Norman Blake has always been the most overtly clever of Teenage Fanclub’s three songwriters. Most everything the Scottish indie-pop band does is pretty sharp, but it’s Blake who has penned such memorable titles as “Alcoholiday” and “Neil Jung”, and backed them with good tunes, too. So it was a bit exciting to learn about Jonny, the band. Jonny is Blake’s collaboration with Euros Childs, ex-front man of the long-running, now-defunct Welsh psych-rock outfit Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Teenage Fanclub’s last few albums have largely abandoned the band’s playful, tongue-in-cheek side, so Jonny sounded like an opportunity for Blake to cut loose a bit. At the very least, it promised an intriguing and possibly dynamic mixture of two distinct musical personalities.
To an extent, Jonny does reveal a looser, more carefree Blake. You don’t have to look past the opening track, “Wich is Wich”, and its refrain of “Which witch is which?”. Musically, it’s a prancing tribute to early Roxy Music, complete with analog synth solo. Lyrically, homophones have never been so much fun. The album’s best track, “Waiting Round For You”, is a fun, blues-based rocker that recalls Wilco via Rubber Soul-era Beatles. The Queen-like cabaret number “Bread” is about, well, bread. Blake and Childs have never been shy about flaunting their influences. Really, that’s the overall impression you get from Jonny—the two men going through each others’ record collections, figuring out what they have in common and introducing each other to new stuff.
At least as far as the resulting album is concerned, Blake is clearly the director of proceedings. When you consider Blake is 10 years Childs’ senior and the two met when Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci opened for Teenage Fanclub, this arrangement makes sense. Also, Jonny’s rhythm section is made up Teenage Fanclub associates Dave McGowan and Stuart Kidd, who, like Blake, played in the Scottish band BMX Bandits. Put all this together, and you have more of Blake’s trademark song-craft and harmonies than you do Childs’ more far-out eccentricities. Only on “English Lady”, a mellow, waltz-time number, and highlight “Candyfloss”, with a psychedelic, swirling-organ verse leading to the rich, slightly melancholy chorus, do the two styles really coalesce. The truly Childs-stamped compositions are limited to the aforementioned “Bread”, the wonderfully demented acid rock “Goldmine”, and “Cave Dance”. The latter song overreaches for silliness and winds up sounding like kids band the Wiggles taking a piss during sound check.
That leaves several tracks that really could have come from the last couple Teenage Fanclub albums, though they would have been the poppiest songs on them. Where you stand on those albums, and the extent of your preference for Childs, will probably determine your ultimate feelings about Jonny. Mostly mid-tempo, easy-flowing numbers like “You Was Me”, “Circling the Sun”, or country-western flavored “I’ll Make Her My Best Friend” are really quite good. They’re well-crafted, pleasant and enjoyable. Blake’s style and harmonies are so distinct here, though, that the efforts seem less than collaborative. If Jonny has a disappointing side, it’s in this relative lack of dynamics. It could just be that Blake is getting older and is simply too mature to pretend, but the sound could have done with a good layer of dirt.
You could argue, though, that Blake’s relative conservatism actually keeps Jonny sounding like a good, proper album rather than a throwaway self-indulgence. With most of the 13 songs clocking in under three minutes, Blake and Childs don’t want to give you time to over-think things. And that’s good, because overall, Jonny finds that fine like between whimsy and substance, and walks it pretty well. Neil Jung, wherever he is, would probably approve.
// Notes from the Road
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