Here’s another case of that situation where a label can capitalize on the subsequent good fortunes of a band they dropped. When these first two Snow Patrol records were issued by London-based Jeepster (best-know for having signed Belle & Sebastian) at the turn of the Millennium, neither the albums nor the handful of attendant singles troubled the British charts, and Jeepster bid them goodbye.
A deal with Polydor and a couple million copies sold of 2003 breakthrough Final Straw later, Jeepster is understandably giving its older siblings another go, throwing “deluxe packaging” and complete B-sides into the deal. It all looks very nice and generous, but since it’s safe to assume that no one will approach these albums without having heard Final Straw and/or its 2006 sequel Eyes Open first, exactly how much of a shocker are they in for? If it’s the radio-friendly sheen of those last two albums people want, they’ll be sorely disappointed. If they want some insight as to what makes bandleader and primary songwriter Gary Lightbody tick, bullseye. And if they’re feeling put off by the regressive MOR stance of Eyes Open, well, here’s some relief.
In the UK press, 1999’s Songs for Polarbears (a nod to Snow Patrol’s original name) and 2001’s When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up are usually laughed off as the Belfast-bred, Glasgow-based band’s too-transparent attempts to sound “indie”. And it’s true that with a no-frills lineup of Lightbody on vocals and guitar, bassist/keyboardist Mark McClelland, and drummer Jonny Quinn banging out short, rudimentary arrangements that are equal parts slacker and sensitive, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that Lightbody came of age listening to a lot of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Beck and (here’s where the “indie” comes in) Sebadoh and Belle & Sebastian. Both albums seem to come straight from that phase of young adulthood when smoking, drinking, fucking, and playing music are the only things to do, whereas Final Straw eliminates the smoking and tones the fucking down to intercourse. Still, it’s not hard to see why the general public were unimpressed; this is much more Blur than Harmacy or Odelay. And, for most folks, one Blur was enough.
That’s not to say that these albums don’t have their share of dorm-room charm or even good songs. Polarbears boasts the post-Nirvana scrape of “Downhill From Here”, the brilliant new wave chug and synth squeals of “Starfighter Pilot” (Lightbody’s ode to, yep, intergalactic heroes and their action figure miniatures), and the fanboy hip-hop of “Absolute Gravity”, which smartly follows the line “Maybe I’m unbalanced” with a burst of guitar noise. When It’s All Over brightens up the sound just a tad, with indie new wave (“Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”) and lazy breakbeats (“Ask Me How I Am”) again taking the day. In a bit of foreshadowing, Lightbody’s affection for after-the-argument weepies comes into play. Some, like “An Olive Grove Facing the Sea” and “Batten Down the Hatch”, are pretty and affecting; others, such as “One Night is Not Enough” and “On/Off”, are whiny and lame. For this reason, Polarbears gets the nod in the case of an either/or decision.
On both albums, Lightbody comes across as a clever, concise, and sometimes devastating chronicler of relationship implosion, with lines like, “Small talk turns to dust in my mouth” on “Absolute Gravity” and “God only knows what Brian Wilson meant” on “Batten Down the Hatches”. Listeners will catch occasional glimpses of the metallic drums and fuzz bass that were put to good use on some of Final Straw‘s strongest moments. Otherwise, Lightbody’s grown-men-cry voice is virtually unrecognizable, as he’s buried in effects and/or deliberately mumbling. Also, at times it is clear that the guys are trying to sound like they’re not very good at playing their instruments. Only McClelland sometimes cuts loose, single-handedly rescuing several songs.
How telling it is, then, that Lightbody kicked McClelland out of the band between Final Straw and Eyes Open, claiming “...the band could not move forward with Mark as a member”. Unless McClelland had a band-killing drug problem under wraps, listeners who are now well-versed in Snow Patrol’s catalog should read that as code for, “Mark just could not abide seeing the band he helped form go from derivative but sincere rockers to successful but calculating schlockers, so we sacked him”. Those listeners should also conclude that Final Straw and Eyes Open producer Jacknife Lee had more than a little to do with that transformation and its resulting chart success. Anyhow, those who think Snow Patrol jumped the shark with Eyes Open can pick up these re-issues and pretend it never happened.
Songs for Polarbears
When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up