Every time I hear a new song by the Charlatans, I think, they’re still around? Here we are, 12 years after they blew us all away with the phenomenal, organ-driven funk of “The Only One I Know”, and they’ve managed to last over a decade, despite never completely fully living up to the promise of their first album. Sometime over the past 10 tears, the Charlatans have metamorphosed from Madchester scenesters continuing the “Baggy” revolution, following the leads of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, to dance-pop artists in a nice little groove. Since 1995, not much of their music really managed to blow me away (last year’s “Love is the Key” came close), but they were never awful or anything. Just steady, the prototypical Singles Band.
So now they’re back with a new collection of b-sides from their first eight years, having outlasted the Madchester fad, Britpop, electronica, the whole “quiet is the new loud” thing, New Garage, and the current rage, bootleg remixes. Not to mention all the crap coming out of North America. A remarkable achievement, come to think of it, considering the bad luck that has haunted the band in the past. Why didn’t VH1 ever approach the Charlatans? It’s all there: huge success, huge flops, nervous breakdowns, arrests, prison time (organist Rob Collins), a fatal car crash (Rob Collins again), and an amazing comeback culminating in a Number One UK album in 1997 (their third of the 1990s, the most for any band). Talk about being through it all.
This new b-side compilation, entitled Songs From the Other Side, is essentially the follow-up to the band’s 1998 best-of comp Melting Pot, albeit four years late, comprising of the best b-sides from their years with the Beggars Banquet label. B-side collections are always a bit dodgy, so I’ll cut to the chase.
Is it any good? For the most part, yes. The best thing it does is chronicle the development of the Charlies’ sound, but instead of taking the scenic route via the singles, it’s more of a bumpy ride on the back roads. A few potholes here and there, but some really good stuff as well. My favorite songs are the first eight of the disc’s 16 tracks, when the late Rob Collins’s wicked Hammond organ playing was the driving force behind the band, from 1990 to 1994. The instrumental “Imperial 400” combines the groove of Booker T & the MG’s with a guitar lick that mildly rips off John Squire’s notes on the Roses’ classic “I Wanna Be Adored”. “Everything Changed”, “Occupation H. Monster”, and “Happen to Die” are terrific, groove-oriented songs, complete with ambiguous vocals by Tim Burgess. “Stir It Up” (not the Bob Marley tune), is an awesome exercise in “Fool’s Gold”-style funk that clocks in at nearly eight minutes, highlighted by Collins’s sensational stop-gap organ playing. The Van Basten remix of “Feel Flows” (not the Beach Boys tune) keeps the funk comin’, electronically this time, while “Subterranean”‘s cryptic lyrics often quote lines by Bob Dylan, like the “Queen Jane Approximately” nod in the chorus.
What about the rest? The rest of the songs are spotty. “Green Flashing Eyes” is a clunky failure, but the CD rebounds with the supercool “Nine Acre Dust”, a Chemical Brothers remix of “Nine Acre Court”. “Frinck” is a neat little electro-funk exercise that shows The Charlatans’ increasing interest in updating their throwback sound. “Your Skies Are Mine” is lame, while the post-Rob Collins guitarpop of “Two of Us” (not the Beatles tune) is a decent song with a light pop sense, and the delightful “Don’t Need a Gun” has a whimsical, Garth Hudson styled organ hook. “Title Fight” and “Clean Up Kid” are only mildly interesting.
So is this album worth buying? Only if you’re a diehard Charlies fan. The most recent b-sides collection that I’d consider essential would be Oasis’ The Masterplan from a few years ago. Aside from a rare occurrence like that, if you’re new to the Charlatans, I suggest either Melting Pot or the albums Some Friendly, the much-underrated Between 10th and 11th, and 2001’s Wonderland. The best parts of Songs From the Other Side are enjoyable, but nothing to go out of your way to find, unless you have all their other stuff. Still, it’s a great nod to their loyal fanbase, and a chance for us all to sit back and ruminate with amazement at how far this band has come.