For their third DGC classic, the Fannies put power pop back in the pole position
When one talks about Teenage Fanclub, they talk about the fact that their third full-length release, Bandwagon-esque, beat out Nirvana’s Nevermind for Spin’s 1991 Album Of The Year list.
It’s a clever piece of armchair trivia that is inseparable from the band’s story, a shorthand for the incredible quality of their early work and a lament about how often said work was overlooked by the record-buying public. While Kurt Cobain was crafting harrowing new languages of rebellion and apathy, Fanclub looked to the past, to the chiming harmonies of The Byrds and Big Star, and found in them an escape hatch from urban Scottish drudgery and tired local-scene politics. Fanclub were never just a clever pastiche of past sonic delights, they reconfigured such golden sounds into a reverent but sly context that reflected the cultural 90’s every bit as profoundly as “Come As You Are” or “Jeremy” did.
Following a self-produced and critically-derided followup, Thirteen, Fanclub may have lost the momentum they needed to break through to the mainstream, but that didn’t slow the frantic pace of their incredibly-catchy, sugar-sick songwriting, and Grand Prix is every bit as compelling as the zeitgeisty Bandwagonesque, lushly produced and beautifully-appointed, both wistfully nostalgic and timeless. Perhaps due to Thirteen’s failure, it became the band’s second certified classic, and it remains the fullest articulation of their approach to the harmonies and power-pop of their childhoods. If the worst thing one can say about any jangle-pop album is how incredibly ‘consistent’ it is, then that is faint criticism, indeed. Grand Prix is a lithe, sprinting feat from start to finish, surely as much a joy to record as it is to consume. Considerable years later, it holds up, ageless in the best possible way, addictive and mirthful and just plain fun, casually touching on everything music is supposed to do for us as people; simple and reflective lyrics pair with killer hooks from strong start to stronger finish.
VIDEO: Teenage Fanclub “Sparky’s Dream”
“About You” is pure, affectionate Big Star worship, reverent without becoming parody, chiming with “September Gurls” chords and those aching, autumnal harmonies. “Sparky’s Dream” would be Fanclub’s single greatest song in a world where “Star Sign” was never recorded; it remains an impossibly-lovable confection that is 110% undiluted good vibes. Later, “Don’t Look Back” is the forlorn Scottish ballad to end all forlorn Scottish ballads, while “Discolite” lilts along on a bed of fluttering acoustics and rubber-ball bass, soaring into the stratosphere at its close with a towering, full-bore guitar workout. The album ends with the wink-and-nudge of the aptly-titled “Hardcore/Ballad”, a sub-thirty-second blast of punk thunder transitioning starkly into a downtrodden guitar-and-voice elegy, plaintive and unaccompanied, a perfect comedown on a record of nothing but highs.
To make an unfortunate pun, Grand Prix is the sound of a stunningly-talented band taking a genial, much-needed victory lap following a very public stumble. Every song seems delivered with a smile.
VIDEO: Teenage Fanclub Live 1995
A venerable treasured Scottish indie-rock institution, Fanclub still battles on today, as sprightly and jubilant as ever, aging gracefully into consistent returns and comfortable esteem. Looking back, Bandwagonesque is the easy choice for the group’s defining moment. But twenty-five years later, it’s impossible to revisit Grand Prix and not consider Bandwagonesque a promising prelude to a fully-articulated vision realized four years down the line.
If you’re looking for an album that’s filled to the brim with the existential thrill of being a living, breathing human being, Grand Prix is just your ticket.