For one brief, shining moment in late 1991 and early 1992, Teenage Fanclub looked unstoppable. The Scottish band’s second album, Bandwagonesque—a flawless combination of alternative rock feedback and gorgeous, wistful melodies—came out to ecstatic reviews, the album was getting airplay on college radio in North America, and in a wonderfully bold move, Spin magazine named the album their 1991 album of the year, edging out Nirvana’s Nevermind. But then grunge broke, and everyone forgot about this unassuming band and their great little album. It was all Nirvana all the time, as American audiences chose Nirvana’s brilliant, slickly-produced teen rebellion over Teenage Fanclub’s equally brilliant, slickly-produced pop rock. Even Spin backpedaled, embarrassing itself by openly questioning their decision to go with Bandwagonesque instead of the much more popular Nevermind. Now, twelve years later, tracks from Nevermind are played to death on classic rock radio, to the point where it would be nice to go a day without hearing the opening chords to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and Teenage Fanclub have faded from the mainstream, maintaining a small but loyal fanbase on this continent. However, Bandwagonesque has aged gracefully over the years, and it still sounds as fresh as it did when we all first bought it way back when.
There are many people who have not bought a Teenage Fanclub album since 1992, and the band’s new career retrospective Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds: A Short Cut to Teenage Fanclub is the perfect place for people to start catching up. Spanning six albums over thirteen years, as far as guitar pop compilations go, this is as good as it gets, as you see the band metamorphose from the dissonant feedback-laced sounds of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, to Neil Young-style rock, to a straight-up Big Star imitation, to a lovely latter-day sound, reminiscent of the Byrds and Badfinger. With three highly talented singer-songwriters (guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, as well as bassist Gerard Love), the band has amassed a wealth of material that would qualify for such a compilation, and with this CD, they do their best to please their fans, cramming in 21 songs, clocking in at nearly 80 minutes.
Their 1990 debut album, A Catholic Education, is given only a passing nod with the inclusion of “Everything Flows”, with its muddy melody, buried under loud, raw, Neil Young-meets-My Bloody Valentine guitar riffs. Bandwagonesque boasts three selections on this CD, though several more cuts could have easily been included. The most essential songs from that album are here, though, in the form of “What You Do to Me”, Love’s wonderful single “Star Sign”, and most importantly, the classic “The Concept”, arguably their greatest song ever. Opening with a blast of feedback that sounds just as slick and contrived as anything on Nevermind, the mellifluous chords that follow shock the listener, Blake’s opening lines showing this song is more than just angry, noisy rock, as he sings tenderly about a girl with questionable taste in music: “She wears denim wherever she goes / Says she’s gone to get some records by the Status Quo”. One of the most beautiful rock songs to come out of the Nineties, it’s five and a half minutes of pure bliss, comprised of a three-minute melody that rivals the pop genius of Big Star’s “September Gurls”, and a stunning, two-minute coda that boasts some of the most heartbreaking harmonies you’ll ever hear. Its epic combination of desperate, raw emotion (“I didn’t want to hurt you”) and ethereal beauty makes this a kind of college rock version of “Layla”, and it still makes your spine tingle today.
1993’s Thirteen (the title an obvious tribute to Big Star) received a less than enthusiastic response from critics and fans, and indeed was a more inconsistent album, and two of its better songs are included: “Hang On”, which goes back to the rumbling guitars of their debut album, and the terrific powerpop of “Radio”. Their 1995 album Grand Prix, though practically ignored by the public, was a fine return to form, and is regarded by many as being their best album. It’s obvious the band thinks so, too, as five of its tracks are on this compilation. Blake’s pretty “Mellow Doubt” hints at the more acoustic slant the band would take in the future, while McGinley’s “About You” and Love’s brilliant “Sparky’s Dream” both have incredible, catchy Byrds-like harmony vocals. Meanwhile, both “Don’t Look Back” and the aptly-titled “Neil Jung” utilize some great, Crazy Horse style guitar work.
The four songs from 1997’s criminally underrated Songs From Northern Britain will be real revelations to those who have yet to hear that album. Gone are the loud guitars, as pure pop songcraft becomes the band’s sole focus. The lilting “Ain’t That Enough” has a wonderful Crosby Stills and Nash vibe, “Your Love is the Place Where I Come From” and “I Don’t Want Control of You” sound like Gram Parsons outtakes from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, while “Planets” sticks to the reliable Big Star formula. The Howdy! album from 2000 is one of the weakest in the band’s career, but songs like “Dumb Dumb Dumb” and “I Need Direction” show that the album had its share of sublime moments.
As is always the case with a best-of compilation, no one tracklisting will ever please all fans, and Teenage Fanclub devotees will undoubtedly have something to grumble about: three new tracks are included, and the omission of their great 1990 song “God Knows it’s True”, or overlooked Bandwagonesque gems like “Alcoholiday” and “December” in favor of the new material will likely raise a few eyebrows, but one new track truly deserves to be there. Norman Blake’s “Did I Say” is shockingly good, two and a half wondrous minutes of the best Badfinger imitation that you’ll ever hear, proof that the band still has what has made them great for so long. This album might stop just shy of perfect, but it’s still essential listening, perfect for those who are new to the band, or for those who have just forgotten about them recently. It’s 4,766 seconds of musical brilliance.