October 19, 2011

Test Spins: Noel Gallagher, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

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The Chief is back, and he’s a little nervous about flying solo. Noel Gallagher readily admits that he’d be happier in his old role— as a sideman playing lead guitar and writing songs for Britpop legends Oasis. But can you blame him? Thanks to leaked demos from Oasis sound checks, other bands have already covered his unreleased tracks.  Legions of fans are wildly excited that “God is back”.  Then there are the endless comparisons with his brother Liam’s new band Beady Eye (which is essentially Oasis without Noel). Gallagher’s new work will always be measured against earlier Oasis hits like “Wonderwall” and pretty much anything from (What’s the Story) Morning Glory. In short, Gallagher has something to prove for the first time since Oasis’ 2005 album Don’t Believe the Truth.

Gallagher definitely doesn’t show any signs of cracking on his first solo outing. Listening to High Flying Birds is like wandering through a cool and quiet desert. The dense wall of furious electric guitars that typified much of Oasis’ later work is gone. Instead, he returns to the Beatles-esque sound of early Oasis — mid-tempo songs with melodic guitar lines (he does borrow some of his old riffs). The tried-and-tested formula works best in “The Death of You and Me”, in which Gallagher punctuates the intricate, vaudevillian acoustic shuffle with a New Orleans-style brass section. “If I Had a Gun” evokes the effortless tenderness of Gallagher’s best love songs (“Slide Away” comes to mind).The chorus kicks in swiftly and the earnest lyrics embrace the listener, “excuse me if I spoke too soon, my eyes have followed you around the room”.

But something else is different; there’s a new urgency in his songs.

“Everybody’s On the Run” really feels like a mad dash. There’s no space to pause and be quiet for a moment, because Gallagher packs the song with pounding percussion beats, lush melodies played by a stringed orchestras, the soaring voices of a hundred member-strong choir and, literally, the sound of pouring rain. Gallagher gives one of his most insistent and bold vocal performances. “Hanging there alone/ you got to hold on” aren’t particularly incisive lyrics but Gallagher’s earnest appeal is delivered with a rawness that hints at vulnerability but also contains a hard edge. Consequently, although Gallagher uses many of his favorite phrases like “hold on” and “pouring rain” and gives the song a positive bent, the overwhelming sentimentality of some late Oasis songs (like “Let There be Love”)  is gone. His lyrics also yield some gems, such as “you tried to fill my shoes/ but they don’t belong to you,” and it’s lines like these, tinged with both arrogance and wistfulness, that Liam’s absence is clearest. Liam’s ability to sneer and plead at the same time made even the most whimsical or throwaway lyrics (“She’s electric/ can I be electric too”) sound like weighty anthems.

Despite a shaky live debut for High Flying Birds on Italian radio, Gallagher shouldn’t feel derailed.  After all, he has shone without Oasis. In 2006, he performed a critically-acclaimed semi-acoustic tour using Oasis songs (although he was backed by Oasis rhythm guitarist Gem Archer). Whenever he’s strumming an acoustic guitar, he becomes a soulful craftsman who turns stadium rock anthems into quieter statements of yearning.

High Flying Birds is such a promising start because Gallagher improves on the Oasis formula, and injects a stronger dose of yearning into his songs. This hunger is perhaps what makes many Oasis songs legendary. Stay tuned for Gallagher’s cosmic collaboration with electronic duo Amorphous Androgynous next year.

Hail to the Chief.

Original Author: Daveen Koh