[8 May 2007]
The Bluetones formed in Hounslow, England in 1994, as the Bottlegarden. Composed of guitarist Adam Devlin, drummer Eds Chester, and brothers Mark and Scott Morriss on vocals and bass, respectively, the band eventually released a couple of singles on Superior Quality Recordings in 1995, their first under the Bluetones moniker. Those early singles were good enough to earn the band considerable ink as the “next big thing” in Britpop in the famously (some might say excessively) hyperbolic British music weeklies. Early 1996 saw the release of the band’s debut album, Expecting to Fly, which included the immensely popular single “Slight Return”, reaching all the way to number 2 on the British singles charts.
Despite the massive chart success of their debut album, however, the Bluetones suffered perhaps unfairly from something of a Britpop backlash, both in the UK and abroad, with subsequent singles barely denting the British charts or, even worse, sinking without a trace. Unlike some of the higher-profile victims of that backlash, however, rather than swiping bigger and better riffs from other bands and providing seemingly endless fodder for the tabloid press like Oasis, or releasing self-indulgent records full of tuneless experimental rock like Blur, the Bluetones instead took a more sensible approach: they disregarded the press and simply focused on honing their craft, touring at every available opportunity, and continuing to record, releasing a series of studio albums including 1997’s Return to the Last Chance Saloon, 2000’s Science & Nature, and 2004’s Luxembourg.
If somebody from NME had handed me a list of Britpop bands in 1995 and asked me to pick those most likely to be releasing good music twelve years later, I almost certainly wouldn’t have picked the Bluetones. So the quality of this, their eponymous fifth studio album, is really a testament to the obvious dedication of the bandmembers to their craft. The fruits of more than a decade playing together can be heard all over the album. Recorded and mixed at Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire, England (according to the liner notes, “during the sweaty summer of 2006”), the album was produced by Hugh Jones, who has worked with such luminaries as Echo & the Bunnymen, the Charlatans, the Saints, and the Damned, to name just a few. That proved an inspired choice for the band, as Jones had manned the boards for both Expecting to Fly and its follow-up, Return to the Last Chance Saloon.
And while The Bluetones doesn’t exactly break new ground, it’s full of straight ahead guitar pop, crammed to the brim with hooks, harmonies, catchy choruses, and, above all, good tunes. The perky “Surrendered” starts the album off on a high note. An ode to someone’s wife or girlfriend (“Surrendered / My heart to you / To break and abuse”), its sweet melody belies the bittersweet lyrics of a frustrated Morriss (“You cast aspersions / You run me down / You like to see / Those little veins pop / In my brow”). Continuing in a similar vein, on the sprightly, keyboard accented “Baby, Back Up”, Morriss warns a new girlfriend “Baby, back up / Enough is enough / You’re freakin’ me out / Not into that stuff”, then kisses her off with “I thought you were cool / But you are just weird”. Not all the songs deal with such traditional rock and roll themes, however. The band turns to more otherworldly concerns on the entertaining “The King of Outer Space”, which tells the optimistic tale of a guy hoping to discover signs of life in outer space (“A home-made transmitter / Points at the sky / Long odds on / Someone receiving / Still I keep faith / There will come a reply”). Other highlights include the cynical, Oasis-inflected rocker “My Neighbour’s House” (“My neighbor’s house / Is burning down / And I wish that / I could care”), and the appropriately named “The Last Song But One”.
To be perfectly honest, I’m a little conflicted by this album. On the one hand, I’d like to see the band take some chances musically, to show off those chops honed over a decade of touring. On the other hand, its very similarity to the band’s previous work is immensely reassuring. After all, I like Britpop, and wouldn’t buy a Bluetones disc expecting to hear, say, the feedback-drenched indie-pop of early Ash, or the poppy metal of Therapy? So all I can really offer is qualified praise: I like this album quite a bit, and expect that other fans of mid-to-late ‘90s Brit-pop will probably like it as much as I do, but others should approach with caution.