[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]
ROAD TO ROUEN
SUPERGRASS ARE TEN years' worth of sonic capital to the good. They've earned affection, leeway and patience. And this is the first Supergrass album for which patience is in the least bit required. Had somebody else recorded Road To Rouen, it might not get the hearing it deserves.
Brevity is the soul of Supergrass. They're a band you can call “little” without a hint of condescension. Their songs are as short as they are - and likewise bright, punchy, slightly peculiar, and always exciting. They've managed to sound thoroughly British without ever seeming overly familiar or locked into worship of any given era. They're one of rock's true treasures. And if they want to come back as a mini-Pink Floyd, well, they deserve a fair hearing.
Although only 35 minutes long, Road To Rouen takes in a remarkable amount of tarmac. It is, as you might guess, an itinerants' album. Impressionistic. Scenes glimpsed through speeding windows, and laments for what's been left behind. While the lyrics aren't specific, the album is permeated by yearning and loss; and on such tracks as St Petersburg, Sad Girl and Roxy, it expresses these feelings beautifully. As well as a travelogue, it's a breakup album, and it cuts deeper with each listen. The dissolution of love and the journeys undertaken are inextricably entwined; presumably one is the result of the other.
This is where patience comes in. Every successful band reaches the stage where writing what they know means exploring the travails of the tour, and the damage it can wreak on their home lives. Deeply tedious it can be, too. But not in this instance. If you're expecting a Supergrass album to be a pack of firecrackers (and why wouldn't you?), then you'll be startled at just how unstartling it is. It even starts slowly, gradually accumulating the rhythms of the motorway on Tales Of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6). That's right: “Parts 4, 5 & 6”. This from a band who've usually walked away dusting their hands off long before you've tired of part 1. But said parts are very brief ones. Supergrass have lost none of their talent for compression. They even meander briskly.
The result is a record that calls to mind bluesy road albums of the early Seventies, and Roger Waters' bitter but curiously poignant 1984 solo LP, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, craftily stripped down to their essential components by dexterous elves. This will be the Supergrass album passed over on happy days, then wistfully and appreciatively plucked from its box on unkind ones.
The Decembrists, of Portland, Oregon, are a band with few direct predecessors; an attribute which, in these derivative times, is intriguing in itself, even before you consider how good their new album is. The nearest thing to them I can recall would be the sadly under-regarded Crime & The City Solution, whose best line-ups featured members of The Bad Seeds - among them Mick Harvey, a musician of wide and unacknowledged influence.
Harvey it is who has arranged the dramatic backdrops to much of Nick Cave's best work, and I'd be surprised if The Decembrists are not keenly aware of him. Cave, too, is a likely influence - or rather, they share influences in common, most notably the theatrical songs of Kurt Weill. The Cave albums to think of here are Murder Ballads and Henry's Dream - full of bold, swaggering storytelling. The Decembrists also owe a fair bit to the Belgian-born cult figure of French chanson, Jacques Brel (and here they diverge sharply from Cave, whose mannerisms are of a quite dissimilar order.) If one were to (absurd as it seems) divest The Pogues of their Irishness, certain parallels would reveal themselves there, too.
For all that they vaguely evoke other acts, The Decembrists sound exactly like no one but themselves. Picaresque, as the title suggests, is an album concerned with rogues and adventurers. It's vivid and rambunctious, stuffed with tall tales and bolstered by violins, squeeze-boxes and folksy time signatures. I don't think I've ever heard a rock album quite so enraptured with sea shanties; but it remains a rock album all the same, a singular and novel one, with a belting set of songs (by Colin Meloy) played with verve and skill.
The Decembrists' ear for old-timey music, and their ability to refresh that music, stand comparison with The Band, although it's a different set of roots they're digging down to. The revitalised Rough Trade label, which earlier this year brought us Arcade Fire, can claim another real find.
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