Ash have returned with a new album, only to be upstaged by the solo debut by their own guitarist.
Grey Will Fade
US release date: Available as import
UK release date: 16 August 2004
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Although every attempt to hit it big in North America has fizzled, Ash continue to give it another go each time out, picking themselves up off the canvas, resolutely refusing to bow down for good. Actually, the fact that the Northern Ireland band has lasted this long remains one of the most pleasant surprises of the last decade. Seriously, when the joyful bubblegum rock of "Girl From Mars" broke in 1996, right smack in the middle of Britpop's peak, who knew they'd still be going strong nine years later, at five albums and counting? After the woefully underrated Nu-Clear Sounds (and let us not forget their near-classic single "A Life Less Ordinary"), Ash made an impressive comeback with the slightly inconsistent, but undeniably hook-laden Free All Angels, whose singles "Burn Baby Burn" and "Shining Light" were two of the most perfect examples of power pop to come out in the last five years. Sadly, American rock audiences didn't catch on. Heaven forbid a great pop hook should commingle with all the guitar riffs.
The ever-resilient Ash are back with yet another American record company behind them (their fifth, in five albums), determined to tackle the market across the Atlantic one more time. Released in the UK in June of last year, Meltdown returns to the more noisy sounds of 1999's Nu-Clear Sounds, but this time, the band's sound is Americanized considerably, thanks to Foo Fighters producer Nick Raskulinecz, who beefs up the record with layers of metallic guitars and big-sounding drums. For longtime fans of the band, it does sound jarring at first, but unlike Dave Grohl's clunky, ham-fisted attempts at catchy guitar rock, Ash manage to connect more often than not, and when the songs do work, the riffs and hooks achieve a surprisingly effective balance.
The best example of that contrast is on the single "Orpheus", which kicks off with a jarring metal riff that sounds lifted from System of a Down, but then shifts suddenly into a breezy chorus that's as catchy as anything the band has ever done. The decidedly more aggressive "Meltdown" is a clear Foo Fighters rip-off, the melody lifting it out of the post-grunge quagmire, while the more tame "Evil Eye" and the ebullient "Out of the Blue" come closest to sounding like the wide-eyed sounds fans are more familiar with. "Starcrossed" is the kind of big, swooning ballad singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler is so good at pulling off, and the hooks he concocts in "Renegade Cavalcade" and "Won't Be Saved" are the kind that stay in your head long after first hearing them.
Although slightly more consistent than Free All Angels, Meltdown isn't without its share of clunkers, such as the clumsy "Clones" (sounding more Godsmack than Undertones, which begs the listener to wonder what the hell they were thinking), the turgid "Detonator", and the very goofy "Vampire Love". Three bonus tracks append the US version of the album, but none really prove their worth, with the awful "Shockwave" the worst of the lot.
Ash's secret weapon remains the highly talented Charlotte Hatherley. Not only is she one of the best female lead guitarists in rock music today (her solos are all over the album), but she also adds a great dimension to the choruses, adding a refreshing feminine touch to each song, and on an album as deliberately heavy as Meltdown, her vocal presence is more valuable than ever.
That said, few North Americans are aware of the fact that a couple months after Meltdown's release in the UK last summer, Hatherley herself put out her own solo debut, and not only does it allow the talented lady to take center stage for once, Grey Will Fade actually outshines her own band's album, at times greatly so. In fact, those who are a bit leery of the louder sounds of Meltdown should seek out Hatherley's album first, as it tones down the distortion, and turns up the pop.
Less than a minute into the album's leadoff track "Kim Wilde", listeners are hit by two realizations: one, that Hatherley has a great singing voice that has been criminally underused in Ash, and two, she is one talented pop songwriter. The relentlessly, madly effervescent "Kim Wilde", originally released as a free internet single in the spring of 2004, is the kind of indie pop confection that would make The New Pornographers jealous, a crazed, four minute assault of hooks that fly at you from all directions rivaling the joyous insanity of a Go Home Productions mash-up. When Hatherley croons, "A siren for you baby," it's impossible not to give in. The lighthearted "Summer" is a bit more straightforward, but adorable nonetheless, a Weezer imitation that surpasses anything from Weezer's last two albums, before veering into a fun, Pixies-inspired coda. The propulsive "Paragon" seems inspired by The Breeders' quirkier moments, and the pretty ballad "Where I'm Calling From" comes closest to matching Ash's sound, but electronic touches add a refreshing dimension to the song, making it more than a run-of-the-mill power ballad.
While "Kim Wilde" is easily the best song on the album, the one track that comes closest to matching it is the charming "Bastardo", Hatherley's tale of an encounter with a "two-faced lothario" who steals her guitar, which, in an absolutely beguiling twist, prompts Hatherley to sing longingly about her missing instrument ("Oh my beautiful guitar/On and on I go till I find you"). All the while, the song cruises along at a jittery, post punk pace, done so well, it would sound great alongside those great Stiff Records singles from 25 years ago.
Like Meltdown, Grey Will Fade isn't perfect, as the sleepy "Down" and the overtly Pixies-esque "Stop" briefly derail the album midway through, but while Ash's CD alternates between the darkness and the light, Hatherley throws open the shades on her album, letting the summer sun in, basking in the warmth. Indie pop fans will gravitate to both records, but Hatherley's charmer of a debut is the one that will prove the most rewarding, definitely worth the import price.