It's amazing that Ash have lasted longer than a couple years. It's been six years since the Irish band (then a trio) of teenagers put out their well-received debut 1977; at the time they were yet another Britpop band, not bad, but nothing special, either. Personally, I thought Ash were as insignificant as something like Menswear (remember Menswear?), a two-bit band that would have a very limited shelf life. Sure, "Goldfinger" and especially "Girl From Mars" were decent enough songs, but the scene seemed too saturated with new bands to allow Ash make any kind of mark. Their second album, Nu Clear Sounds was a dog of an album, so they seemed on their way out. Or so I thought.
So we're now in 2002: Ash's most recent album, Free All Angels was a monster seller in the UK in 2001, spawning two utterly brilliant singles, establishing Ash as a decent band (they're now a quartet). Even members Tim Wheeler and Charlotte Hatherly have moonlighted as Calvin Klein models. Unfortunately for the band, the only North American audience they still have are either people who paid too much for import copies of their CD or those who downloaded their MP3s, but with their new distribution deal with Kinetic Records, Free All Angels has finally been released in North America. It might be 18 long months since the album's first single was released, but now's as good a time as any.
For those unfamiliar with Ash, I have to emphasize that there is not an original note coming from this band. It's all horribly derivative, their sound a blend of Weezer, Big Star, the Buzzcocks, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and the images on the new album are silly, especially Tim Wheeler's comically contrived Big Rock Star, booze bath photo. On the surface, they're this close to being as ridiculous as any other children's pop music, But the songs on this CD are so catchy, so sunny, so wide-eyed they make Fran Healy (Travis) sound like Leonard Cohen. Fact is, a good song's a good song, no matter how derivative it is, and Free All Angels is loaded with them.
Take "Shining Light", for example. A smash single in the UK more than a year ago, it's an incandescent gem of a tune that perfectly encapsulates the best moments on the album: it's fun, it's melodic, it's sickly sweet, it's a song you catch yourself humming during an idle moment. Over an intro consisting of a light guitar riff, bass, and bouncing drums, Wheeler lays all his cards on the table when he sings, "You are a shining light / Yeah you light up my life." Okay, now at this point, you're probably ready to impale him with your CD jewel case . . . he just quoted Debbie Boone, for crying out loud! But if you're brave enough to keep yourself from hitting the stop button, you'll be rewarded. When he sings, "We made a connection/A full-on chemical reaction," the song explodes like fireworks, as blissful, as lovely a chorus as you'll hear this summer. Wheeler's got his big, goofy heart on his sleeve all the way through, and when you hear him intone, "A constellation once seen / Over Royal David's City / An epiphany you burn so pretty," you think, aw, shucks, ain't that cute? On the song goes, for a yummy, decadent five minutes. You go, Timmy, you go get that girl.
Ash are at their best when they're doing the same old noisy-guitars-catchy-melodies thing. "Burn Baby Burn", the other big single, is tailor-made for American rock radio, quality melodic rock like Jimmy Eat World, only much higher in sugar content. "Walking Barefoot" is pretty much what you'd expect, attempting to be as happy a summer song as Alex Chilton's "Back of Your Car", although, it has the odd lyrical misstep ("Anointed by Apollo and his chariot"? Huh?). Wheeler waxes Weezer-like on "Cherry Bomb" ("She is out there on her own / Perfection in her chromosomes" . . . now there's something I've never heard before), and the Ramones-ish "Pacific Palisades" goes as far as mentioning Dennis Wilson and Sharon Tate. "Sometimes" is a wistful acoustic song with nice vocal harmonies by guitarist Charlotte Hatherly, while the catchy "Nicole" has an attempt at a more sinister side ("I killed my baby but I loved her") that seems to bring to mind O.J. Simpson. Strings punctuate "There's a Star", and "World Domination" is as silly and infectious as anything by The Hives.
Unfortunately, Ash get a bit too ambitious, and when they stray away from the guitarpop, things get dull. "Candy" is hackneyed mush with techno accents, a Scott Walker sample (lifted from "Make It Easy on Yourself") and horrible lyrics ("Pure as driven snow"? Come on, Tim!); the low-rent Trent Reznor impersonation on "Submission" is just embarrassing, "Someday" is a bore, and "Shark" is a bit too Nirvana-aped for their own good. Only four bumps on a 13-track album isn't bad, though. Ignore the dreck and you'll be fine.
Free All Angels is the musical equivalent of Pixie Stix. It's extremely sweet, and best enjoyed in very small doses; the thought of too much of either just makes me cringe. Taken a few songs at a time, though, this CD is guaranteed to please. The North American release also comes with three B-sides (of very ordinary quality, not worth mentioning), and a special DVD featuring the bonus tracks, videos, and live footage, so although the album's not perfect, we're really getting our moneys' worth over here. So come on, kiddies, dump that ridiculous Nelly CD into the trash and get some fun music to be the soundtrack to your summer. Plug up the TRL web site with votes for "Shining Light", and make Free All Angels a hit. If he gets more royalties, maybe Tim Wheeler will be able to buy some Replacements albums, so he can learn how to write better lyrics.