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ARTIST: SUPERGRASS TITLE: LIFE ON OTHER PLANETS RELEASED: 2002 LABEL: EMI RECORDS PRODUCER: TONY HOFFER
“You can say as much in a song as you could in ten minutes of an interview”, said Gaz Coombes, ironically, in a recent interview with The Independent. Coombes is the singer/guitarist in the vibrant British pop-rock outfit Supergrass. This quote says much about the band’s dismissal of the importance of courting a favourable press. It shows how Gaz , Danny (Drums/Vocals), Mickey (Bass/Vocals) and Rob (Keys) have stayed true to the basic ideals of indie rock. They are currently on tour to promote their fourth and most recent album, Life on Other Planets.
Life on Other Planets was released in the autumn of 2002 into a sea of mixed reviews from the British music media. Some felt it to be Supergrass’ most mature and eclectic work, whilst others dismissed it as being “patchy” or overly influenced by the glam rock of the early 70s. Personally, I have found I enjoy it as much as any release of last year and am setting out to argue the case for the defence (starsally, if you are reading).
When I first heard them on the radio eight years ago, I immediately liked Supergrass, who hail from that most prolific of music cities, Oxford. As much as I love Radiohead’s 1990s offerings and acknowledge the importance of Ride in the birth of Britpop, Supergrass have always been my favourite Oxford band. I strongly dislike Coldplay (I am one of the three people I know who do so) and so am conscious of the fact that I am asking to be shot down. Anyway on with this review…
Supergrass started out as a three-piece, but in 1998 incorporated a full-time keyboard player – Rob Coombes – the older brother of their lead singer. This addition has helped to flesh out the band’s sound on the more expansive tracks, but slightly undermines the classic image of three young upstarts taking on the music world. For those that don’t know, the band first burst onto the scene in late 1994, with the release of their debut single Caught By The Fuzz – a raucously fresh release. They went on to enjoy a period of fantastic press coverage as a result of their debut album, I Should Coco and main single Alright (the NME pronounced them their “favourite band ever”). Throughout the glorious summer of that year; their playful brand of punkish indie pop seemed to capture the mood and suit the long, sunny days. Along with Oasis and Blur, the band were, whether they liked it or not, flag-bearers of the Britpop movement. There was something different about Supergrass to all the other British bands that burst through at the time though ; the only two records I know that sound anything like I Should Coco are Ash’s debut 1977 and the much older Three Imaginary Boys (The Cure’s debut release).
With their follow up album, In It For The Money, Supergrass cemented their fanbase and possibly engaged a few new listeners with a more restrained and professional set of songs. Their self-titled, third album is not a record I am a huge fan of, but I acknowledge the bravery of the band in releasing an album’s worth of potentially successful singles. This brings us to Life On Other Planets, which was released a full three years after its predecessor.
Life On Other Planets was recorded when the band returned to the UK after a prolonged jamming-session in France, and is, for the most part a joyous affair. Gaz Coombes and his band are nearly always up-tempo and imaginative and this record showcases the band’s prolific songwriting ability and their myriad influences. There are elements of The Beatles, The Kinks and Rolling Stones (60s), Bowie and Bolan (early 70s), Buzzcocks and XTC (late 70s) and many more contemporary flavours as well. Clearly the band own a diverse record collection and aren’t afraid to try different things.
The opening track, Za, is a hard-rocking (not in a crappy “nu-metal” way), riff driven song about nothing in particular. A playful piano intro and some Low-era Bowie drums underpin Gaz Coombes’ crisp, clean guitar. Coombes himself sounds, as he does on much of this record, like the illegitimate lovechild of Marc Bolan (vocally that is).
The second track is the belting, Rush Hour Soul. A radio-friendly, fast paced number which includes a line about the “little lady with the sweet left hook.” Again, the lyrical content is not going to challenge anyone intellectually, but that is not what Supergrass do - as the band explain candidly on track three.
Seen The Light contains the apt lyric;
“I’m a rock and roll singer in a rock and roll band.”
This is very much a neat synopsis of what Supergrass’ Gaz Coombes feels he does best. Seen The Light is very much influenced by Marc Bolan and comes resplendent with “la la la” Beatles style backing vocals. A bleeting sheep fills the sound void which arises some 90 seconds into the song and Gaz Coombes sees fit to do an Elvis style imitation vocal at one point. All very daft, but good fun nonetheless !
Track four is a standout. Brecon Beacons is very much Red Hot Chilli Peppers meets British indie rock. A walking bassline holds things tightly together. The lyrical subject is a bit darker than normal and concerns that of a murdered young girl, who has seemingly dabbled in the realms of the supernatural and has paid the ultimate price;
“There’s retribution from the supernatural You better watch out because they’re coming to get you When the stars are out there’s nowhere to run You can’t hide from the witches of Brecon”
Can’t Get Up has widely been widely interpreted as being about the long-term effects of smoking too much non-cigarette and drinking too much alcohol. Whatever the message of the song (Coombes talks about “standing in a forest of reason”), it is another cleanly produced, punchy rock number. The vocals are slick and the harmonies add an extra dimension to the song.
Evening Of The Day strays into rockabilly territory and has been critically savaged for doing so. It is very much a case of slow, strummy verses and fast, garbled choruses. It is a truly brilliant song, showcasing the band’s new found maturity. It is worth remembering that three of the band members are only twenty-six or twenty-seven still. Evening Of The Day is notable for possessing a wonderfully serene organ, a breathy, confident vocal and a strutting, cocky bass. It has an infectious (pops into your head while you’re on the bus/in the supermarket) chorus and showcases further the band’s wonderfully simple pop sensibility. Possibly the indulgence of a playful stoned outro detracts from this majestic song, but I am not sure. It doesn’t harm anyone, so leave them alone NME, Q, etc
Never Done Nothing Like That Before is a frenetic piece of punk rock. It is very much an older brother to some of the youthful tracks on I Should Coco. The grammatically incorrect title aside, it is a storming track. A rant about the PTA (I presume Parent Teacher Association, but who knows???) is hidden behind a massive Sex-Pistols style guitar line. Some one-note keyboards help the track hurry along to a sudden conclusion. After this track the more experimental side of the album arrives.
Track 8 is entitled Funniest Thing. It is a slick, polished piece of riff-orientated rock, with just a hint of psychedelia. Lyrically it deals with “creatures that climb up the wall” and like much of the offerings on this album, it clocks in at two and a bit minutes. Another drug undertone creeps through on this track;
“In the shape of morphine I forget it all”
Grace, was the most brilliantly summery single of 2002 for me, with its mantra style chorus of “save your money for the children.” It is a melodic, punky, sing-along and captures the essence of Supergrass’ sound with its playful, but assured lead vocal, economical yet direct guitars and basses, and its absurd lyrics;
“You ate our chips And you drank our coke Then you showed me Mars through your telescope”
La Song (as is “la la”, not Los Angeles) is a poppy, harmony-flavoured track, featuring heavily produced vocals and, unsurprisingly, a chorus of “la la, la la, la la…” Some odd Stone Roses-sounding guitars and spacey effects serve as a musical middle 8 on what is one of the slow-burners of this album.
Prophet 15 derives its title from a type of synthesiser which is used on the track. It sees the band exploring new territory (as the tile, Life on Other Planets) would suggest. It could easily sit next to many of the songs on In It For The Money, but has a slightly more downbeat feel to it. Gaz Coombes talks about being lost and unable to explain himself on this wondrous, dreamy track. A roll call of twentieth century icons is trotted out during the song, although I haven’t obtained any didactic purpose to the lyrics; Oscar Wilde, Steve McQueen, Che Guevara, Joe Belushi, Marvin Gaye and Roger Moore are all treated to a mention.
Run sounds very mid-to-late 60s Beatles in its early stages. It is a slow-paced, keyboard driven track and is very much a comedown after the fast-paced euphoria of most of this album. Personally I don’t like Run as much as the rest of the album. I find it too pedestrian and overly dramatic. The squelching, aimless guitars towards the end of the track do nothing for me and as a closing track to a brilliant record it just doesn’t convince me. Bizarrely it is featured on one of the 831 Classic Chill Out albums that have been released in the last year or so. Saying all that, Run is not bad enough to spoil a fantastic album.
If we take the album as being very much more than the sum of its parts, it is possibly the most coherent record the band have managed since I Should Coco. Although most Supergrass fans that I know feel it is not as strong as the band’s debut, I would put it in the same bracket. It is the sound of a band doing what they want to do and damning the consequences. Supergrass shouldn’t be subject to musical fashion. They do what they set out to do all those years ago; they write punchy, sub-three minute songs and throw in some pop melodies, punk energy and rock riffs to boot. They never set out to change the world like U2, The Clash or Simple Minds and they never intended to create a new style of guitar music like Spiritualized, Radiohead, or Pavement. Instead they continue to amaze, amuse and entertain as they borrow bits and pieces from the history of rock to make fresh sounding, uplifting music.
Life on Other Planets is very much a “got you by the scruff of the neck” type of record. Its pretend Beatles cover and inlay reveals the sense of humour of this band of merry men. As an album, it is not flawless, but it is fun and furthermore sets out what it means to do – show the world that Supergrass are still happy being Supergrass. What more can you ask for £9 ?