Supergrass: Life on Other Planets

Life on Other Planets
Def Jam

Not the recycled refrain of Oasis. Not the edgy ambition of Radiohead. Not the moody shoe-gaze of Blur. Not the epic glam of Spacehog. Somewhere, lying in a puddle of UK rain, is a band that incorporates all of these elements with a dash of outer space thrown in for good measure. That band is Supergrass. As with many bands, it is hard to discuss Supergrass‘ present output without mentioning the historic foundation they build their sound upon.

Contrary to the opinion of many critics, apparent influences are not the horrid specter they’re often made out to be. It’s the most readily available weapon in a critic’s arsenal to go down the “carbon-copy” avenue. Pressured by deadline? Write up a quickie describing the band via the output of an aforementioned and easily identifiable band from “the golden age”, i.e., the Beatles (and really, isn’t everyone just copying them?). Now, for certain, some bands deserve the “retread” label. There’s no denying the reprocessed yawp of Creed or the not-so-sleight-of-hand produced by Lenny Kravitz. However, for every dummy of the ventriloquist, there is a band that knows how to use a filter. For instance, no one would accuse Green Day of being the world’s most original band, but this argument completely misses the point. They take a stew of Clash riffs, Elvis Costello snarl, and Ramones pop to funnel their own sound. Every good band is a combination of influence plus a special ingredient. Just ask the bevy of blues artists who ran out of loans for rock legends like Led Zeppelin. Quote-unquote stealing is done all the time — it’s just a matter of how talented one becomes at grand theft audio. This sentiment brings us back to Supergrass, a group that’s accumulated its fair share of comparisons to ’70s bands like T-Rex and Pink Floyd. Four albums into their career, Gaz Coombes, Mike Quinn, and Danny Goffey are still performing the balancing act of ghosts in the past with aliens of the future to show us what Life on Other Planets (L.O.O.P.) might be like.

Starting with the space-age carousel of “Za”, Supergrass rocks out of the gate via a David Bowie “Changes” piano loop recharged by an orchestra of feedback and distortion. A mission statement of sorts can be found in the minimalist lyrics (“Face, such a beautiful face / But time waits for no one / So why don’t we get it on”). It’s “eat, drink, and be merry” the Supergrass way, with plenty of catchy rhythms and popular refrains. Like most of their standout material, the sound is an echo of White Album Beatles and solo-era John Lennon. Coombes’ voice captures the reckless delicacy apparent in a song like Lennon’s “Instant Karma”. Think the Beatles playing on the roof of Abbey Road Studios in Mars.

“Rush Hour Soul” kicks with a hammer-on, pull-off guitar line that sounds like a racecar shifting gears. After the rollicking first verse, Supergrass downshifts to create the aura of a “comet’s drift to the sun.” This is a trademark of the band’s arsenal, to ebb and flow between proton charge and airy retreat. It is precisely this ragged roll that makes them so appealing. Supergrass is at its best when the music is a blender without a top (brilliantly displayed on their 1999 self-titled venture). They are the rare band that loses juice when the arrangements are tight and the focus is keen. Unfortunately, too many songs on L.O.O.P. stray from primary strength, producing a surprisingly stolid feel for a group proven to be experts at fun.

First case in point is “Can’t Get Up”, a track that starts out sounding like the Eagles and reforms into the Rolling Stones circa Dirty Work. Drained of abandon, this is your father’s band. The same form is mirrored with “Brecon Beacons”, a song so bad it actually steals a page from the Fixx. These two songs represent Supergrass at their muddled worst. The middle section of the album (tracks four through eight) repeats this bland formula far too often. Perhaps a better producer could have convinced the boys to chop off the rough edges, but Tony Hoffer allows this segment to sound like a demo (especially the throwaway “Never Done Nothing Like That Before”). With only “Evening of the Day” resembling the eclectic soul that makes for a fun listen, one wonders if this record is destined for the “used bin”.

And then like a lightning bolt to a key on a kite comes “Grace”, the best example of Britpop to swim across the pond since “Wonderwall”. Like the classic “Pumping on Your Stereo” (from ’99s Supergrass), “Grace” is everything right with pop — bouncing melody that instantly brightens the fog. This opens the floodgates for “La Song”, which contains a bassline that would make the late great John Entwhistle proud. The trifecta completes with “Prophet 15”, a dream through music that describes random encounters with disparate icons like John Belushi and Joan of Arc. When Coombes lilts that he’s “lost in a cloud”, one can’t help but feel it a good metaphor for Life on Other Planets, an album that can resemble both great heights and sightless gray.