British indie stalwarts make a solid return, but fail to capitalise on an inspired development of their sound.
There must come a point in a every band's lifetime when at least one member declares that, maybe, it's time to call it a day. It was Pete Townshend’s eventual acknowledgement of the advancement of age that curtailed the Who's recording career at the start of the '80s. Clever Johnny Rotten saw the Pistols' days were numbered when punk went mainstream, and, more recently, Gallagher Senior's last nerve straining under the weight of Gallagher Junior's rowdy behaviour put the final nail in the coffin for Oasis back in October.
Out of all the bands that came out of the mid '90s Britpop boom, you probably wouldn't expect the Bluetones to still be with us 15 years later. Surely there must've been times -- particularly as their star began to fade over half a decade ago -- when throwing in the towel crossed their collective minds. A New Athens is actually their first album since 2006; after two albums that tweaked at their gap-toothed jangle-pop of old, they've spent the last few years touring their re-issued debut album Expecting to Fly and, evidently, documenting love, life, and the growing shadow cast over the world by the economic crisis. And wondering whether it's all still worth it. Maybe.
The biggest surprise with their latest offering is actually the very first track: as wonderfully abstract as the album's cover, the slow-burning, Air-esque squelching and wheezing of "The Notes Between the Notes That Be" leads you to believe the 'Tones have taken a big jump to the left with their sound. And it suits them too, with the song's simple refrain of "Be different like everyone else / I will" strangely hypnotic.
Sadly "The Notes Between the Notes That Be" turns out to be a bit of a red herring. Before long we're en route to that familiar Bluetones sound via the breezy acoustica of "Firefly" -- but it's not entirely to the album's detriment. "Culling Song" and "Into the Red" are serviceable enough -- the latter being their account of how the world slid into economic decline, and as likeable and well-crafted as any Bluetones song.
Maybe due to age, or perhaps because the album was written and recorded in some warm, faraway country, there's a laid-back, often carefree feel to A New Athens too, exemplified perfectly by "Golden Soul", which is wonderfully pitched somewhere between Simon & Garfunkel and Buffalo Springfield. And then there's album closer "Pranchestonelle". It sounds like a nod to their past, both in terms of sound and words -- it’s psychedelic Noelrock that's at once both awkwardly dated and pleasantly familiar. And singer Mark Morriss's voice sounds as crystal clear as ever these days, particularly with the backdrop of Hammond and acoustic guitar overlays found throughout A New Athens, bringing to mind the Decemberists.
So, with the quirkiness of the Bluetones that we loved way back when still present and correct, and few visible kinks in their songwriting prowess, A New Athens certainly can't be regarded as a failure. And after the promise of "The Notes Between the Notes That Be", there could be more exciting things to come for one of British indie's forgotten institutions, 15 years into their career. Just a shame they couldn't've gone that extra step this time round.