[2 August 2005]
Expectations are high: Teenage Fanclub is back with a new album, Man-Made and touring major cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan. The record is the Fanclub’s best album since 1991’s Bandwagonesque, a record which took the indie world by storm. But their disappointing live show—the band’s first in New York in more than four years—shows that a killer new record, elegant in its poise and subtlety, doesn’t necessarily translate to a transcendent performance.
Unlike most bands, the Fanclub has not one, not two, but three leaders who share singing and song-writing duties: longhaired guitarist Raymond McGinley, who sports a distinguished, aging hippie look; chic-geeky guitarist Norman Blake, who wore a striped polo and glasses; and the dark, rail-thin, inscrutable bassist Gerard Love. This trio was joined by the much younger player on keys and drummer Francis Macdonald, who paid tribute to the Big Apple by wearing a light blue “I Love New York” T-shirt.
In theory, it was a fascinating cast of characters but in application only Blake provided the semblance of visual excitement. For the most part, the Fanclub were expressionless, even wooden, as they performed. At times, it was difficult to believe the music was actually being played by the guys standing on the stage. They didn’t sound bored, but they looked it. Perhaps there is a bias in favor of performers who are visually emotive but who says it’s isn’t a fair one? After all, people come to watch concerts and not just listen to them.
Another strike against this show was the sludgy mix. Maybe some bands’ music can stand it, but not the Fannies. Yes, they’ve been called progenitors of grunge, but what they play is more nuanced that description allows. Love and Blake’s ethereal, trebly vocal harmonies were audible enough, but seemed divorced from the bottom-heavy instrumentation rumbling below.
Hearing Teenage Fanclub live, it became clear that the central distinguishing element in their music is the way that Blake and McGinley strum their guitars. With ringing, chiming chords, they carry a distinct rhythm from song to song. This, perhaps even more than the band’s vocal harmonies, gives Fanclub its California sunshine. Yet, an hour or so into the band’s hour-and-a-half set, this strumming got monotonous. Only towards the end of the show did the band regain my interest.
The night’s strongest moments came when the Fanclub tackled its new material, which builds out their patented sound by calling on a wider palette. Perhaps this is because John McEntire of Tortoise was behind the boards when the band recorded Man-Made. The high point of the evening, by far, was Love’s “Fallen Leaves”, the Fanclub’s latest UK single, which marries an eerie, shimmering verse with a hard-rocking bridge that’s Wilco by way of Crazy Horse.
Other highlights: Love’s surf-psychedelic freak-out “Born Under a Good Sign”, which showed traces of Sonic Youth; McGinley’s catchy “Feel”, which could have been an FM radio hit in Los Angeles, circa 1976; and Blake’s “Slow Fade”, an Attractions-style, organ-driven rave-up.
The Fannies should be lauded for focusing on their new album not just because it’s great, but also because, by doing so, they successfully skirt the nostalgia pull. This show could have been a trip down memory lane, but it wasn’t. The band played only a few tracks from Bandwagonesque, “Star Sign” and “The Concept”, and these tunes weren’t given pride of place.
After the encore, the houselights stayed off, a sure sign that the Fanclub was coming back for more. Their roadie even came onstage to tune up their guitars. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, five minutes and nothing. Then, house lights and background music. A cruel tease? Indeed. Who’s to blame? Who knows. Maybe the band, maybe the venue. Regardless, I had heard just enough. It was, in fact, a good time to call it a night.