Music

Teenage Fanclub: Shadows

The Scottish pop classicists return with their first album in five years. Have they learned any new tricks?


Teenage Fanclub

Shadows

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2010-06-08
UK Release Date: 2010-05-31
Amazon
iTunes

By now, there’s a ho-hum attitude surrounding a new Teenage Fanclub record. This despite the fact they’ve only released a couple studio albums over the last decade.

Part of that is the band’s fault. They refuse to cultivate any sort of public image whatsoever. Maybe that’s because back when they did have an image, in their early days 20 years ago, it was usually over-simplified and misconstrued. Teenage Fanclub were a Big Star tribute band that played originals. They were slackers. They were a sort of British response to grunge. The truth was they drew from a variety of influences on both sides of the Atlantic, Big Star being one of them. They were sharp and talented. Their music only sounded slack because they usually preferred a lax midtempo to the explicit Rawk of the day. They shared a label, Geffen, with Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain was a fan.

To some extent, you have to admire Teenage Fanclub’s refusal to define themselves by any other method than their music. There’s no passive-aggressive “look at us and how much we hate the media and its exploitation” sentiment. But band is so transparent that many critics and would-be fans simply look through them. Over time, the vacuum has been filled with a slate of stock phrases. Consistent. Power-pop. Not as good as Bandwagonesque (1991). Not as good as Grand Prix (1995). Beach Boys. Beatles. Big Star. Of course, behind the clichés is some truth. But Teenage Fanclub deserve more than that, and if there were every any question about it, Shadows is the answer and then some.

Shadows completes a remarkable transformation. While no one was looking, Teenage Fanclub went from being rude, laddish pop malcontents with a wicked ironic streak, to subtle, reflective, utterly sincere singer-songwriters. Starting with 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain, the delinquent bursts of guitar noise and song titles like “Alcoholiday” and “Neil Jung” disappeared. The music became more reflective and sophisticated, too, with a folk influence added to the classic guitar pop aesthetic. With Shadows, the sound of the grown-up Teenage Fanclub comes to full fruition. It’s joyful, but also very thoughtful, carefree and yet aware of its surroundings. It’s about as mature as an album from a group whose nickname is The Fannies could be.

Just don’t call it dull. Songwriters Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley, and Gerard Love have come up with a rarity. Shadows offers plenty of melody and hooks up front, but also demands to be played again and again, revealing something new to like just about every time. You’ll hear the connection between Blake’s singsong “Baby Lee” and vintage XTC, for example. You’ll be touched by the atmospheric, weepy lap steel that bathes Love’s “Sweet Days Waiting”. You’ll notice the lyrics are really good, too. Teenage Fanclub, well into middle-age, approach love, time, and loss with a hard-won acceptance that never fades into cliché. “When I light a fire underneath what I was / I won’t feel sad, only warmed by the loss”, McGinley sings on “The Fall”, expressing in a single couplet what a dozen indie filmmakers have spent careers trying to convey.

There aren’t many loud guitars on Shadows, but with a title like that, what would you expect? It’s not dreampop, but it is dreamy. Blake’s wistful “Dark Clouds” eschews guitars altogether, replacing them with a simple, elegant piano. But you’ll also find plenty of songs to crank up the volume to. Love’s “Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything” takes a breezy verse to a string-aided liftoff of a chorus, refusing to be crushed by the weight of its title. His “Shock and Awe” is an exuberant anthem that avoids any pitfalls its title might suggest. In a combo that marks Shadows’ high point, it’s followed by Blake’s folk-rock “When I Still Have Thee”. Just try listening to this song without feeling your mood lighten and your spirit lift. If it doesn’t happen, you just might not have a soul.

And that’s a fitting summary for just what a great album Shadows is. A decade ago, a Teenage Fanclub song with “thee” in the title would have been considered a joke. Now it’s a triumph. As for downside, the low end of the mix is a little thin, and Francis Macdonald’s drumming is sometimes too punchy for the material. But that’s not enough to get in the way of pop that’s so pure, so loving and lovely, there’s nothing ho-hum about it at all.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image