[21 May 2002]
You can’t blame Teenage Fanclub for trying. In fact, they should be commended for their unflappable stick-to-itiveness. After a slew of albums (six, to be exact) that swam in the soothing waters of pop, and a shot at stardom with a Saturday Night Live appearance and an opening slot on Nirvana’s 1992 tour, they had all of the cult following and some critical acclaim to back up their fine output. They entered the scene at grunge’s embryonic stage, and then suffered through years of neglect as that sound hit its height and faded away about as completely as smoke stench in flannel. They survived the radio “pop” of the late nineties, through all its galvanized forms and pretenses. And they’ve emerged again from an absence no one’s really noticed to deliver Howdy, another textbook piece of classic, hard-to-ignore pop. It’s nothing that’s going to redefine the band in the minds of anyone, or attract legions of new hard-core fans, but it’s a fine piece of power-pop, nonetheless.
One of the drawbacks of being associated with the classic rock/pop hybrids that so often show up in music reviews (the Byrds, Big Star, the Beatles) is that it’s often hard to develop an identity, not only outside of those bands, but also apart from the current bands those hallmark groups are compared with: recent Wilco, Fountains of Wayne, anything in the same breath with Elephant 6—the new classic pop bands. Because face it, a bouncy melody, semi-fancy guitar licks, a passable rhythm section, and some lyrics that introduce “baby"s, “yeah"s, and a “na-na” chorus is all it really takes to be thrown in that category. It can be a dime a dozen world, but only a few of those dimes really shine.
Teenage Fanclub is one of them. Songs like opener “I Need Direction”, with its rolling melody, and “Near You” sound like they came from a mix tape an older brother had from ‘82. Like most of the songs on Howdy, they’re fresh, but you seem to know the words instantly, producing a weird, first-impression nostalgia, a comfort level that bands like Wilco produce so effortlessly.
But this isn’t pop in an over-the-top, saccharin overload sort of way. There’s a layer of wax that covers some songs here, like the crunchy jangle of “Dumb, Dumb, Dumb”, the album’s standout and most high-volume-worthy track, which adds a rougher, more jagged exterior to the otherwise blinding sheen. At times the songs breathe a bit like the current crop of popular singer-songwriters, those of the John Mayer and Pete Yorn ilk.
All of this is good, very good, and, if nothing else, Howdy is a reminder that good pop music will always have an outlet, regardless of the changing face of the rest of the industry. Deep down, everyone wants to be humming something and tapping hand to knee, a “na-na” chorus just two bars away, car windows open, speeding just a little. And to those people that want to get it right, Howdy.