Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ by Teenage Fanclub.
It’s questionable as to whether there is such a thing as a perfect album, but with ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ Teenage Fanclub came as close as any band ever will. At this point, midway through their recording career, their veneration of Big Star flourished to its most sublime form with twelve tracks of immaculate pop music…they may even have surpassed their heroes.
1997 turned out to be a creative year for their contemporaries in British music – Radiohead released ‘OK Computer’ and Blur, their eponymous fifth album. Spiritualized dispensed ‘Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ while Super Furry Animals achieved previous hinted-at greatness with ‘Radiator’, ‘Mogwai Young Team’ continued that band’s run and Supergrass were ‘In It For The Money’. And in the midst of all this, its muted picture postcard cover evoking solitude and nostalgia, appeared ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ – an album just about heart-breaking in its beauty.
Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley share an even count of individual songwriting credits – as they had before and have done since – through the album’s tracklisting, but such is the cohesion in the melodies, lyricism and summer-centric guitar work that it’s difficult to disentangle one’s input from the next. The first words we hear are Blake on Start Again – “I don’t know if you can hear me/ I’m feeling down and can’t think clearly”. Love and McGinley take the album’s following tracks and their equally yearning respective sentiments. Love runs with Blake’s theme on Ain’t That Enough – “If you can I wish you would/ Only if you feel you should/ Bring your loving over”, with McGinley equalling both in candour – “I can’t feel my soul/ Without you, I can’t feel my soul”
Cymbals have never sounded so lush as Paul Quinn pushes the songs gently onward from behind the kit; understated, yet the mainstay of I Don’t Want Control Of You, building and propelling Take The Long Way Round (“Sunshine every beat when I’m ’round you”) with its sublime, vocally-affected organ breakdown and subsequent swooning coda.
While bands like Radiohead and SFA continued with their eccentric sonic experiments, Teenage Fanclub took their cue from the jangling guitars of The Byrds, The Beach Boys…all those ‘B’ bands that have so much to answer for. The reach of ‘Songs…’ is more subtle. Almost seventeen years later that initial glow is untarnished, the melodies radiating with the hazy, aching languor of all those summers since its inception. “That summer was out of sight” sang Blake. For anyone who picked this album up and took it home, that summer never ended. The wonder of ‘Songs…’ is in its simplicity; a guitar band at their peak making a record so good that it may have led to a wild claim that they’re better than Big Star.