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Teenage Fanclub - Shadows

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Artist: Teenage Fanclub

Album: Shadows

Label: Merge

Review date: Jun. 3, 2010

A couple of decades ago, in the wonderfully raw, sublimely tuneful “Everything Flows,” Teenage Fanclub first found the sweet spot where Byrdsian pop melodies met grunge-inflected guitar distortion. Now, more or less a generation past landmark albums like Catholic Education and, especially, Bandwagonesque, comes album No. 9, Shadows, with all of the lush melodic sensibility of earlier material, but none of the grit and friction.

The three songwriters in the band – Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley – have always mixed soft and hard in varying degrees. Love tended toward the Beach Boys end of lush harmonies, though braced by rackety guitars (“Star Sign,” “Sparky’s Dream”), while Blake’s songs leaned more toward Big Star’s combination of dirty riffs and sensitive introspection (“Mellow Doubt,” “The Concept”) or Neil Young’s slow, feedback-crusted guitar work (“Neil Jung”). McGinley seemed to have the strongest feel for straight-up rhythm, propping achingly sweet melodic flourishes on strident beats of guitar and drums (“About You”).

All three writers contribute to Shadows, each kicking in four of the 12 tracks. And, critically, all three have backed way, way off the idea of linking grunge to pop. Hell, forget grunge. Even the dirtier elements of pop are given short shrift here.

Not that that’s an entirely bad thing. There’s an easy, breezy insouciance to tracks where none of the guitar rise much above a jangle and the drums stay in the distant background. Love’s opener “Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything” skirts perilously close to “Sister Golden Hair” territory, with its 1970s radio string fillips and bits of errant flute. The single “Baby Lee” (credited to Norman Blake) sounds more like XTC than Teenage Fanclub with its supple, serpentine melody and chiming guitar patterns. Leave it then, to McGinley, to inject some shadowiness into the lighthearted drift of the album’s first third. His “The Fall” shades an effervescent tune with sadness, the bubbly rise of the melody in contrast to his rueful, ruminating lyrics.

Shadows gains strength as it goes on, with a few songs in the second half that have a bit of the old bite and bravado. “Dark Clouds” has the lemony melancholy of “Mellow Doubt,” while “The Past” matches older TFC tunes for sweetness edged with aggression. Love’s “Shock and Awe” is maybe the best song on the disc, an undulant melody weaving through fuzzy layers of distorted guitars. In fact, this is the one where you can hear two guitars, both turned up, and both pursuing distinctly separate ends, as they glance off one another almost accidentally at intricate, oblique angles. Blake’s nostalgic “When I Still Have Thee,” coming just after, is almost as good — a slow drift through musical memories, the Rolling Stones, the Go-Betweens and the elusive “minor song in a major key.”

Still much of Shadows seems to idle rather than drive. It exists in an edgeless, tranquil, sunlit backwater that is quite pleasant, even vaguely euphoric. It’s just nowhere near as exciting as Teenage Fanclub used to be.

By Jennifer Kelly

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