Critically acclaimed and commercially unsuccessful power poppers Any Trouble return with their first set of new material in nearly a decade, proving they’ve lost none of what made them so great the first time around.
Formed in the mid-‘70s in Manchester by lyricist and vocalist Clive Gregson, Any Trouble made their best attempt at breaking through to a wider audience with the release of their criminally ignored Stiff debut Where Are All the Nice Girls? in 1980. While critically revered then and now, it simply failed to catch on with the listening public. Given the success of their label mates and the rising tide of New Wave at the time, not to mention the overall quality of the album itself, theirs seemed all but a sure thing. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, the band failed to garner the support of an audience outside critics’ circles. By 1984, after releasing several more critically hailed albums that went nowhere, Any Trouble called it quits.
Fortunately, in the modern era it seems that any and all great “lost” album or group eventually finds itself back up for consideration. Finding their time having come, the original members of Any Trouble reunited in the mid-‘00s for a handful of live shows and, ultimately, an album of all new material in 2007’s Life in Reverse. Released on their former label, Life in Reverse showed the group to have lost nothing in the intervening decades, delivering a set of sharp pop hooks wrapped around Gregson’s impeccable lyrics.
Nearly a decade later, Any Trouble have returned yet again with Present Tense. Continuing in a vein similar to their previous release, Gregson and company deliver yet another set of quality power pop that somehow finds the band getting just that much better over time. Like many of their former Stiff label mates (Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Elvis Costello, et. al.), Any Trouble have mellowed with age, settling nicely into a more refined, subtle take on their particular brand of pop. The gorgeous love ballad “Annalee” finds Gregson reassessing his priorities over a keening vocal melody and plaintive guitar line that lends just enough minor chord melancholy to cut through the otherwise joyous sentiments expressed.
Throughout, Gregson and company show they’ve lost none of their ability to craft some of the best understated pop hooks around. On “Anybody Else", they deliver a lovely singsong chorus that delves into Beatles-esque territory with its jangly melodicism and incessant vocal hook over a descending chord progression. Follow up track “Glen Campbell” not only evokes the legendary singer and guitarists’ back catalog in its lyrics, but also his iconic guitar sound. Opening with a heavily tremoloed guitar figure instantly reminiscent of Campbell’s solo and session work over the years, the band delivers a compelling chord progression that rises and falls with a delicate intricacy akin to the best of Jimmy Webb.
From there, Present Tense is filled with a remarkable number of hook-y power pop gems that, were there any justice, would find Any Trouble receiving the long overdue commercial success they so richly deserve. On “Learning How to Lose", Gregson sings, “you’ll get rave reviews/but now you’re learning how to lose” over a bright, insistent progression that finds the band powering through the seemingly autobiographical sentiments. It’s a bittersweet triumph that serves to highlight some of the band’s best attributes while remaining grounded in the harsh reality of the music business.
While the majority of the album sits tonally within that of mid-tempo, major key power pop, “Missed That Train” utilizes a Tennessee Three-style shuffle, harkening back to their folk origins. Not quite straight country, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dwight Yoakam album given its melodic strength and propulsive, snare drum-driven rhythm. Similarly stylistically diverse, “Shake a Leg” bears a striking resemblance to Harry Nilsson’s “Let the Good Times Roll” and features one of the few instances of vocal harmony on the album.
If one complaint can be leveled at the group, it would be the somewhat weak tonality of Gregson’s affected vocals. It’s a minor caveat, but with Present Tense running over an hour, it can begin to grate in its hesitancy and tentative approach to the upper reaches of his range. This limited vocal capacity leaves little in the way of overall variation and variety leaving some tracks sounding similar, though each bears just enough of its own identifiable hook to keep things interesting. Given the length of the album, there is a need for clear distinction between tracks.
But with so many years between albums and a renewed interest in the group’s earlier recordings, Any Trouble can’t be blamed for wanting to say as much as they can in the time they’ve been allotted and in any way they can. At 18 tracks, Present Tense offers much to love either in small doses or taken as a whole, serving as a reminder to the faithful and a fine introduction for those coming to the band for the first time.