February 20, 2003

Brit-Pop Senseibility

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The new Supergrass album, Life on Other Planets, has arrived as the latest and greatest incarnation of Brit-rock, but before discussing the present release, I’d like to take you back to some of my middle school lunch periods circa 1995.

Just imagine that strange adolescent phase you were going through as you tried to define yourself through an odd, contradictory mix of rebellion and conformity. If you were to look back now, you would have to think to yourself, “I had no fucking clue what the hell I was doing back then.” Those are the days I’m talking about.

For clear stylistic similarities, listening to Life on Other Planets, or (L.O.O.P), brought back memories of this past epoch and the heated cafeteria debates concerning the Brit-rock feud between Blur and Oasis. At the time, when new music seemed to be exploding from the far side of the Atlantic, the two bands seemed diametrically opposed to one another, at least to our undeveloped pre-teen brains. Consequently, there were those who supported the Beatles-rip-off, rock-arrogance of Oasis, and those who supported the quirky, melodic playfulness of the reigning kings of Brit-pop, Blur (can you tell which side of the cafeteria table I sat at?). In retrospect, the bands weren’t really set against each other at all, as my friend recently put it: “I liked Oasis ’cause they were a bunch of fuck-ups; Blur was just a better band.”

Now that there’s no making this long story short, it’s time to bring it back to the album at hand. L.O.O.P. is so steeped in the past realm of Brit-pop, particularly schooled in the ways of Blur, that it exists in the present, but remains decidedly attached to a previous time. If you indulge me even farther: isn’t it funny how the acronym of the album’s title hints at such a cycle?

The heavy Blur influence on Supergrass comes through in L.O.O.P.’s effusive, warm, gushing pop — so sugary sometimes its saccharin, while at other times, it tastes just sweet enough. It’s not the bubble gum variety of the Billboard charts, but a form of pop defined by a warmth of soulful sound in layers upon layers of vocal harmonies (with plenty of stereotypical O’s, Yea’s, and La’s), straight rock beats, and guitar solos so full of hooks, you find yourself singing along to them, not the lyrics. In order to fill out their pop craftsmanship, Supergrass enlists Producer Tony Hoffer, known for his work on Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend and Beck’s Midnite Vultures, to add those synthy, other-worldy sound effects, which alone might seem insignificant, but when placed into the context of a Supergrass tune, add that essential, intangible element — something analogous to the role of McDonald’s special sauce (you know it’s basically ketchup and mayonnaise, but it seems to add so much more). By far, the most impressive aspect of L.O.O.P is its pop-sensibility in the various combinations of texture, mood, and timbre Supergrass achieves.

“Za” and “Rush Hour Soul,” the first two tracks on the album, provide excellent examples of this knack. From the chopsticks-like keyboard introduction by Rob Coombes, the dulcet, bubbling bass lines of Mick Quinn, the Charlie Watts directness of Danny Goffey’s beats, to the soaring, psychedelic guitar of Gaz Coombes, Supergrass delivers riveting catchiness. This sentiment saturates the album to such a great extent that no matter how much headway Supergrass makes in the direction of slightly darker or more contemplative melody, the band cannot help but return to their rock-out pop formula, as if the temptation to sip the nectar of their music always outweighs the desire for a bit of the bitter.

On the tracks such as “Prophet 15” and “Run” where Supergrass attempts to escape their pop affinity, veering away from the influence of Blur and The Kinks more towards that of Pink Floyd, the band’s style still seems one-dimensional, despite the emotional variation of Gaz’s vocals and the rest of the band’s playing. Although the two aforementioned tracks are slow-brewing ballads focusing on the “serious” themes of death and desire for an escape, nothing ever seems quite that dark in Supergrass’s alternate world. This assemblage of tracks only lends some of the much needed nuance to Supergrass’s pop-driven singularity.

L.O.O.P. is clearly an uplifting album, at times so much so that it is almost suffocating. Nonetheless, when played sparingly and at the right moments, the album takes the listener on a unique trip to the bouncy, effervescent land of Brit-pop. Supergrass should include a short disclaimer in their liner notes: if melancholy is your desired destination, you’re on the wrong bus.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman