Ever since Supergrass
debuted in 1994 with the irresistible single "Caught by the Fuzz," a giddy
account of a friend who'd been nabbed with cocaine, the group has been
typecast as the goofy younger brothers/perpetual up-and-comers of the
Britpop scene, joking around at the back of the class behind the likes of
the more serious Blur and Oasis.
Indeed, in 1995, director
Steven Spielberg tried to cast the band in a TV series modeled on the
Monkees. "We chose to go the other route," focusing on their second album,
1997's "In It for the Money," guitarist/vocalist Gaz Coombes dryly noted.
But Britpop has long
since faded as the dominant force on the British charts, and a funny thing
happened to the now 30-year-old Coombes and his bandmates on their way to
making their fifth album: They grew up.
Recorded in the group's
home studio, a humble facility built in a barn beside a cottage across the
English Channel in Normandy, "Road to Rouen" is the most mature, complex and
subtly nuanced Supergrass effort yet: a sophisticated, exquisitely arranged
and well-orchestrated album that evokes the best conceptual pop records of
the early '70s Kinks or Pink Floyd.
Sadly, since its release
last September, the disc remains a buried treasure. The musicians continue
to be cult favorites at best in the United States, and the former hit-makers
never even broached the charts with the album's three singles at home in the
"It's a weird time in
music, because it's all up for grabs, and things are defined by big hit
singles," Coombes said recently during a chat from his home in England. "The
singles on this album were never supposed to be singles; we just wanted to
make a complete record.
"Pink Floyd was a big
inspiration. An album like 'Atom Heart Mother' -- I really got into it and
listened to it a lot before the making of this record, and I intentionally
did a couple of tips of the hat to it. I love these records that you pick up
from the '70s that were little gems that were not necessarily by the big
mainstream artists; they were just beautiful records. There was no song that
kind of screamed 'Buy me!' at you."
The album's nine tracks,
which are best appreciated as one intertwining whole, came together in what
may have been the most turbulent time in the band's history, since Coombes,
bassist Mickey Quinn and drummer Danny Goffey came together in their late
teens around the music scene at Oxford in the early '90s. (The group is now
completed by Gaz's brother, Rob, on keyboards.)
In the process of
writing songs such as "Tales of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)" and "Kick in the
Teeth," the Coombes' mother died, and Goffey found himself drawn into a
major sex scandal charted in the headlines of the British tabloids. (In the
wake of revelations about actor Jude Law and his nanny, Goffey's girlfriend,
singer Pearl Lowe, said the couple once engaged in wife-swapping with Law
and his wife, Sadie Frost.)
"That was kind of
strange ... yeah," Gaz Coombes said. "It's definitely been a strange couple
of years, those things combined with the fact that my daughter was born as
well, which was one of the best times of my life. Mixed emotions, and I
think in the album, there are highs and lows. I think we don't let that
saturate it too much -- we still look at it as a rock 'n' roll album, and we
try not to unload on the listener too much with emotional burdens -- but
it's an honest record, and we're honest lyrically, and I think you can
listen to it in different ways."
The centerpiece of the
album, the Beatlesque ork-pop epic "Roxy," is a gorgeous musing on life and
death ("It's hard to imagine / It's come to an end / But the more I
remember / The more I forget / Living in fear of what hasn't come yet").
But it's followed by the cheerfully silly instrumental "Coffee in the Pot"
-- "a purposeful [decision] to provide some relief, like the 'Monty Python'
sketches where the foot would come smashing down," as Coombes said.
Given the arc of his
career, and having found himself on the top of the charts at age 19, I had
to end our chat by asking Coombes what sort of advice he would give to the
current much-hyped, 19-year-old, chart-topping British superstars, Arctic
Monkeys -- a question that prompted a knowing chuckle.
"I wouldn't tell them
much; I know I wouldn't appreciate anyone telling me anything when I was 17!
But when I look back, I'm pleased with everything that we've done. We've had
some crazy offers in the past that would have made us millions, but we
turned them down and always did what we wanted to do. I know that I'll be
older, look back and think, 'Man, we really ran the show.' So I'd probably
say, 'Be strong, and make sure you're the one calling the shots.'"
REASONS FOR LIVING
In one of
several essays included in a new collection of the work of Chicago artist
Jay Ryan, Steve Albini, a man who knows a lot about steadfastly pursuing a
unique artistic vision, contends that Ryan is "a genius who makes
screenprint posters, takes the germ of an idea (his, mine, yours -- it could
be from a catalog of them) and makes it uniquely great." And the celebrated
musician and "recordist" isn't wrong.
Published by the folks
at Punk Planet, whose Dan Sinker did an insightful interview with Ryan also
included in the book, 100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A Decade of Hot Dogs,
Large Mammals and Independent Rock: The Handcrafted Art of Jay Ryan
(Punk Planet/Akashic Books, $18) is not only a gorgeous catalog of the
artist's many memorable posters, but a history of sorts of the Chicago
underground rock scene in the last 15 years. ("Wow! The poster for the
Flaming Lips and Hum at Metro on New Year's Eve 1999-2000! That was an
Rock posters continue to
be one of the most under-appreciated subgenres in the fine art world, but
scoffing only means you're under-informed: Some of the original prints by
the likes Frank Kozik now sell for well north of $10,000. Ryan is every bit
as worthy of being mentioned in such company, and his work boasts a
distinctly "Chicago" vibe and aesthetic in the same way that Kozik's screams
"Seattle." You can see some examples of Ryan's posters online at
www.thebirdmachine.com, or order the book through www.punkplanet.com.