Teenage Fanclub chases lost songcraft on its ninth album

Rock bands tend to begin in secret. They are formed in the daydreams of adolescent boys and girls turned on by a record or magazine article or all-ages show that in some way points them toward the thing they most want to be, or know.

In every practical sense, Teenage Fanclub began on a fall day in 1980, when 15-year-old Norman Blake returned home from the record store, a copy of the latest single by local band Orange Juice in hand. Only months before, the Glasgow group had jolted Blake out of the monochrome present, evoking for him a pastel musical moment set a decade before 1977, punk's year zero. At least in one boy's imagination, recent history returned to life. Orange Juice whetted his appetite for the thing recent fashion denied: an awareness of rock's romantic, melody-rich past. Blake's past and future came into sharper focus with the little vinyl disc he placed on the turntable.

“Orange Juice said it was okay to like Buffalo Springfield, 13th Floor Elevators, and Al Green,” Blake says, his enthusiasm infectious. “Their label, Postcard Records, used the tagline 'The Sound of Young Scotland,' a nod to Tamla-Motown's 'Sound of Young America.' It was cheeky and it was fun. But it was also something you wanted to know more about.”

As it turned out, Orange Juice's nods and winks wouldn't satisfy Blake's curiosity. Hence, Teenage Fanclub. A decade would pass between Blake's bedroom epiphany and his group's arrival in the quantifiable world of record contracts and sales charts. By 1991, when the band's second album, Bandwagonesque, made its mark on the U.S. — including “album of the year” hype from Spin and a booking on the Jason Priestley–hosted episode of Saturday Night Live — the fractured rock zeitgeist was also staring hard at its past. Seattle grunge and the seedlings of Britpop put everything pre-punk within trendy reach. By 1992, America's love affair with Nirvana was too hot not to quickly cool to a lump of ashen coal.

And so began the gradual refinement of Teenage Fanclub's sound. 1993's Thirteen was a critical and commercial step backward, its controlled chaos sounding too close to last year's thing. So the band found a way out from the shackles of early-'90s popularity on 1995's Grand Prix. There, the quartet's always-present harmonies stepped to the foreground for the first time. On “Mellow Doubt,” the lyrics began to show the weathered lines of introspection. The band's obsessions drifted from the ephemera of pop history, focusing instead on the canyon-deep permanence of songcraft.

“I'd like to write a great lyric,” Blake says. “Something universal, like Jonathan Richman's 'Summer Feeling,' which manages to be about his youth, but about everyone's youth as well. It speaks to a certain yearning most people have, a nostalgia. The thing that makes us keep photo albums and mementos.”

This exploration, whether it be through rock's back pages or a more personal past, is what keeps Teenage Fanclub going. Its ninth and latest album, Shadows, features 12 songs that sound, no matter which of the four members is doing the writing (and tunesmith duties are shared equally among the four: Blake, Gerard Love, Francis MacDonald, and Raymond McGinley), like a spirited search for the pristine corpse of rock songcraft; the lost art of Roger McGuinn and Neil Young. Easy harmony and hard-won wisdom. The dedication is also why its songs keep getting better, more than 20 years after Teenage Fanclub made the leap from fantasy to reality.

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