I first happened upon the Courteeners back in 2008 thanks to a tip from the incomparable Steven Patrick Morrissey, which was really all I needed at the time to become interested in them. When Morrissey tells me to do something, whether it is listening to a new band or jumping off a bridge, I typically just do what he says and don’t ask too many questions. I draw the line at vegetarianism however, not even Morrissey can make me forego pork belly and Icelandic lobster. But with Courteeners debut record St. Jude it was a win-win. I got to slavishly follow the advice of my hero, and discover an excellent band’s music at the same time.
St. Jude offered compelling, catchy, intimate track after compelling, catchy, intimate track, and it was one of the most addictive and rewarding rock records of that year. Since that time the Courteeners have done pretty well for themselves, particularly in their native England. They have played some big shows, released some more music, and even managed to court the US mainstream at 2009’s Coachella. To date their popularity continues to be mainly focused in the UK, and they have been mostly unable to challenge the rampant popularity and mind-bending musical genius of folks like Chris Brown and the Killers in the good old USA.
But with their third record Anna, the Courteeners might be making a bid for some no-kidding-around international stardom. Anna is every bit as infectious as their impressive debut, but it is bigger, glossier, and clearly intended to be played in massive, sold out stadiums in places like Shanghai or Atlanta. You know a band is really on to something when you spontaneously find yourself singing along to the chorus of the opening track the very first time you listen to it by the track’s end. I don’t mind telling you folks: Opening track “Are You in Love With a Notion?” is a groovy, ass-shaking, clap-along, dilly of a song. As a reviewer, my main challenge with Anna was not getting stuck on “Are You in Love With a Notion?” and listening to it on repeat without ever getting around to listening to the rest of the album.
Luckily, Anna has plenty of other equally delightful tracks to obsess over; my current favorites are “Are You in Love With a Notion?”, “When You Want Something You Can’t Have”, and “The Sharks Are Circling”, but that could change at any time because just about every single song on Anna is worthy of your attention. Vocalist/guitarist Liam James Fray has a soaring, excellent voice, but more importantly his voice is very distinctive, and his lyrics have a confessional quality about them. Indeed, it is to the Courteeners’ credit that, in spite of the fact that the production on Anna is far more polished and less stripped down than St. June, it retains the intimacy that was one of their debut’s best attributes.
The Courteeners are not reinventing the wheel here. Stylistically, there’s nothing on Anna that we have not heard a billion times before. This is not the new collaboration between Melt Banana and the Albanian Children’s Choir or John Zorn’s unique interpretation of traditional music from the Lapland. This is catchy British rock music informed by the Smiths, the Stone Roses, and dozens of other British bands that NME have touted as “the Next Big Thing” at one time or another. The Courteeners remind us, just in case we need reminding, that doing something familiar, really, really well can be just as valuable as fearless experimentation. Anna’s greatest strength is the same thing that makes or breaks most examples of popular music: solid, consistent songwriting. So let’s pack some stadiums boys… it’s time for the Courteeners to be “the Next Big Thing” outside of the greater Manchester area.