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Now That's What I Call Quite Good!
on 7 November 2000
Just call me a bold-faced liar. Were I an honest man, I'd have given "Howdy!" the five-star rating it deserves. But why tell Teenage Fanclub faithful something they already know? Any self-respecting fan has already bought the album; their reading of this review amounts to little more than an afterthought. These comments are intended for the uninitiated masses; the curious onlookers compelled to explore the murky depths of the indie pool in search of something decidedly less MTV inspired. Tread these waters carefully, friends! While discovering Teenage Fanclub may not be as remarkable a feat as unearthing Scotland's more famous offspring, the experience is pretty darn close. Granted, the Loch Ness monster may generate more tourist dollars for her native land, but I'm guessing she doesn't write songs nearly half as catchy.
"Howdy!" marks the sixth commercial release for Teenage Fanclub principals' Raymond McGinley, Norman Blake, and Gerard Love. Having spent the better part of a decade with little more than indie level recognition, you'd think the Scottish power popsters would be embittered by their lackluster chart success. Far from being soured, "Howdy!" -- with its jocularly dismissive title and album cover artwork more befitting a preschool pencil sketch -- reaffirms Teenage Fanclub as premier craftsmen of joyful, unadulterated pop. This is a collection of happy songs, yes, but deceptively so. Beneath the whimsical title and colorful melodies, the boys are clearly dragging some emotional baggage. Fortunately, the Fannies were never ones to hide their feelings.
Ever the democracy, McGinley, Blake, and Love share songwriting responsibilities, with each contributing four tracks to the album. McGinley, habitually overshadowed by his bandmates, proves himself to be a more disciplined composer with each album. "The Sun Shines From You" is a standout. With its acoustically-charged riff and cheerful melody, the song is tailor-made for carefree summer days. "I Can't Find My Way Home" and "Happiness" are mature efforts as well, though McGinley's voice does tend to wear on the listener after a few tracks. Just when I thought the Fannies had abandoned their penchant for endless fadeouts, McGinley steps up to the plate with "My Uptight Life". In the time it took this song to fade from chorus, I could have married, raised children, and put them through college. Though slightly overdone, the song is a pleasant reminder of Fannie fadeouts past.
Perhaps my expectations of Norman Blake are too high. Considering he's penned such Fanclub classics as "The Concept", "Neil Jung", and "Planets", my hopes for his latest compositions could not have been anything less than lofty. This may explain why I came away from "Howdy!" feeling slightly disappointed. "Dumb Dumb Dumb" is a promising effort that would have benefited greatly from a chorus or middle eight. "Accidental Life" and "Straight and Narrow", while not without their charm, lack the usual Blakean flare. Blake's strongest contribution, "If I Never See You Again", is an emotional acoustic piece that would fit equally as well on any R.E.M. album (perhaps the Fannies' tour with the Georgia-based lads rubbed off on Norman more than he realized). The delicate song is a fitting closer for the album. A good collection of Blake songs, but Fanclub fans have grown accustomed to greatness.
Odds are Gerard Love won't be sainted in this lifetime or beyond. However, it is a safe bet the musical gods will one day welcome him into their midst. Assuming, of course, Love hasn't already achieved a higher plane of awareness (how else can one explain his ability to write such divine music?). "I Need Direction", with its Beatlesque drum fills and 'bah bah bah' backing vocals, oozes 60's nostalgia. "The Town and the City" has a rousing enough horn section and an infectious rhythm to challenge "The Sun Shines From You" as the feel-good-track of the album. While "Cul De Sac" might initially strike the listener as a down-tempo version of Fanclub's "Speed of Light", the song is both evocative and original in its own right. "Near You" is Howdy's signature track. The song is simply euphoric, particularly during the hookline: "I get near, but I never seem to reach you." The listening experience is akin to a flying dream, where you're soaring blissfully above the heavens. Yes, the song is that good! What is even more amazing is when you peruse the Teenage Fanclub catalogue, you'll discover that Love has penned several equally inspiring songs.
"Howdy!" is very good album, an absolute must for any completist, but the band has done better. New fans may wish to start with Teenage Fanclub's previous album, "Songs From Northern Britain", or perhaps "Grand Prix", arguably the Fannies' catchiest collection of songs to date. In the end, it doesn't really matter where you begin your collection. Once you've listened to one album, you'll likely buy all the others as well. Then you can see for yourself why "Howdy!" really is a five-star album.