16 Years Ago: Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ Album Released
‘Songs From Northern Britain,’ the sixth full-length from Scottish power-pop faves Teenage Fanclub, might be the best '90s album you’ve never heard.
Released 16 years ago today, in the summer of 1997, ‘Songs’ deals in truly delicious power-pop, and it's right up there with '90s classics like Matthew Sweet’s 1991 tour de force ‘Girlfriend’ and Yo La Tengo’s ‘I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One,’ which dropped the same year. Except people heard those records.
Indeed, it’s impossible to spin ‘Songs’ and not wonder what might have happened had Teenage Fanclub enjoyed better publicity/radio promotion. Or a label behind them -- that would have been nice.
Prior to the album’s U.S. release, the band, which had been signed to mighty Geffen Records -- the label that gave us Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ -- was unceremoniously dropped. Mind you, this was the post-grunge era. The mainstream rock landscape still smelled very much like teen spirit, and it's not surprising the machine behind Nirvana wanted more Nirvanas to sell -- not bands steeped in the traditions of the Big B’s: the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and Big Star. The Fanclub's unfair shake was a sign of the times, for certain.
But they kept on, and in 1997, they landed a gig supporting Radiohead, then rock’s biggest rising act, as they toured behind their pivotal ‘OK Computer.’ When the pair hit L.A.'s Wiltern Theatre, a reviewer for the L.A. Times described the two bands as “Both mak[ing] thrilling music and back[ing] it with absorbing live shows.” How could a band this good not be worth the time of its label?
Of course, critics being one step ahead of labels is nothing new. What about the album itself? 'Songs From Northern Britain' features contributions from TF's three main songwriters -- Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley. Blake's opening ‘Start Again’ is a particular standout, its sparkling guitars, giant chorus and multi-part harmonies evoking the Byrds’ ‘Fifth Dimension’ and Big Star’s ‘#1 Record.’ It’s worth noting that fellow '90s rockers Counting Crows chose ‘Start Again’ for their 2012 covers album, ‘Underwater Sunshine,' and frontman Adam Duritz has sung the song's praises.
The next tune, Love's ‘Ain’t That Enough,’ is even stronger, with its don-dugga-don don-dugga-don chorus and Beach Boys-esque harmonies. Track three, McGinley's ‘Can’t Feel My Soul,' is awash with guitars and distortion. It's the great grunge-era Teenage Fanclub breakthrough single that should’ve been, and it's not unlike the best moments on Matthew Sweet’s 1995 ‘100% Fun.'
Though ‘Songs’ failed to chart in the U.S., it reached No. 3 in the U.K., where 'Ain't That Enough' cracked the top 20. The Fanclub have since released four studio albums, and while none have done much to raise their stateside profile, at least on the mainstream front, they remain cult heroes beloved by indie dudes everywhere. Ain't that enough?