Irish indie-rockers embrace the internet, their past and new directions, and provide a thrilling ride through the first half of their A-Z singles series.
Ash has been my favorite band, since, well, forever. Do you think that means they get a free pass from me? Think again. Having stuck by them through thick and thin over the years, and on many an occasion having to justify that (sometimes unconditional) love, this review may be a trifle harsher than it really ought to be.
Since their very early days, Ash have been essentially a singles-driven act. Sure, their albums (particularly 1996’s 1977 and 2001’s Free All Angels) were mostly, from start to finish, a solid body of punk-pop work. But it was frontman Tim Wheeler's way with a melody, a sucker punch chorus and a killer hook, all packed into three and a half minutes, that was their ace card. That was particularly true when the scene that adopted them, mid '90s Britpop, died a death at the turn of the decade, and their contemporaries were, one by one, falling by the wayside.
So what better way to celebrate the fact that, in 2010, Ash have been with us 18 years, than to devote themselves entirely to the single format? After announcing in 2007 they were to release no more albums after that year’s Twilight of the Innocents (their first after returning to a three-piece, following the departure of beautiful second guitarist Charlotte Hatherley), Ash hinted at a future that harnessed the power of the internet as a distribution tool in a unique way. The A-Z Series began back in October, and its animus was simple: to make available, every two weeks, a brand new Ash single via internet music sites, until September 2010 – 52 weeks later.
The concept has two benefits. First, it means Ash led the way in fully embracing the internet as a vehicle for releasing and distributing music (aside from this CD release, the singles are only available as digital downloads, and, for those with a penchant for vinyl, 7-inch singles), making it easier for the Ipod generation who tend to shun the album format and care only for singular tracks. With a single released every two weeks, things are kept fresh and interesting, especially for those who believe in the old Andy Warhol quote that the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting.
It also means Ash can now explore avenues that, in their albums/singles-band guise, may not have been as accessible. They can try new genres; make a track as long or as short as they want. The only premise is, as they put it themselves, that every track should be good enough to be a single.
At 13 singles we’re at the half-way point of the A-Z series. It's interesting to listen to these 13 tracks as one body of work. In some ways they benefit from this. There's less pressure on each track to 'perform', if you like. Therefore "True Love 1980," the track that began the series, puffs and bleeps like a lost New Order track far more pleasingly than it seemed to back in October. "Joy Kicks Darkness", which previously felt like an overblown Only Ones offcut, now uses its epic punk-rock to lead us into a trio of classic Ash numbers, the type we’ve been denied for too long. "Arcadia" works best, with its rush of earnest, Weezer-inspired geek rock. "Tracers (World Without You)" is home to the simplest yet most heartfelt lyrics Wheeler has ever commited to tape ("Dreams, they fade when you open your eyes, they’re lost when you open your eyes")."Ichiban" sees the Northern Irish trio get disturbingly close to ska-punk, yet manage to pull it off.
While they’re trying new things, Ash are also returning to common ground. "The Dead Disciples", for example, is ballsy Foo Fighters rock allowed to sour thanks to Tim’s effortless falsetto harmonies on the chorus. The thrilling guitar motif on "Dionysian Urge" is as sugar-sweet as anything on Free All Angels; a nod to the past, sure, but all the better for it.
There are weak points. The second half of this compilation wanes with the contrived-sounding "Space Shot". At one time, a slightly limp track like "Song of Your Desire" would have been relegated to b-side status. These are just minor quibbles. After all, Ash's imperfections have always been integral to their appeal. For the most part, in becoming a purely singles act, Ash have played to their strengths and given themselves a new lease of life. We’re only halfway through the series, but with the confidence to push themselves forward as well as a wistful look back, it’s looking pretty sweet already. Hopefully Volume 2 will match up. Of late, justifying my love for Ash has been a helluva lot easier.