Best albums of 1991: #2 Teenage Fanclub “Bandwagonesque”

Teenage Fanclub is yet another band that I have MuchMusic’s “CityLimits” to thank for the introduction. And I know I’ve written about this very subject many times but it’s true. The late Friday night alternative music video show on Canada’s music channel was instrumental in my education, especially once I had set my sights on music from the left-hand side of the dial. The Fannies video for “Star sign” was what first caught my eye, the jangly psychedelics in sound and image had me tangled immediately and irrevocably in its hypnotic snare. Other videos followed, a few of which are below, and they found themselves on the video cassette tape nets in which I was collecting as much music as I could catch. So when MuchMusic started using the introduction from “The concept” as part the show’s opening, I smiled knowingly every time.

I learned much later that the band formed in 1989 in Bellshill, Scotland. Founding members Gerard Love, Norman Blake, and Raymond McGinley were all talented guitarists, songwriters, and vocalists in their own rights and each contributed mightily to the band’s finished products, especially as time wore on. But even in the case of today’s focus, the incredible third album, “Bandwagonesque”, each member listed above and even the drummer at the time, Brendan O’Hare, had their own written song(s) on the card that the writer sang on the recording and would take up the mike when performed live. (For you Canadian music fans out there, this might remind you of a certain homegrown band of east coast origins by the name of Sloan.) And not only did each sing their own songs but they also found voices on all of the tunes, harmonizing in a way that some might compare to The Beach Boys but those in the real know might liken to Big Star*.

“Bandwagonesque” was a huge leap for the quartet. Their two previous outings were practically throwaways, in-jokes and shambolic cacophonies. In fact, their sophomore album, “The king”, was hastily recorded and deleted from circulation the day after it was released. And the though the third album was still comical and taking humorous kicks at the music industry (just take a look at the name and album cover**), it shows hints at the maturity, musicianship, and longevity of group that still releases music to this day.

The album actually did just as well in North America as it did in Europe and Britain, a feat they were never able to repeat. Many of its singles hit it big on college radio and some even managed to latch on to the newly established Billboard modern rock chart. Indeed, “Bandwagonesque” placed highly on a great many music magazines’ end of year lists, famous placing number one on Spin Magazine’s list over “Nevermind”, “Out of time”, and “Loveless”. I can’t say I disagree with Spin’s assessment (though I am sure in hindsight their pick would be changed), as wouldn’t a bunch of artists that were influenced by the group, like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who released a cover of this complete album back in 2017.

My three picks for you from “Bandwagonesque” are all songs with which I fell in love through repeated plays of their videos but really, each of the eleven tracks on the album are pure noise rock perfection. If you’ve seen the cover and heard the name but never taken the plunge, get on it. You won’t be sorry.

”What you do to me”: “What you do to me… I know, I can’t believe. There’s something about you, got me down on my knees.” Those are the lyrics. That’s it. Granted, these are repeated throughout, some of the lines more than others. But these four lines really tell the story and evoke exactly the passion felt by one Norman Blake. The track is just a shade over two minutes with lots of rip roaring and crunchy guitars, hair hanging long over the face, masking the angst there, while the whole band gets involved with harmonies. And then, if listening to the version in the video below (which of course, was my introduction to this song), the band leads right into instrumental track, “Satan”, which is just an explosion and mess of instruments letting loose the passion previously restrained.

”Star sign”: As I mentioned above, Teenage Fanclub were jokesters, not taking themselves, nor anything, really, too seriously. Here, they poke fun at superstitions and good luck charms and astrology. “Hey there’s a horseshoe on my door; big deal. And say there’s a black cat on the floor, big deal.” But bassist Gerard Love does so with such verve and panache, you can’t feel beaten at, even if you might swear by these things. “Star sign” was the first track to be released off the album and was my intro to the group. The video reflected a retro 60s vibe but the sound was of its true time and space, reverb and feedback gives way to thumping drum fills and driving guitars and of course, plenty of harmonies. Powerful vibes throughout, man. Yeah, it stuck.

”The concept”: This very track, the six minute opener of the album, appeared at number seven when I counted down my favourite tunes of 1991 a few years ago. You can go back and re-read that post if you’d like, but I’m going to plagiarize a good part of it here: “[The song] starts off the album with a scream of feedback and that iconic first line: “She wears denim wherever she goes, says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo.” Its first two minutes set the stage for the rest of the band’s career, mellow rocker with jangly guitars just this side of fuzz and Blake’s gentle rock star vocals with the three part harmonies the band would become known for at the chorus. Between the verses, the guitars become just that much more raunchy and then, at the three minute mark, the song becomes completely instrumental and the guitars follow the drums into a loose jam, at one point, a violin bow is even brandished to further accentuate their point.”

*That’s a subject for a whole other post maybe…

**The album cover was designed by one Sharon Fitzgerald but once Gene Simmons caught wind of the moneybag motif, a cheque had to be written to acquiesce the Kiss frontman’s trademark.

Check back two Thursdays from today for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “Godfodder”
9. Spirit Of The West “Go figure”
8. Chapterhouse  “Whirlpool”
7. Blur “Leisure”
6. Levellers “Levelling the land”
5. The Wonder Stuff “Never loved Elvis”
4. R.E.M. “Out of time”
3. Primal Scream “Screamadelica”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Live music galleries

Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #9 Belle and Sebastian – Saturday, July 6th, 2013

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

Belle and Sebastian live at Bluesfest 2013

Artist: Belle and Sebastian
When: Saturday, July 6th, 2013
Where: Claridge Homes stage at 8:00pm
Context: Where do I even begin? I mean Belle and Sebastian has been one of my favourite bands for a very long time. I’ve been following this Scottish indie pop band since some point around 1997 or 1998. One of my favourite ever albums is 1998’s “The boy with the arab strap” but I know each one of their albums intimately and have a bunch of them in my vinyl collection. But this set was my first and still only time seeing the band to date.

When Belle and Sebastian took the stage, they were an impressive sight. They are already a large band, sitting at seven full-time members, but then when you add in the string quartet, a cellist, additional keyboards and horn players, they had up to 13 musicians on stage at different points in their performance. Again, it was a pretty impressive sight and the sound was just incredible.

The biggest surprise for me of their whole set, though, was Stuart Murdoch. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I thought he was excellent and I’m not just talking about his singing and guitar playing. He was a delight with the audience from the beginning, telling stories and jokes between every song. He started off by mentioning that because this was their first time in Ottawa, they fully intended to play music from their entire catalogue. As Murdoch himself put it, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” He also called Ottawa the friendliest city in Canada and went on to the tell the story of how he went for a walk downtown and didn’t think he’d make it back to the festival on time so he jumped on a bus without correct change and the driver let him ride for free, “just this once”.

As promised, Murdoch and company performed tracks from all over their career. A couple of times during the set he introduced older tracks with the preface that they were for those in crowd that were older, like him, but that if the youngsters in the crowd knew the songs too, even better. There was so much from which to choose that they could have played but didn’t. Still, I was not disappointed in the least at the songs that made the set. In fact, I think I would have been happy with whatever they played but there was one song in particular that I really wanted to hear, that is, of course, the title track off “The boy with the arab strap”. And wouldn’t you know? They played it, along with another of my favourite tracks, “Legal man”, during a part of the set where Murdoch was feeling like dancing. He invited a few members from the audience to come up on stage while the band performed these two songs. It was brilliant.

The band finished off their proper set with “Judy and the dream of horses” and left the stage. But the crowd was not letting them off that easily, insisting on one more song. They returned, almost embarrassed, and Murdoch wondered aloud whether it was “bad protocol” to perform an encore at a music festival. We weren’t complaining at all, especially when he dove into another classic track, “Get me away from here I’m dying”.

The setlist
The backdrop
Stuart Murdoch and Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian
Stevie Jackson and Bobby Kildea of Belle and Sebastian
Dave McGowan and Sarah Martin of Belle and Sebastian
Richard Colburn of Belle and Sebastian
Stevie Jackson and Stuart Murdoch
Sarah Martin and Stuart Murdoch
Dancing to ‘The boy with the arab strap’

Judy Is a Dick Slap
I’m a Cuckoo
I Want the World to Stop
To Be Myself Completely
Piazza, New York Catcher
If She Wants Me
Funny Little Frog / Seeing Other People
Like Dylan in the Movies
I Didn’t See It Coming
The Boy With the Arab Strap
Legal Man
Judy and the Dream of Horses
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying


Best albums of 1989: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Happy Monday all!

(I know what you’re thinking: is it really Monday?! Well, the answer to that is: “YES!!!” )

And if that wasn’t enough of a good reason to kick off a new series this morning, it’s also June 1st. That’s right. We’re five months into this train wreck of a year called 2020 and I haven’t done one of these throwback Best Albums series for a while so I thought I’d throw down for you one of the greatest years for alternative rock. That’s right: 1989.

If you’ve been around these pages before, you might remember that I typically do these Best Album throwbacks on Thursdays (for the #tbt thing, of course) and though I’ve changed up the day this time around, I’ll be keeping the rest of my usual format intact. Today’s post is just the tease, introducing the five albums that round out the latter part of my top ten, and then, over the course of the next five Mondays, I’ll lay out my five favourite albums of the year, one by one. And as I said above, it’s a great one. Many of the albums are classics, catching the bands who released them at their peaks, whether at the beginning or the end of their careers, and are considered some of the most influential albums to the alternative rock artists that followed, through the 90s and beyond.

I’ve already done my top ten favourites for both 1987 and 1988 and though I talked up both of those years at the time, 1989 was the real deal. And I’m not just saying that because I say that about all the years. I was by then firmly into high school and my teen years when the final year of the eighties came around and I was finally forming some musical tastes beyond the normal AM radio fare. And though I didn’t catch on to all of these albums at the time, I can at least say I was aware of most of them, if not right away, then at least within a year or two of their release date. Indeed, I have been listening to these ten albums for so long, they are like close friends.

Are you excited? I am. So let’s do this. And of course, as we do, I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on my picks and what your own would be for 1989…

#10 The Jesus And Mary Chain “Automatic”

With “Automatic”, the Reid brothers, Jim and William, picked up right where they left off with 1987’s “Darklands”, which, incidentally, appeared at #8 on my list for that year. The Jesus And Mary Chain were effectively just the two of them at this point, though you wouldn’t know it by listening to the tunes. They filled every ounce of soundscape using electronics, employing a drum machine and synthesizers to imitate bass guitars and to wash out the rest. And though they were criticized for this at the time, attitudes have changed over time, and the album is nowadays considered amongst The JAMC’s best work. The music is dark, raging, and roaring stuff, like a loud motorcycle racing through high and violent winds, the hair of its leather-jacketed rider, whipping about wildly, but being kept on course by the ever-present cool sunglasses. Yeah.

Gateway tune: Head on

#9 Galaxie 500 “On fire”

I didn’t listen to this album until well over a decade after its release. I finally decided to investigate Galaxie 500 a few years after frontman Dean Wareham’s second band, Luna, broke up and I had exhausted their catalogue. I started with “On fire” because it was the only one of their three of which I had previously heard, which makes sense because it is widely considered the trio’s high watermark. Together with Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, Wareham found his voice out of a love for lo-fi soundscapes, understated guitar brilliance, and The Velvet Underground. “On fire” is definitely rougher hewn than anything in the Luna catalogue but that doesn’t make it any less the underrated dream pop classic that it is.

Gateway tune: Tell me

#8 The Beautiful South “Welcome to The Beautiful South”

After The Housemartins called it quits in 1988, frontman Paul Heaton and drummer Dave Hemingway immediately formed The Beautiful South, the moniker a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fact that they were from Northern England. The five-piece’s debut “Welcome to The Beautiful South” expanded on the jangle pop sound of The Housemartins but happily, the biting and outspoken lyrics continued, as it did throughout their career. The controversial cover (the Canadian version of the cover pictured above omits the image of a woman with a gun in her mouth) didn’t seem to hurt album sales any and really, this album was just the beginning for a band that would go on to sell millions of units. So many great tracks on this one, including the one below.

Gateway tune: Song for whoever

#7 The Grapes of Wrath “Now and again”

The Grapes of Wrath’s fourth album, “Now and again”, was also their most commercially successful. Partially because of Canadian content (CanCon) rules imposed on Canadian radio and television stations but also because this album’s folk rock sound with impeccable harmonies had mass appeal. I definitely remember having the album’s singles recorded to cassette tape from AM radio at the time, but it was years before I would hear this album in full, long after the band had broken up and re-formed again. And though sometimes when I come to an album late, I find I can’t get into the time and place headspace of when it was released, this album is not an example of this. Timeless would be the right word here.

Gateway tune: All the things I wasn’t

#6 New Model Army “Thunder and consolation”

New Model Army’s fourth record is still their most successful to date and is likely one of my own personal faves. Justin Sullivan’s excellent, politically and socially-conscious lyrics and the group’s punk and post-punk informed sound received a bit of facelift when they were joined by violinist, Ed Alleyne-Johnson for this album. The infusion of folk and traditional music started the band to trend towards constantly tweaking their sound over the years and has likely aided in their longevity. And amazingly, they still haven’t lost any amount of edge or sense of urgency, especially here. This album is full of stomping great tracks, like the haunting one below.

Gateway tune: Green and grey

Check back next Monday for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.