Friday, July 18, 2008

Supergrass -- Diamond Hoo Ha (2008)

Supergrass -- Diamond Hoo Ha (Astralwerks)

After two spins of this album, I was concerned that Supergrass had become obsolete. This album, the band’s sixth, was certainly peppy, and certainly Supergrass. Yet it was making no impression on me.

At least the last album, Road To Rouen, got my attention. It was a laudable but failed attempt to move in a more contemplative direction, something that had been hinted on all the way back on the band’s In It For The Money album. Unfortunately, the music was a bit too ponderous and Gaz Coombes’s lyrics just aren’t as well suited to deeper tuneage.

Since Supergrass will always have a place in my heart, I gave this album more of a chance, and I’m glad I did. This album sounds like the more logical follow up to Life On Other Planets. This is Supergrass back to doing what it does best -- to-the-point pop songs that have happy surfaces which are tempered by Gaz’s ability to come up with melancholy counterpoint melodies.

It doesn’t hurt that the band nails a song that Slade would have been proud to come up with back in the day. "When I Needed You" is a great mid-tempo number in the tradition of Slade toonz like "Far Far Away" and "Cos I Love You". This is a song of regret and longing, with a melody that fits the bill. What makes this stand out, beyond the pull of the music, is the contrast between the verses, which ponder how we deal with problems, and the chorus: "in the back of a stolen car/doing 80 with the headlights off/that’s when I needed you." It sounds like someone is in big trouble.

So the appearance of introspection is really just part of a larger story. Ever since "Caught By the Fuzz", a lot of the best Supergrass music involves stories and larger themes, not looking inward. This is exemplified by the title cut, which starts out with a Deep Purple-esque blues rawk guitar line that Jack White hadn’t gotten around to recording, and tells the tale of a con man: "all I got/is all I need/but what I really want/is in my dreams." This is one of the most convincing pure rock songs Supergrass has ever done.

Most of the album is breezier. "Rebel In You" has a bouncy mix of jangling guitars, a bit of an R & B rhythm in the verses, and a typical monster hook in the chorus. Even more creative is "The Return of...", which has little low end, dominated by jaunty lead guitar fills from Gaz and keyboard support from Danny Coombes. This song has such an unusual arrangement, and its catchiness obscures that at first. Nick Launay’s production is particularly wonderful on this track, as he gets the right place in the mix for every instrument, making the spare instrumentation sound just full enough.

Launay also makes the horns sound great, whether it’s the solo on "The Return of...", or the more unconventional use of horns, which lurch throughout the pumping "Whiskey & Green Tea". But any producer would be able to make the closer "Butterfly" sound grand. It’s a stirring track with a melody that is both inspiring and heart-tugging at the same time, and a cracking good closer.

One thing that Supergrass has accomplished is that the band not only has a very distinctive compositional style, with sublime melodic dips and rises that are immediately identifiable, but the band’s influences have been so well absorbed, that I can find so many reference points, but more by era rather than artist.

I can hear ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s sounds, without any obvious nicking of bits. Everything from The Beatles to Bowie to The La’s, and so much in between, is encapsulated here. Which is why I keep coming back to there guys.

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