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Holy Hell! Songs from Northern Britain Turns 20

Holy Hell! Songs from Northern Britain Turns 20

Ask any fan of Teenage Fanclub what the band’s finest hour was, they’d probably point to 1991’s Bandwagonesque.

Ask any fan of Teenage Fanclub what the band’s finest hour was, they’d probably point to 1991’s Bandwagonesque. It’s hard to argue against that, of course, as the album contains some of their most enduring compositions and has a fire and spark unequaled by their contemporaries. However, that early artistic high point is one that the band themselves are very reluctant to listen to. Their more recent work, including new album Here, owes very little to that early mix of grunge and power-pop, relying instead on a sweeter, more straightforward sound originally laid out on what they likely consider to be their masterpiece, Songs from Northern Britain. While their attempts to replicate Britain have had varying degrees of success, the album remains a fresh, vibrant piece of music (even though it decidedly lacks the adolescent cool of Bandwagonesque). Instead, Britain relies on maturity and song craft to land its emotional punches, something it manages to do with aplomb.

Given Teenage Fanclub’s perception in wider popular culture as something of a grunge one-hit wonder, Songs from Northern Britain was definitely a shock at the time and still retains the power to surprise today. After spending two albums attempting to recreate Bandwagonesque’s crunch, the band’s trio of songwriters (Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley) decided to forgo the stylistic trappings of the early-‘90s and go for a more classic sound. Taking cues from the Byrds, CSNY and (especially) Big Star, Songs from Northern Britain is a crisp, clean affair with chiming guitars and soaring harmonies. With a few exceptions the band seems locked in three-part harmony throughout. It all makes for a very classic-sounding album, one that feels like a lost gem from another era of pop music.

One would imagine that aping the sounds of the mid-’60s and early-‘70s would lead to an album sounding hopelessly dated, but Songs from Northern Britain has arguably aged quite a bit better than its predecessors. The two albums that preceded it, Thirteen and Grand Prix, each had their charms and high points, but it was also quite clear that the band was attempting to recreate or reconfigure the Bandwagonesque sound. By getting away from that style entirely, Teenage Fanclub was able to reset themselves and allow their already well-honed pop songwriting talents to come to the fore.

Teenage Fanclub also seemed to take a stand with Songs from Northern Britain’s maturity and almost defiant positivity. Granted, it’s not as if the band were ever as dour as, say, Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, but their earlier work did have a certain pubescent angst and vagueness. A song like “What You Do To Me,” for example, is filled with indistinct generalities as it captures the notion of young love and infatuation’s grip on the mind and body. By contrast, Britain offers “Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From,” which presents the idea of love as being more grounded. It’s less about infatuation and more about companionship and stability, which is at the heart of what makes Songs from Northern Britain such a remarkable piece of work. The album is not just the sound of a rock band growing up (which is in and of itself an incredibly rare thing), it’s the sound of a rock band embracing and celebrating it.

Naturally, Songs from Northern Britain struggled to find an audience in 1997. While the album did reasonably well in the UK (where lead single “Ain’t That Enough” became a Top 40 hit), it barely made a dent in an America where teenagers were hooked on boy bands and more mature rock fans seemed drawn to the world-weariness of The Verve and the technologically-induced paranoia of Radiohead. Teenage Fanclub have never had any interest in that kind of heady subject matter; on Songs from Northern Britain, they merely wanted to celebrate a happy, simple life. It’s hard to say whether the album has aged well or if it’s the kind of album that gets better as the listener ages. Regardless, it’s an essential power-pop listen.

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