Featured Music: Wednesday, March 13, 2003
Mod Squad

That Britpop stamp Supergrass left on our ears is still aglow.


Life On Other Planets, the fourth album by Brit-poppers Supergrass, is likable, but it’s hard to pinpoint why or how. Contrary to that desire for crudeness I’m sure I share with most attractive, virile, highly intelligent record buyers, who are all now rightfully suspicious of studio gimmickry, every inch of LOOP is polished to a sheen so fine you can snort coke off it while plucking your eyebrows. The lyrics, penned mostly by charismatic frontman Gaz Coombes, reveal the thoughts of yet another incidental sad sack, the holes in his socks getting bigger, bigger, BIGGER. In lines like “Well, you can try and push on through / I’m a rock ’n’ roll singer in a rock ’n’ roll band,” off “Seen the Light,” Coombes seems so self-involved he leaves nothing for his audience to sympathize with; it’s a rock song about being a person who sings rock songs. And the band itself is four young, skinny, moderately handsome, smart-ass Britons who, basically, love themselves a little too much. They aren’t smart enough to realize that, yes, every music lover is crazy sick of “packages,” of neatly digestible singing cartoons that can be transmitted through coaxial cables and fax modems as easily as these packages can be sent through the airwaves, and that, yes, any band that plays a VH1 fashion show is no band worth getting in a fistfight over. (Like, do we pathetic, bottom-feeding mortals really need any more evidence that implicates young, wiry, mop-topped men with guitars in a global scam to shag all the world’s supermodels and hot actresses? Please, God, no.)

Somehow, this disc works. In fact, it is eloquent, indiscriminately excellent. A likely explanation: solid melodies. Here’s a sparkler, a verse from “Grace”: “You ate our chips / And you drank our Coke / Then you showed me Mars / Through your telescope.” OK, it’s not Dylan — heck, it ain’t even Diddley — but coming through Coombes’ eloquent, indiscriminately excellent British accent, it all makes sense, the way the singer lingers over the first breath of the line before tumbling down over the remaining words, then catching himself and properly righting himself by the end; a wild treatment of a wild lyric. Plus, you can taste the sincere superiority in his voice. It’s as if he’s a character in a Wildean farce, gently and with great sophistication cutting down another character, likely a female, for her selfish, imperial ways. Isn’t good melody and good attitude what this music thing’s all about, anyway?

Ready for radio, though, this disc is not. College radio, maybe, but not any major outlet where R. Kelly sips on Coke and rum, like “So what?” he’s drunk — no. Big Radio loathes complicatedly simple, coruscant melodies wrapped around expressionist lyrics. Clear Channel’s monkeys in Brooks Brothers will stick to jingles that say, pretty much, nothing, thank you very much. Which isn’t to say LOOP is bereft of great pop numbers.

No one ever said Supergrass was above giving fans what they want while, on the sly, entreating new listeners to come along for a right corker. There is no obscene pandering, only gentle stroking. “Rush Hour Soul” gets tambourine happy (circa Liverpool, 1966), especially in the chorus, when trippy Coombes floats through the lyrics and over a woman’s voice in the background ooooh-ing and an acoustic guitar a-jingling. Here, the immediate reference is choice French pop, not really the Beatles or the Who. Like in “Evening of the Day,” the song that for some reason keeps getting spun on local college radio and that, incidentally, has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the record. The piano in the intro rocks back and forth on a little figure that’s as somber as it is catchy. (Think: “A Day in the Life.”) When the snappy brushes on the snare come in and Coombes begins singing, “Tis the evenin’ of the day,” in his most somber delivery, you know you’re in capable hands.

Supergrass seems proud to be on the outside of an establishment that praises listeners for nothing more than the gusto with which they Tootsee Roll. The band is on Earth primarily to charm current and former independent record store clerks right out of their britches. The Supergrass way is the way of the carefully unrefined intellectual: Too busy splicing atoms or ascribing Shakespearean import to random pornos to bathe. As a formula, this squares perfectly with what’s known as “good” taste. Complicated, fussy bodies, running minute record labels and stores and ‘zines and buying c.d.’s in bulk, need “dance” music just like the rest of us — if by “dance,” we mean, of course, “study or examine closely while wearing headphones and lying supine.” Such non-mainstream behavior may one day be the stuff of Billboard charts and MTV countdowns. For now, it’s un-cool “cool,” under the radar.

One aspect of Supergrass’ rise that the boys are (likely) unconsciously distancing themselves from on LOOP is the second British Invasion, of the early 1990s. Britpop was a wholly explicit, delayed reaction against us ugly Americans and our flannel-colored movement of dread and stomp, a.k.a. grunge. When Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and Gene stuck their faces through our tv screens while commandeering our airwaves, we yokels were just becoming disenchanted enough with long-hair misanthropy to see the brilliant, buoyant light suffusing all things pop-culty and British, including but not limited to Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, tea as a substitute for coffee, and Liz Hurley’s mind-blowing silhouette. There were naysayers, sure, quick to dismiss any sudden change in breeze as mere “fashion.” And these non-believers were eventually proved right when both Oasis and Blur, the two biggest names in Britpop, failed to deliver follow-up hits. (We’re still waiting.) It’s not that there’s no audience for wry commentary on being British coming from mods. It’s just that, well, we’ve heard about all there is to say in the British way on the subject.

The heart of Britpop still beats in Supergrass, just a little less self-consciously Britishly than before. LOOP could not have been made six or seven years ago because everything Oasis, Blur, and even Supergrass on their first three albums were in love with, especially sybaritic orchestral strings, soaring harmonies à la saints John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and Dark Side of the Moon-era psychedelia, has been drastically toned down (save for a Technicolor nod to Pink Floyd on the closer). “Fashion” has been replaced with force, purpose, and a relevance that doesn’t forsake timelessness. Contemporary songcraft, high on good melody, is the key. The point being: Supergrass’ best songs could be played on piano or through David Lee Roth’s teeth, the sonic foundation upon which numbers like “Evening of the Day” and “Grace” rest is that solid. They go down smoother than shots of whiskey in greasy glasses.

If everything Supergrass has done up until this point has been in her majesty’s secret service, LOOP comes off as a clean admittance to secret indulgences that maybe wiser, less photogenic folk would’ve avoided. The aforementioned Floydian closer “Run” allows the boys some wiggle room, a chance to summon their pedigree to the fore and see what comes out the amps. The result is pure escapism: a soft and gentle beat, celestial faux-symphonic tones creating a canopy of swaying stars, Coombes and the boys milking the inviting melodic premise of “Comfortably Numb,” the majority of the song serving as a canvas for off-kilter guitars humming and squealing to intermingle with resonating, lingering laserlight-show synth lines. Lesser Britpoppers or stateside Anglophiles probably would have kitsched up a moment like this — not Supergrass. This song, like the brunt of LOOP, suggests that Supergrass is not a trio of bleeping echoes from yesterday, nor a band of self-conscious situationists. These boys are here and now — their cigarette-slims and mod do’s notwithstanding.

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