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Teenage Fanclub - Man-Made

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Artist: Teenage Fanclub

Album: Man-Made

Label: Merge

Review date: Jul. 21, 2005

One thing can be said about Teenage Fanclub’s best material: it’s made to last. Before they found the sound you and I know them for best, they hopped onto the Dinosaur Jr. wagon with “Everything Flows,” and an accompanying album A Catholic Education, a surprisingly sturdy summation of anthemic grot that couldn’t get out of bed or shake the hair from its eyes. Their breakthrough, 1991’s Bandwagonesque, was solely responsible for bringing power pop to the grebo ‘n’ grunge era, where the power in their pop fell like a 500 lb. deadlift downstroke on the biggest, crunchiest guitars to grace that music in decades. It remains one of the handful of albums of its weight class that can still contend, mostly because it boasts nothing but simple pleasures, sugar-sweet tunes in the center of massive, messy production value, a sound that the kids didn’t fully know they needed until they realized they couldn’t live without it. Years after the band cooled off, and with two domestic record contracts and diminished returns smoldering behind them, they approached the singer-songwriter peaks of the Byrds and the Hollies with 1997’s Songs from Northern England, going against type in musically uncertain times. It remains the pinnacle of their career, crisp and brightly arranged, and a marked progression away from the cooing ease of earlier glories. The teenagers grew up, grew beards, and learned how to play like the men they’d become.

Man-Made, their first album in five years, sports an apt title. Rather than continue on in one direction, they’ve instead decided to graft their songs onto a variety of subtly different styles and let their sound cross-pollinate. It would be too easy to say they’re aping the success that emerged from their wake, because really, they’re not… but fans will notice similarities to the best pop of the last 15 years. “Save” and opener “It’s All In My Mind” could have very well fit on Lou Barlow’s last album; the balladry and chord progressions locking in step with late-period Sebadoh. The speedy, fuzzy clip “Slow Fade Pictures” has more in common with Yo La Tengo’s similar single “Sugarcube” than with any of Teenage Fanclub’s previous material. And mid-period Superchunk’s simplistic drive as well as My Bloody Valentine’s corrosive harmonies circa Isn’t Anything lilt over the excellent “Time Stops,” and no acoustic interlude can dissuade it. Novel song title there, given all of these very obvious references.

Then the album’s first half ends with the acoustic, gentle “Only with You,” and its plaintive, single-note piano melody guides the band back into their own, sitting cross-legged around the campfire. With organ bubbling under and insistent traps high in the mix, you can almost hear the point where they warm to each other’s presence as a band and really step into their songs. It comes at about 2:46, the precise moment they commit another flawless song to the ages, adding restraint to their vocabulary.

That restraint turns to nervous tension on “Cells,” a slow-burning knuckle biter of bitter pop, building from Norman Blake’s tenuous strumming to a solid three-part vocal harmony with menacing synthetic fuzz before retreating back into the fear of “Cells breakin’ down / Oh no no.” There’s an insistence to the song’s attack and withdrawal that brings a layer of gravitas to the proceedings, a confidence in the terror that lurks beneath. That insistence pays off again in “Fallen Leaves,” with a light mod-psych touch and chord counterpoints from a repetitive tremolo organ fortifying one of the strongest batches of riffs they’ve written in ages. All throughout, John McEntire’s clean, workmanlike production accents these new twists while unobtrusively bolstering Teenage Fanclub’s pop foundation. Perhaps it was his idea to let that organ run throughout into the Framptonian “Flowing,” a masterful and careful touch, something you might hear in the work of his spiritual Chicago pop predecessor, the late Charles Stepney.

After the misstep of 2000’s mopey Howdy!, it was important for Teenage Fanclub to come back strong, if indeed they were to come back at all. Five years is a long time to make fans wait, but the quality of the material and willingness to tinker with their fairly rigid pop formula has resulted in another memorable, extremely listenable collection of songs, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

By Doug Mosurock

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