An album a week #2: Expecting to Fly by The Bluetones
Last week I looked at the 29 minute, 12 song December’s Children (and everybody’s) by the Stones. This week we’ve got 11 songs in over 50 minutes, on the Bluetones’ incredibly self-assured (is there such a thing as being ‘quietly arrogant’?) debut, Expecting to Fly. Released in the slipstream of Oasis and Blur and ‘Britpop’ in the mid-90s, the album went platinum in the UK, though was less successful in other places where it was not carried by the larger cultural movement (‘Cool Britannia‘, anyone?). With a band name that recalled the Stone Roses and a sound that was part Brit guitar pop and part west coast (the album is named for a Buffalo Springfield song, although the band hails from Hounslow, not far from Heathrow airport, and the album opens with a roaring plane) they knocked out some pretty nifty singles. Some insight into the influences may be gained by a quick reference to front man Mark Morriss’s recent album, The Taste of Mark Morriss, which is a collection of covers (‘This record should be played LOUD. Ideally on a yacht.’).
On release it topped the UK charts for one week, briefly displacing Oasis. The buzz around the album came from the first two singles, the tuneful ‘Bluetonic’ and the sublime ‘Slight Return’, two of the shorter, more focussed tracks. Many of the others stretch out with a lot of tuneful but not always distinctive guitar work from the heavily underrated Adam Devlin, a man who can twang, funk and riff along with the best of them — though a lot of that was to show up more clearly on later albums and their eclectic B-sides.
‘Slight Return’ is why I bought the album. (It’s the one that goes ‘you don’t have to have the solution’, which I mention because the band has a habit of not giving their tracks the most obvious names.) I have rarely heard a song and been moved to buy the record instantly. I think the video clip was on Rage (a show that is in its own way an Australian icon), and I went out an toddled off to JB HiFi and bought the album. I got a special deal — it came with a VHS tape containing the film clip and a bunch of other clips from contemporary Britpop bands signed to the same label. Shed 7? Menswear? Something like that. I have it somewhere still.
On the track listing there’s a gap between the fifth and sixth tracks, and on the album you can hear the needle slide into the run off groove and track six starts with it being dropped onto the record.
As I noted, there’s a sonic sameness across the album — the four band members provide virtually all the sound, and it really is a pretty consistent bass/guitar/drums, and while there is some variation in tempo it is not pronounced. Having said that, there’s not a weak link in the playing, and as you listen to the album over again the variations do become apparent, they just sort of lie there waiting for you to hear them. Again; quiet confidence. ‘The Fountainhead’ bounces along nicely, ‘Time & Again’ is a strong closer. ‘Vampire’ is rather anonymous and could easily have been cut, but I would not drop anything else. ‘Putting Out Fires’ I like a lot, except it uses ‘was’ in a grammatically incorrect way that must have been intentional (this is a band that wields irony and ambiguity with considerable flair — ‘Glad to See Y’Back Again?’ is a B-side on ‘Bluetonic’), but it grates nonetheless.
The Bluetones are tuneful, clever, rock extremely effectively when they want to, and I can attest that they’re an excellent live act. Very few bands have their sense of humour or ability to knock out a catchy tune with deft lyrics, and, oddly, their (relatively) famous debut album is not the best showcase of those abilities. So I read over what I’ve written and I sound less than enthused. I really like this album. ‘Bluetonic’, ‘Slight Return’, ‘Carnt Be Trusted’ (note the pronunciation) and ‘Cut Some Rug’ are great tunes with smart lyrics, and much of the rest of the album is not far behind. Few album have four great songs and a bunch of other nearly as great ones.
Give it a spin.