A Catholic Education (Creation, Matador ‘90) Rating: B
An underrated, too often forgotten band who briefly became critics darlings before being beset by dwindling album sales and increasing record company indifference (despite still garnerning generally positive reviews), Teenage Fanclub are exactly the type of band I like to tout. Built around three strong singer-songwriters (Raymond McGinley, Gerard Love, and Norman Blake, the latter of whom dominates the songwriting credits on this album, unlike their more democratic approach later on), Teenage Fanclub's first album is actually quite unrepresentative of their later career, though it has its moments and in fact boasts one of their best songs ever, "Everything Flows," which has a dense, wonderfully building, surging guitar groove that's genuinely exciting (and for all the band's crafty virtues "exciting" is not an adjective that I'd often use to describe them). On the whole, this album features a rawer, grungier sound than later releases, and the murky, lo-fi production at times hinders songs that are sometimes underdeveloped anyway. That said, there are a fair amount of modest pleasures here, such as the title track, an enjoyably short, grungy swipe at organized religion, "Too Involved," "Critical Mass," and "Eternal Light," all of which are more in line with the band's far more melodic subsequent efforts, "Every Picture I Paint," whose fast, darker guitar groove evokes Sonic Youth, and "Everbody's Fool," a Dinosaur Jr.-ish romp that revels in its mean-spiritness (quite the contrary from typical Teenage Fanclub which tends to be extremely uplifting). Unfortunately, there's no real reason for the reprise of "A Catholic Education" to exist, and that goes double for the interminable 7-minute instrumental dirge "Heavy Metal II" (at least the first one is short). Aside from the glorious "Everything Flows," the album on the whole tends to blend together for me, and my guess is that the band weren't too thrilled with it themselves given that they never really went in this dirtier, more downcast direction again. As such, I'd recommend this album primarily to non-fans or completists, since its only truly essential song can also be found on the band's essential "best of" collection. P.S. After this album came The King, but given that it's generally panned as a throwaway contractual obligation release, I haven't bothered trying to obtain it. Heck, getting my hands on A Catholic Education was hard enough.
Bandwagonesque (DGC ‘91) Rating: A-
Though decidedly derivative of past power popsters Big Star, not to mention The Beatles, Byrds, and Beach Boys, producer Don Fleming keeps the band’s rough edges intact, mixing grungy guitars alongside sweet melodies that still rock. These charmingly simple songs showcase the band’s honey dipped harmonies to fine effect, but some feedback eruptions and languid melodies bring the band into the slacker ‘90s, where power pop is unfortunately still more popular with critics than consumers. Whatever the band lacks in originality they make up for in stellar songwriting and strong performances, producing pop gems such as “What You Do To Me,” the best song Big Star forgot to write, and “I Don’t Know,” which has a great, easy going groove and catchy yet crunchy guitar riffs. Other highlights include the hard-driving but tuneful “Star Sign,” the catchy glam pop of "Metal Baby," the sighing “aahs” and driving dual guitars of “Alcoholiday,” and especially “The Concept,” the epic opener that's simply one of the best power pop songs ever. Actually, the songwriting on the entire album is consistently strong, though the energy occasionally lags, my primary problem with this otherwise excellent band. But beyond its stellar songwriting, Bandwagonesque holds together as an album. For example, I get an odd kick out of "Satan" (a short, rocking grunge instrumental) and I love “Is This Music?” (a propulsive new wave-y instrumental that ends the album on an upbeat high), and you can rest assured that you'll never find them on any "best of" collection. No, those songs belong here and only here, on an album that sees the band matching their unpretentious music to innocent declarations like “you’re my guiding star” or simple sentiments such as “I love your walk” (those quotes are from other songs I could've called out as highlights, "Guiding Star" and "Sidewinder"). Such is the paradox of Teenage Fanclub, who define the “power pop” moniker quite well by having an irresistibly catchy and melodic pop sense, plus loud, distorted guitars and a rhythm section that can kick up a storm. Named “Album Of The Year” by SPIN magazine (much to their later embarrassment after Nevermind’s rise to eminence), an overstatement considering the competition (1991 being one of the best years in recent memory), but one that clearly demonstrated the enthusiastic reaction that hearing this album can cause.
Thirteen (DGC ‘93) Rating: B
After Bandwagonesque, expectations ran high for this follow up album, so I can see why most people, myself included, were disappointed in Thirteen. After all, though the songs are generally solid, if occasionally overly simplistic and wimpy, something’s missing. Perhaps it’s the more polished production, but the energy level just isn’t consistently there, and as a result some of the songs here sound lifeless and seem to blandly blend into one another. They still have an extremely pleasant sound, but even their best riffs and wildest guitar rips don’t quite connect with the proper impact. Then again, much of the album is pretty mellow, and their sweet vocal harmonies are again highly effective, plus lyrically (aside from the mean-spirited "Tears Are Cool") they show more depth this time out (“asked you for nothing, that’s what I got”). They still wear their hearts on their sleeves, but in addition to typically un-angsty sentiments (“I’m in love with you,” “I want to thank you”) the band also brings more downbeat meditations ("I don't want to be alone," "I don't know if I'm going up or down with you," "this is your one way ticket so don't fuck it up") to the table this time, keeping them more in line with what was going on in the music world at the time (i.e. grunge). The album still stiffed, in part because despite some significant highlights, such as "Hang On," "The Cabbage," "Radio," "Norman 3" (the album is quite frontloaded), "Escher," and "Gene Clark," too much of the material was lackluster (though I like parts of other songs, such as the guitars in "Commercial Alternative" and the "hey hey hey" vocals in "Fear Of Flying"), but also because their throwback brand of power pop has always been tough to market. Fittingly, Thirteen (named after one of Big Star’s best songs) ends with a tribute to another underrated pop craftsman, “Gene Clark” (though, in a typical Teenage Fanclub paradox, this epic 6+-minute slow burner owes far more to Neil Young), and though this album isn’t nearly as good as what came immediately before or after it, I’m still glad that I own it.
Grand Prix (DGC ‘95) Rating: A-
One of the best pure pop bands around, Teenage Fanclub returns with a stellar set of songs on Grand Prix, an album that again melds together a diverse group of influences (all the aforementioned ones). As previously mentioned, the band has three strong songwriters (Raymond McGinley, Gerard Love, and Norman Blake) who here split the chores evenly, and as usual their airy harmonies serve as highlights. Beginning with the 1-2 power pop punch of “About You” and “Sparky’s Dream,” both of which are catchier than anything on Thirteen, the album maintains the high quality throughout. Other notable songs include the hummable philosophizing of “Don’t Look Back,” the quietly catchy “Verisimilitude,” the piano/strings/horns-heavy pop of “Tears,” the beautiful guitar chimes and harmonies of “Going Places” (love the mandolins on this one as well), and “Neil Jung,” a great guitar track on which they tunefully yet grungily pay tribute to a prime influence. Actually, come to think of it, I could name several other songs as highlights as well, such as "Mellow Doubt," a low-key acoustic number with a cottage campfire feel, "Discolite," another stellar power pop tune, and "I Gotta Know," whose grungy guitars are as agreeably raw and hard hitting as their harmonies are soft (there's that paradox again). Anyway, most of these songs are very good but not quite great and there are a couple of lesser tracks, but the band has corrected the primary problems of the previous album, as the rough edges return and memorably distinguishable songs are the norm. Simply put, Teenage Fanclub have a knack for writing and playing simple but effective pop rock songs, and Grand Prix was a winning effort from a band that somehow manages to escape mainstream success despite the consistent quality of their highly accessible and largely uplifting output.
Songs From Northern Britain (Creation/Columbia ‘97) Rating: B+
These critics faves still wear their influences (Byrds, Big Star, Neil Young) on their sleeves, but this time they smooth over the rough edges more than ever; in other words, this summery pop album is more like the Byrds than Big Star or Neil Young. Though the grunge trappings are largely gone, Songs From Northern Britain is relaxed and confident, but sometimes it's too polished and laid back for its own good, as this uplifting, melodic, and romantic (all band trademarks) album is easy to like and admire but hard to get overly excited about. Few of the songs stand out at first, and words like "bland" and "plain" are appropriate at times. The hooks are there, though, and several songs are instantly appealing, such as the catchy jangle pop of "Ain't That Enough" (an easy choice as the album's first single), “I Don’t Want Control Of You,” “Take The Long Way Round,” and "Winter," as well as the edgier "Can't Feel My Soul," on which the boys coax all sorts of cool sounds from their guitars, proving that they're accomplished players as well as crafty songwriters. This point is further underscored on "Mount Everest," another Neil Young-ian guitar showcase that’s every bit as epic as its name would suggest. Notable guitar solos also grace "Start Again" and "It's A Bad World" (the former a typically strong album opener, the latter somewhat undone by a weak chorus), while “I Don’t Care” and “Speed Of Light” are as singable as you’d expect but are more singular sound-wise. Indeed, most of these songs share similar virtues, with the focus generally being on tight songwriting, largely upbeat lyrics about family and the Scottish countryside (paid tribute to in the album's cover photos), and close-knit harmonies. All of which I've come to expect from this band, and though I consider this album to be a clear notch below both Bandwagonesque and Grand Prix, Songs From Northern Britain was another very worthwhile release, even including the plain parts. Alas, despite delivering another consistently tuneful feel-good triumph, the band's commercial fortunes continued to decline in the U.S.
Howdy! (Columbia '00, Thirsty Ear ‘01) Rating: B
Graced with a terrible cover and an equally lame title, this album wasn't even released in the U.S. until a year after it was available elsewhere, and it sank like a stone. What few reviews there were weren't especially kind, either, but Teenage Fanclub are too humble, talented, and (frankly) unambitious to make a bad album, and this albums charms are revealed after repeat plays. Continuing in a similar vein as Songs For Northern Britain only even mellower as now the grunge elements are all but gone, the problem with this album is that much of it kinda comes and goes, albeit not unpleasantly. There are some fine songs, however, particularly Love's whose songs are the very definition of "summery." "I Need Direction" brings forth upbeat, sunny jangle pop, and "Near You" also delivers light summery pop, this time with piano and horn embellishments. "The Town and the City" is another upbeat winner with a more energetic performance than most of the other songs (I really like the drums and horns), and the lush "Cul De Sac" is very pretty if also a bit boring and too long. Surprisingly, McGinley, generally the band's weakest songwriting link and wimpiest singer, actually delivers a better batch of songs than Blake, who had previously written many of the band's greatest hits (as had Love to a slightly lesser extent) but who slumps here, with only the short "Straight and Narrow" really ranking as a keeper entry among three other lesser tracks. McGinley does better but is hit and miss too, with "I Can't Find My Way Home" being one of those "pleasant but kinda comes and goes" tracks I alluded to, and "Happiness" being a boring wimp ballad. I far prefer "The Sun Shines From You," which is in his best low-key yet catchy style, and "My Uptight Life," another solidly melodic if over-long entry. Anyway, like I said, this is a pretty enjoyable album overall, it's just rather slight and it isn't nearly as good as some of the bands other albums.
Four Thousand Seven Hundred And Sixty-Six Seconds - A Shortcut To Teenage Fanclub (Poolside Records ‘03) Rating: A
Though I would unreservedly recommend Bandwagonesque, Grand Prix, and even Songs From Northern Britain, this generous 20-track, nearly 80-minute compilation is a great starting point for the uninitiated, and it should also appeal to big fans since it not only contains many of their best songs, but it also includes three worthwhile new songs: "The World'll Be OK," "Empty Space," and "Did I Say" (the best of that bunch). Sure there are quite a few choice tracks that didn't make the cut, but for those you can head to the original albums; for most casual fans, this stellar collection contains most if not all that you'll need. There have certainly been more exciting and daring bands during the decade plus period that this collection chronicles, but few bands excelled so consistently from a songwriting standpoint, not unlike Sloan I suppose, another underrated power pop band with a wealth of talented singer-songwriters. Again, this album hits most of the band's biggest highs - "The Concept," "Ain't That Enough," "Everything Flows," "About You," "What You Do To Me," "Sparky's Dream," "Don't Look Back," "Neil Jung," "Hang On," and "Radio," for example - and my only minor complaint, aside from some song selection quibbles (there should've been more than three songs included from Bandwagonesque, for starters), is that maybe the album is a tad too long. You can get a bit of a head rush when ingesting too many sugary sweets in one sitting, after all; then again, you usually only notice this after the fact, 'cause when it's going down it tastes too damn good for you to offer anything more than mere token resistance.