Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson once famously said that the reason Manchester produced so many great bands was because the kids from that city had the best record collections. Despite being born in the Manchester suburb of Salford, Tim Burgess actually grew up 24 miles away in the sleepy Cheshire town of Northwich. Evidence suggests, however, that The Charlatans front man carried that Mancunian eclecticism in his DNA. His back catalog shows that he has never been afraid to dig into his own diverse collection in his work with The Charlatans, albeit with mixed results – 2001’s funk powered Wonderland was surprisingly excellent whereas the cod-reggae and dub of Simpatico five years later was as uncomfortable in parts as listening to a bunch of stroke victims attempting hip-hop. Burgess has also used his solo work and collaborations to stretch his artistic wings.
His debut solo album, 2003’s I Believe, was a product of living on the West Coast of America and indulging in his love of Gram Parsons (along with a fair amount of Colombia’s finest export). It was scatterbrained but euphoric mixture of country rock, folky pop and even hints of disco. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t but he somehow managed more hits than misses. All in all it didn’t really seem to matter. It was the sound of a musician reveling in his freedom and having a lot of fun while doing so. Nine years on from all that and there’s still more than a hint of Americana on his second solo effort, Oh No I Love You, which is unsurprising when you consider it was recorded in Nashville with longtime Lambchop producer Mark Nevers at the helm, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner providing lyrics and members of Clem Snide, Factory Floor and My Morning Jacket aiding and abetting on the musical side. However, while Burgess seemed to be in thrall to his adoptive city of L.A. on I Believe, in some cases sounding like he was actually auditioning to become a Flying Burrito Brother, it’s a quintessentially English delivery that he brings to Oh No I Love You, one which somehow manages to hold its own in the face of the American influences dominating the music. If that sounds as though this could be a somewhat schizophrenic, conflicted and muddled album, you’d be one-third right.
The notoriously flighty and unpredictable singer has once again managed to confound and surprise, the result being an album varying in styles and directions, but bizarrely this is his most cohesive, warm and refreshing record in years. Whereas I Believe came across as a little too affected in parts, Oh No I Love You is a sincere album, an honest record but not an earnest one. With jaunty piano lines and celebratory New Orleans horns throughout, it’s a joyous celebration of a record in parts and heartfelt and authentic in others. A relaxed Burgess applies the finishing touch to most of the songs with vocals which sound assured and confident and yet effortless and cool at the same time. (Admittedly, he struggles on a few). He sounds like a man at ease on songs such as “The Doors of Then” and you can almost hear a satisfied smile underpinning album opener and lead-off single “White.” Despite sounding more comfortable on the lighter songs, Burgess still manages to sound slightly miscast on songs such as the string-laden “Hours” where he dubiously takes on the role of a torch singer, and “Tobacco Fields” which, for all its dark, introspective beauty, drags on at a snail’s pace and provides too many challenges that his voice fails to meet. He seems completely out of his depth for 80% of “The Economy” but this is his worst offense. Oh No I Love You is strange, full of contradictions yet beautiful. Much like the man himself.
Opening with “White” could be seen as a masterstroke as its infectious Hammond-drenched, brassy stomp is the perfect example of what the album appears to have been conceived as – a fusion of Americana and the influences from the singer’s upbringing, like northern soul, Motown and sixties pop. It’s playful and bouncy with an uplifting melody and rousing pulse. Burgess sounds like he’s improvising over the top of the sumptuous orchestration which is left to do the hard work of driving the tune. But rather than set the tone, “White” remains the high watermark, not because the other songs don’t match its quality but because nothing else sounds like it and so cannot be compared to it. It is top in a league of one.
It’s followed by the strumming alt-country of “The Doors of Then” which could be the soundtrack of every rose-tinted memory one has of cornfields and lovers. It also manages to stay true to the formula of combining the English sound (of the Kinks, this time) with the countrified twang of the American south. But where “White” created a mad, euphoric new hybrid of these styles, “The Doors of Then” harks back to I Believe‘s fascination with the Byrds, among others, only with a touch of Carnaby Street. “A Case for Vinyl” maybe labors the point of the title a little by adding crackling acetate effects but as a song, it’s a slow burning, atmospheric ballad that – for the most part – Burgess pulls off with aplomb. He struggles a little with the pace, straining as it drags his voice to uncomfortably high and plaintive places, but there’s no denying the heart of the song is honest and strong.
“The Graduate” starts by tricking the listener with a riff reminiscent of “1969” by The Stooges before sliding off into country territory again. It takes yet another bizarre turn in its lyrics: “We met by Shepherd’s Bush, the hat you wore was ridiculous…sitting on the bus, laughing at the both of us…” This London imagery sits awkwardly with the bending, twanging steel guitar but the melody on which the words glide is pitch perfect for this bluegrass-swinging sixties mutation. As mentioned above, “Hours” is something completely different altogether. Emotional bursts of violin, rousing John Barry-esque orchestration and a smokey vocal conjure up images of romantic montages from the love stories of 60s cinema. It does have a disturbing touch of karaoke about it, however, which fails to make it completely convincing but full marks for bravery! “Tobacco Fields,” as mentioned previously, has a dark majesty at its core but its pace is a little too pedestrian and rather than eliciting a truly deep emotional wrench, it veers towards the soporific. The album comes back to life with “Anytime Minutes” which is a great example of Kurt Wagner writing a pitch-perfect vehicle for the singer’s loose vocal style while harnessing the rustic vibes that flow through the veins of the Nashville outside the recording booth.
The wonderfully-titled “The Great Outdoors, Bitches” is a strange but fantastic creature, a bizarrely paced mixture of trombone, conga and drum machine. It shouldn’t work but somehow it does…unlike “The Economy” which tries to tackle a serious subject but with Burgess straining at a range where only dogs can possibly hear him while a cacophonous mixture of free-form jazz and indulgent guitar noodling do battle below, any attempt at credibility is sadly lost. There’s redemption in the final track, “A Gain,” which has the building melancholy and barely-constrained desperation of Final Cut-era Pink Floyd. It takes a while to get to where it needs to be a great song – much like many Floyd tracks – but get there it does. It succeeds in successfully book-ending the album in direct contrast to the euphoric opening of “White” and gives pause to reflect on the journey of high points and missteps the listener has been through to reach this finale.
It could be argued that I Believe was an album Burgess made for California alone, a druggy love letter to his new paramour which unintentionally found its way into the hands of others, Oh No I Love You is the sound of a man standing up and making a record for everyone. It might not be to everyone’s tastes but at least he’s trying – and for the most part, he’s succeeded in making an accessible, breezy yet satisfyingly oddball record which adds to his extending reputation as an artist who continues to turn left when you think he’ll turn right. So when it comes to predicting his next steps…it’s anyone’s guess. Acid jazz with heavy metal overtones, perhaps?
Reviewer: Nick Amies
IRC: Tom Byrne & Bill Pulice
You can read more of Nick Amies by visiting his webblog at http://ligger.wordpress.com/
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