[31 May 2012]
If you’re a Supergrass fan, then you may have been “hotly anticipating”, as they say, the first solo album from the frontman of the now defunct Britpop powerhouse. Supergrass officially disbanded due to those oft-invoked “creative differences” in 2010, two years after their last (sixth) album, Diamond Hoo Ha, and shelving the album in progress, the still unreleased Release the Drones. The last couple albums released were good, but lesser than the earlier work. Since the breakup, Coombes has shown up now and again, most notably with his cover band, The Hotrats, which released an album, Turn Ons, consisting of solid renditions of a handful of great songs. What the cover album proves just as well as all of Supergrass’s catalogue is that Gaz Coombes is into the fun side of rock and roll.
Supergrass first made the scene with “Caught by the Fuzz”, which is a teenage troublemaker’s lament turned cheery anthem. With the huge hit, “Alright”, that proclaimed youth and freedom, Supergrass broke open and their first album, I Should Coco was the highest selling first album since the Beatles’ Please Please Me. All this is to say that Supergrass, in the era of Britpop, were the most effortlessly fun band amidst a sea of dour geezers. And though their sound evolved and got more complex, it was always straightforward and unpretentious. Despite the most obvious soundalike being T. Rex, since Coombes has a warbly almost chipmunk voice à la Marc Bolan, in terms of consistency, I’d class Supergrass along the lines of a Britpop revamp of Wings.
Now on his first solo album, the perhaps self-assuredly titled Here Come the Bombs, depending on whether the bomb means a hit or a miss, Coombes keeps up the playful energy, with a set of mostly driving songs. But amidst the recognizable Supergrass sounds are what could be seen as some attempts at seriousness. The opener, “Bombs”, begins with synths and a drum machine, as Coombes enters in with a Thom Yorke type of crooning. He sings in a higher range that stretches out the melodic lines outside of a clearly repeatable refrain and correspondingly the chords hesitate as they move from one to the next. Though the song gets bigger, with harps and symphonic sounds, the feeling that this song sets up is Gaz in his bedroom—Supergrass scaled down, not exciting.
Luckily, the second track and first single off the album, “Hot Fruit”, is a spazzed out rocker. This track is probably the best on the album featuring complex interlocking parts, looping acoustic guitars, driving drums, a Lennon melody line on repeat that leads to a huge chorus: “She’s all that I desire / She turns it on/It feels like I’ve been sleeping with the setting sun”, Though the lyrics are in the vein of an uncomplicated love song, Coombes goes for a sophistication in the songwriting. “Hot Fruit” goes into a sexy funky bridge (which could have been on the last Supergrass album) that breaks into a futuristic garage outro, where Coombes’s guitar has a strangely contained fuzz.
Again, one gets the sense that Coombes may have listened to some Radiohead in working up to this album, and the borrowed serious doesn’t always do him favors, since the songs themselves aren’t very risky. On the more ponderous songs, like “Sub Divider”, “Fanfare”, as well as the opener and the closer, “Sleeping Giant”, attention begins to wane. But it typically doesn’t derail his sense of a good time. The fast acoustic based track, “Simulator” could be a vintage era Supergrass song. Though at times it does feel like Coombes is rehashing some material. On “White Noise”, the finger-picked acoustic intro starts off sounding like Love, but then turns into a recall of the melody of the opening track on the self-titled Supergrass album from 2000, “Movin’”. That song had a killer payoff, and while “White Noise” has a nice soaring chorus that bespeaks “maturity,” it doesn’t live up to former glory.
The sneaky lowest point is probably the track near the end, “Break the Silence”, that goes too big in anthemic stature. It sounds like a tryout for the London Olympics theme song, with its club beat and overall positivity, as Coombes addresses the audience, “You can be anyone” and tells us to “Break the silence / Let it go”. The song is fine, but perhaps too innocuous—it could probably be sung by a tween star and not seem out of place.
Here Come the Bombs is a fine solo debut. Though it mostly makes you recall Coombes’s previous heights and doesn’t really add much of a new sound, his songwriting has always been good, fun, and catchy, so there is nothing wrong in having a new batch of tracks. As if to mark a return to earlier days, Coombes teamed up with the producer Sam Williams, who produced the first Supergrass album. But the result is like a Supergrass album with the seams showing plus some weird quirky touches in the shape of synth noises and electro flourishes. That’s not a significant development in sound, and it makes one feel that perhaps there was no real need for Coombes to go it alone. Supergrass didn’t seem really to be holding him back from this.