We continue our examination of Teenage Fanclub, looking at the band’s creative peak — 1995 to 2000.
Grand Prix (1995)
Following the disappointment of Thirteen, Teenage Fanclub soldiered on, taking two years to write and record their follow-up, Grand Prix. What followed was a sharper, more melodic version of Thirteen, aided by the improved songwriting of Raymond McGinley. There were now three main songwriters in the group, and it allowed them to move their best songs forward; there was no room for any throwaways anymore. Like the Beatles, the group not only spurred each other on, but pared the songs down to the best of the best.
Song for song, Grand Prix is the most consistent album they’ve ever done, if not the best. Varied in tempo and emotion, it ranges from the highs of “Sparky’s Dream” and “I’ll Make it Clear” to the somber tones of “Tears” and “Mellow Doubt.” Each song is crafted carefully, with varied tempos and complex arrangements. “Tears” features horns and strings; Norman Blake even whistles on “Mellow Doubt.” McGinley named a song “Verisimilitude” — how many of us have even used that in a sentence?
Although it didn’t spawn a Top 40 hit on either side of the Atlantic, Grand Prix was the band’s most successful album to date, reaching No. 7 on the UK album chart. In 2000, Q Magazine ranked Grand Prix at No. 72 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever.
Songs from Northern Britain (1997)
This is where I come in. I bought Songs from Northern Britain because I had vaguely heard of the band and liked the name of the band. It was the perfect primer to Teenage Fanclub, if not fully representative. They lightened their sound somewhat, adding acoustic guitars, banjos and xylophones to the mix and inserting layered harmonies throughout. The result is an eclectic, beautiful album that peaked at No. 3 on the UK chart. The highlights, “Ain’t That Enough” and “I Don’t Want Control of You,” channel the Byrds’ heartaching vocals.
What is most shocking about the album is the critical reception. The fickle press called it “tepid,” “homogenous” and “momentum-halting.” But author Nick Hornby calls Songs from Northern Britain one of his favorite albums and featured “Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From” and “Ain’t that Enough” in “Songbook,” a book of essays that describe his 31 favorite songs. It is their most cohesive album – each song flows into the next, each one laid out beautifully until it comes to the epilogue, Love’s “Speed of Light,” the perfect ending to the album.
My personal favorite. Keyboard-heavy and at times quirky, Teenage Fanclub’s seventh album features two of their greatest songs: the deceptively complex “Dumb Dumb Dumb” and the hauntingly beautiful “Near You.” And the album ends perfectly, with Blake’s quiet acoustic ballad “If I Never See You Again.”
But you start to see some creative differences begin to develop. Love veers off in a more decidedly guitarless pop sound, heavy on the vocals and keyboards, while Blake stays true to their guitar sound, although it’s evolved to an instrument of punctuation and support instead of the main noisemaker. McGinley continues to get stronger as a songwriter, with “I Can’t Find My Way Home” being his best yet.
The buying public would have nothing of Howdy!, though. It only hit No. 33 in the UK and didn’t chart in the States.