Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Of pop rock’s many offshoots and subdivisions, power pop is one of the few that has a little something for everyone. It’s just noisy and edgy enough for those with more discriminating tastes and sensibilities, yet it knows its way around an irresistible hook or chorus as well as anything else in the pop pantheon. If an act can please the purists and rope in a broader audience at the same time, it should have it made.
While power pop expertly walks a fine line between the cool and the accessible, history is colored with acts that have struggled to sustain lasting mainstream success off of sweet melodies and jangly guitars, even if the formula lays out almost perfectly on paper. Many have had their chances. Matthew Sweet struck pay-dirt in 1991 with “Girlfriend,” but even a steady stream of solid follow-ups wasn’t enough to keep his mainstream momentum. Big Star might be the subgenre’s earliest and most perfect export, but right or wrong, the band long ago hit the ceiling at much-adored cult hero status. Some things are what they are, no matter how hard the attempt is made to rationalize them or explain them away.
But of all the power pop acts that struggled to keep their heads above water in mainstream circles, maybe the most curious “whatever happened to…” story belongs to Teenage Fanclub. The Scottish alt poppers dropped their stunning sophomore effort Bandwagonesque on the world in 1991, and while the record’s title and artwork (a satchel of money with a dollar sign cheekily stamped on it) seemed to outwardly mock the idea of it being the band’s ticket to fame, it was just that, even if only for a short spell. Arriving just over a month after Nirvana kicked down the door with Nevermind, Bandwagonesque capitalized on a surging mainstream fan base that was ready to take the band up on its gorgeous yet cranky guitar pop. It even earned the group a coveted slot as a musical guest on SNL alongside host Jason Priestly.
Sadly, Teenage Fanclub’s reign as the poster child for then-nascent alternative rock was fleeting. The group had its time in the limelight, but when the alternative boom kicked into high gear just a few months later, the band got lost in the shuffle as every band armed with a guitar and a flannel shirt charged the gates. The irony is that Teenage Fanclub steadily improved its formula for palatable-yet-lively power pop with each passing record, right up to and including 2010’s Shadows. And in a fit of particularly bad timing, the band was hitting the pinnacle of its songwriting powers just as the world was starting to tire of and move on from anything tagged with the label “alternative.”
Up until the release of Songs From Northern Britain in 1997, Teenage Fanclub leaned liberally on the “power” side of the power pop equation. Thirteen (1993) and Grand Prix (1995) were appropriate and worthy successors to Bandwagonesque, sticking squarely to the crunchy guitar rock that the alternative rock zeitgeist demanded. At their core they were pop records, as all the Fanclub records are. But Songs From Northern Britain was where the road forked toward more purist, sugar-coated pop rock. The band did away with the bulk of the distortion and grungy riffs that defined its earlier output, opting instead to zero in on the pop band that lived under the sonic muck. And it worked splendidly. From the way the band blends Byrds-like harmonies with early ’90s guitar rock on “Ain’t That Enough” or skillfully colors the soft-pop of “Planets” with strings and arrangements, it’s a record that somehow finds a way to sound classic yet contemporary. The band’s three-pronged creative force of Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley had long proved they had songwriting chops; now they found they could be more deliberate about their pop inclinations without having to worry about keeping pace with their alternative and grunge peers.
The band was hitting its creative stride, but the world wasn’t quite biting on this newer, more mature Teenage Fanclub. “I don’t know if you can hear me,” Blake muses on the appropriately named album opener “Start Again.” On the one hand, the irony is unavoidable, seeing as the band never sounded so good. On the other hand, there’s a bit of unintentional foreshadowing at work. Pop might have been in high demand in 1997, but the public’s tastes veered heavily toward the Hanson brothers and the Spice Girls. Elsewhere, Radiohead was mapping out new sonic territory with OK Computer, Blur found its inevitable smash single in waiting with “Song 2,” and big beat acts like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were tying the kinetic threads between rock and dance music. Teenage Fanclub were smack dab in the middle of it all, holding the best record of their career with no one to hand it off to. Audiences had already started splintering away from the group’s bread-and-butter alt rock sounds in what seemed like a thousand different directions. So it goes. Songs From Northern Britain’s legacy is an unfortunate one, an example of a great record that struggled to find a home beyond its loyal admirers.
All told, time hasn’t been too bad to Teenage Fanclub, even though the group’s songs and records offer overwhelming proof that it’s entitled to the kind of broader success that its cult status doesn’t afford them. But the band’s standing as a tireless indie rock underdog has become its most endearing quality over the years. In a world of tortoises and hares, Teenage Fanclub still has a knack for pulling off great pop rock records with measured, unwavering consistency. If only more people took notice.