Teenage Fanclub’s first album since 2005’s Man-Made, coming so soon after the death (in March) of Alex Chilton, has the warmth and poignancy of a tribute, even if writing and recording was all wrapped up by then. As with everything they’ve ever done, homage is paid here to the American “B” boys: The Beach Boys, Big Star and The Byrds. As they say, it’s too late to stop now. And besides, why mess with a winning formula?
That formula – gently strummed acoustic guitars, the occasional sunburst of electric noise, aching chord progressions and billowy harmonies worthy of CSN&Y – works pretty well on Shadows. On album opener Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything, it works fabulously, the guitar thrum and crisp beat creating a sort of organic motorik pulse, before the heavens open and the chorus breaks through like sunshine after the rain. It is as great a track as any TFC have ever recorded and suggests that Shadows will be a Grand Prix, even a Bandwagonesque, of a tour de force.
It isn’t quite that good, that consistent. Baby Lee is predictable TFC fare, and The Fall is distinctly average. But fourth track Into the City is another goodie, its shimmery guitars recalling Roger McGuinn’s timeless flights, the gorgeous harmonies making you wonder what a Big Star album might have sounded like if Bell and Chilton didn’t hate each other’s guts.
There are a couple of departures here, albeit hardly radical ones. The piano- and strings-led Dark Clouds recalls baroque posters The Left Banke and is one for pretty ballerinas. Sweet Days Waiting bears the influence of 60s soul – Jerry Butler could have sung it. Album closer Today Never Ends is a Harvest-era Neil Young ballad with slide guitar and yet more of TFC’s trademark lexicon of lustre (“the sunlight pours in through my window…”). But the two other tracks that rival that awesome album opener are the ones where the band trys to outstrip The Byrds circa Chestnut Mare: Shock and Awe, all chiming guitars and keening chords, and The Back of My Mind, which is so LA 1970 you can almost taste the smog.
Shadows, then, features three or four tunes that merit inclusion on a Fanclub Best Of, and is overall a strong if less than startling collection. It’s unlikely to win this year’s Spin magazine critics’ poll, as Bandwagonesque did, famously beating Nirvana’s Nevermind. Still, it’s good to have them back. Now, back to that opening track…