Glenn Tilbrook is that rare breed of consummate musician, ultimate professional and all around stand-up guy. He frequently meets up with fans after his concerts are officially over and plays a song or two in the parking lot. (On a recent stop in Cleveland, he was late to the venue after his van broke down, so he recruited the audience to help him unload the gear so they could start the show as soon as possible. It took them five minutes.) He’s quick with a joke and, despite the monumental struggles he encountered steering UK pop gods Squeeze for 25 years, he, his voice and his woefully underrated guitar playing have not shown an ounce of quit in them.
It is with this last thought that his second solo offering, Transatlantic Ping Pong, should be viewed. Sure, he has been the good soldier through songwriting partner Chris Difford’s battles with the bottle and more lineup changes than Yes and Deep Purple combined. However, every once in a while, the well simply runs dry. (Squeeze albums Sweets from A Stranger, Frank, and Domino come to mind.) Tilbrook’s solo debut, 2001’s The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook, was a charmer of an album despite lacking any real sense of sonic cohesion. Transatlantic Ping Pong is just the opposite: thanks to new backing band the Fluffers, the album it is remarkably consistent. The songwriting, however, isn’t as engaging as what Tilbrook is clearly capable of. He hasn’t quit by any means, but it appears the well, while not completely dry, is running a little low.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to this, namely leadoff track and first single, “Untouchable”. Although it sports a melody that runs a little too close to the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me”, it is the kind of gold star, Beatlesque pop that we’ve come to expect from Tilbrook, oozing with harmony and rife with struggle. “Reinventing the Wheel” is another standout, though it’s unclear whether the subject of the song is an imaginary friend or his TV. “Neptune” sounds like an outtake from the Some Fantastic Place sessions, in the vein of “Talk to Him” and “It’s Over”.
The most touching moment on the album has to be “Where I Can Be Your Friend”, the first Difford/Tilbrook collaboration since Difford abruptly pulled out of a 1999 U.S. tour on the eve of their first show. The lyrics, as usual penned by Difford, are apologetic to the point of heartbreaking: “Who knows I may be wrong / This bridge I aim to mend / Will take me back to you / Where I can be your friend.” It’s a bittersweet follow-up to VH-1’s recent Bands Reunited episode, where Difford (they found him in a bar, natch) was visibly disappointed when he learned the reunion wasn’t going to work out.
The point where Transatlantic Ping Pong strays is when Tilbrook gets a little too cheeky for his own good. “Hot Shaved Asian Teens”, for example, cannot possibly live up to its title. A lyrical acid trip (“Christ on a bicycle fruit of the loom / Puffy white clouds with the face of Mitchell Froom”, likely the first and last time the producer and former Mr. Suzanne Vega will get name dropped in a song), the song suffers from a rather plain vocal delivery in the vein of “Life in the Fast Lane” and “The Soul Cages”. His cover of “The Genitalia of a Fool”, while admittedly funny, seems like the kind of song that would be better saved for a live show or a B-side. Squeeze may have dealt with complicated relationship issues, but the songs were always clean enough to play for your mum. To have “Genitalia” come four songs after “Hot Shaved Asian Teens” is not only atypical but also awkward, even though they’re both done for a laugh. Both songs allegedly kick ass live, but on disc, they sound a little creepy, considering Tilbrook’s age. (He’s 46)
Still, it’s hard to stay mad at Tilbrook for long. He has one of the most solid catalogs in pop music, and Transatlantic Ping Pong certainly isn’t a bad album, just not on par with his really good ones. When the instrumental closer “One for the Road” pops up, Farfisa organ in overdrive, hope springs eternal once again, that Tilbrook, in time, will deliver his own Argybargy or Play. Until then, we will have to settle for something closer to Some Fantastic Place and Ridiculous.