inspiral Carpets roadie. There’s plenty of the Smiths, Carpets, and Roses—and even a bit of the Happy Mondays—in Maybe, but this isn’t just the latest coming of the post-punk Manchester sound. As high-flying anthems like “Live Forever” and “Up in the Sky” indicate, Oasis won’t settle for regionalism. The Gallagher brothers’ much-publicized feuds have already typed them as the Ray and Dave Davies of the ’90s, and the pages of grainy candids in the CD booklet carefully evoke the programs the Beatles sold on their U.S. tours. So confident is Oasis of its universal appeal that “Shakermaker,” the band’s second British hit, comes dangerously close to the melody of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
Unlike, say, the late lamented La’s, Oasis doesn’t actually emulate Merseybeat production values. Maybe is lushly multitracked in the contemporary mode, and features neopsychedelic flourishes typical of recent British guitar bands. The “Supersonic” sound is so gigantic, in fact, that it can comfortably consume the chunky T. Rex shuffle of “Cigarettes and Alcohol,” the music-hall bounciness of “Digsy’s Diner,” and the soul-boy falsetto of “Live Forever.” The only track that’s unconvincing—sonically, at least—is “Married With Children,” which lets down the band’s multiguitar guard in an attempt at album-closing vulnerability.
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Vulnerability is not Oasis’ strength. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” is about becoming somebody through force of will—“In my mind/My dreams are real,” sings Liam—and most of these swaggering songs mean to speak for the young and the jobless: “You’re the underclass/But you don’t care/’Cause you’re living fast,” announces “Bring It On Down.” The Gallaghers have insisted not only that they are “lads”—Britspeak for regular guys—but that members of other leading U.K. bands (Blur and Suede, for example) are not.
That may be true, and Oasis’ identification with its audience can be vivid: “Maybe you’re the same as me/We see things they’ll never see/You and I, we’re gonna live forever” is a stirring declaration of love for the band’s listeners. So far, though, the quintet’s laddishness is also a drawback; Maybe lacks the distinctive sensibility that made the Smiths the most profound of those Manchester bands that inspired Oasis. Dense, swelling rockers like “Supersonic” and “Columbia” make something fresh of things we’ve heard before, but they don’t see things “they” have never seen.
Just about as soaring as Maybe, if not so laddish, is Echobelly’s Everyone’s Got One (EGO for short), the debut of another class-of-’94 U.K. guitar band. Perhaps it’s insignificant that EGO is being released stateside by Relativity, an “independent” subsidiary of the same corporation (Sony) that brings us Oasis, but Echobelly is demographically a less mainstream product. “A woman’s group is still a second-hand convention,” sings Sonya Aurora Madan, frontwoman for a band that sidesteps British rock’s Anglo-Celtic norms. One of the increasing number of “Asians” in U.K. pop, the Indian-born Madan leads a group whose guitarists are Swede Glenn Johansson and Afro-Briton Debbie Smith, the latter a veteran of Curve.
“Bellyache,” Echobelly’s first British single, recalls Curve’s combination of big beats and floating, multitracked vocals. The EGO song mixed by Curve post-production ace Alan Moulder, however, is “I Can’t Imagine the World Without Me,” a pretty pop-rocker with a “Penny Lane” trumpet part, and the band has a stylistic reach almost as expansive as the vocal range Madan demonstrates on such tracks as “Insomniac” and “Today Tomorrow Sometime Never.” The album’s closing rave-up, “Scream,” starts out sounding like a Smiths ballad, “Can’t Imagine” features early-Television telegraphic guitar fills, and the sugary tunefulness of songs like “Call Me Names” has provoked Blondie comparisons.
This eclecticism makes EGO a less cohesive album than Maybe, and the songwriting is a bit less consistent as well. Echobelly could prove a more interesting band than Oasis, though, if Madan can balance her social conscience with her impatience at being appointed a spokesperson for multiculti Britain by music journalists. Female assertiveness is still more provocative than its male equivalent, so the anti-marriage vows of “Father Ruler King Computer”—“I am whole all by myself/I don’t need nobody else”—are more exhilarating than Oasis’ claims on stardom and eternal life. And Madan’s Indian background makes the fury of “Give Her a Gun” seem more than abstract posturing: “Let her anger curse the years of oppression/Blame the mother, sell the sister/Before she blows you away.”
Madan sings those lines sweetly, and her pretty voice and EGO‘s inventory of broken-heart songs suggests that Echobelly could easily make a career of pleasantries. But there’s a moment on “Father Ruler King Computer,” as Madan modulates from lilt to shriek for the line “don’t anybody try to stop me,” when her voice kicks as hard as Andy Henderson’s drums. More outbursts as emphatic as that and Echobelly could blow mere catchiness away.
Oasis performs Wednesday at the 9:30 Club.