Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Contenders Series #21: Teenage Fanclub - "Baby Lee"

I love Rick Perlstein's writing on 1960's American history (both Before the Storm and Nixonland are incredible) for two reasons.

The first is not exclusive to his work, though he does a nice job of highlighting it as a theme:  I love to read about how Things Were Not Always This Way.  This is something I understand, logically, that our current moment is incredibly fleeting and all that, but at the same time it's hard to conceive of a world that is not this one.  It's strange to read about how, 50 years ago, Democrats were secretively getting us involved in unpopular, unwinnable wars.  It's strange to read that, 50 years ago, social issues were not cleanly divided along party lines (for example, there were Republican civil rights champions and Democratic segregationists, and no one thought it was weird).  That kind of thing always sparks my interest.

The second great thing about Perlstein is that he refuses to paint with a broad brush.  He sidesteps the historical cliches.  On the one hand, this leads to 700 page books about Barry Goldwater.  On the other hand, this leads to fascinating fresh perspectives.  We all know the story of the 1960s:  everyone alive at that time was either (1) a hippie (2) a civil rights leader or (3) The Man, trying to keep everyone in the first two groups down.  It's a compelling narrative, but at the same time, it's completely irrelevant for huge numbers of people.  The vast majority of people alive at that time did not attend Woodstock OR firebomb a church.  The societal changes of the decade hit a lot of different people in a lot of different ways, and Perlstein does an impeccable job of telling those stories.  There were a lot of non-horrible people with totally legitimate reasons to vote for Richard Nixon.  It's easy to forget that.  It's not like all those people were evil or insane.

I think we fall into that "broad brush" trap often when we talk about music.  For example, 1991 is unfailingly referred to as The Year Nirvana Hit, as if everyone with ears suddenly fell prostrate at the feet of Nevermind's genius.

I was ten years old at the time.  I don't really know what it was like to have been there.  I knew of Nirvana.  I'd seen the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video.  More than anything, though, I just knew that there was something here that the older kids seemed to be getting that I wasn't.  I just wasn't ready for teen angst quite yet.

So I can't really speak from personal experience.  I can, however, trot out Spin's top albums of the year from 1991.  The list looks like this:      

1. Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
2. R.E.M. - Out Of Time
3. Nirvana - Nevermind
4. Pixies - Trompe le Monde
5. Pet Shop Boys - Discography
6. Robyn Hitchcock - Perspex Island
7. Public Enemy - Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black
8. Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger
9. Smashing Pumpkins - Gish
10. P.M. Dawn - Of The Heart, Of The Soul And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience
11. Metallica - Metallica
12. Massive Attack - Blue Lines
13. Fugazi - Steady Diet Of Nothing
14. Urge Overkill - The Supersonic Storybook
15. Pearl Jam - Ten
16. Seal - Seal
17. De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead
18. Mudhoney - Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
19. Guns N' Roses - Use Your Illusion I And II
20. Hole - Pretty On The Inside 

You can check out more of their lists here ... they've had their share of both hits and misses.  That's not the point.  I'm not trying to set up Spin as somehow the arbiter of all that is good and important.  The point, though is that Nirvana's ascension was not a unanimous decision.  The point is that, even then, there were those who thought Teenage Fanclub was making the best music on Earth (there are rumors that even Cobain thought so). 

The point here, really, is that I love Teenage Fanclub.  They mean much more to me than Nirvana does, or ever did.  And I don't think that necessarily makes me weird.  Nirvana's story is the defining narrative of that era, and deservedly so, but it is not the only one.  In 1991, you could embrace grunge, or you could embrace four guys from Scotland making hyper-melodic power pop with lush harmonies and subtly satirical lyrics.  Only one of those choices would have put you at the forefront of a movement that defined a generation, but both choices would have put you in contact with some timeless music.

Sadly, though, even in 1991, you could have predicted that only one of those two bands would still be making good music nearly 20 years later.  "Baby Lee," the new single from June's upcoming Shadows, probably doesn't rank among the band's best*, but it captures a band that, for the most part, has kept it together for going on three decades.  I know it's better to burn out than to fade away, but, honestly ... which would you prefer?

*My personal top five is probably:

(1) "Sparky's Dream"
(2) "Alcoholiday"
(3) "Your Love is the Place Where I Come From"
(4) "Ain't That Enough"
(5) "Don't Look Back"

but man ... that leaves out a lot of great ones, and doesn't include "Fallin'," their collaboration with De La Soul, which is probably my all-time favorite rap-rock song.  Faint praise, to be sure ... but still.

Download:  Teenage Fanclub - Baby Lee

Official Site
Hype Machine
Buy Teenage Fanclub Music

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