Album review: The Courteeners - 'Falcon' (Polydor)
Liam and the other three finally take flight on their second album
A semi-metaphorical question that bizarrely seems almost as relevant in divvying up Britain’s indie fans today as it did sat around the radio as Mark Goodier announced the chart battle result in 1995. ‘Art pop’ versus ‘real rock’n’roll’, or shandy-drinking poofs versus knuckle-dragging lager-monkeys? It’s an age-old tribal divide. It all feels very silly if you’re feeling rational (ie, boring). But it remains a jibing rhetoric that motivates roughly 65 per cent of letters that land in NME’s mailbag and one that, for our sins, we all secretly like to invest in one way or another when crucifying/pedestalling some poor newbie act.
The Courteeners, 2008’s New Manc Saviours, quickly and readily inherited the mantle of pretty much every one of their hometown’s previous saviours rolled into one. Their talisman, Liam Fray, took every audacious critic’s claim square on his puffed chest for better or for worse. Inevitably, then, when debut ‘St Jude’ arrived in all its Little-Britain-sketch-on-The-Libertines semi-glory, it didn’t quite live up to the new Oasis/Smiths predictions. What the cavalcade of balls-out rock’n’roll and hard-but-sensitive-man’s troubadouring did do was garner sold-out hometown arenas and sow seeds of potential greatness to come. Not to mention breathing vital new life into the old meat’n’spuds versus art-school divide. If you came armed with indier-than-thou cynicism, The Courteeners, for all their own love of sensitive types such as Morrissey and James’ Tim Booth, were sitting ducks.
Today, then, as we find ourselves in something of a drought of sensational, terrace-igniting new Brit-rock, and with the sacred pillars of Gallagher crumbled, Fray and his band of brothers again find themselves under the weight of great expectation. Ranked now a daunting number three behind baptised-in-cred Kasabian and a flailing Monkeys in the acts best-equipped to inherit the ‘real rock’n’roll’ crown, the question is, does ‘Falcon’ possess what it takes to fulfill their supposed ‘destiny’, making them a true ‘band of the people’?
It has a startlingly majestic start. ‘The Opener’ – well, Liam’s never been one to mince words – vaults into life; brisk, nearly flouncing, all loud/quiet dynamics and Adam Ant panting. It’s a dual ‘missing you’ love letter to both his hometown while decamped at his lady’s LA pad, and to his missus once he arrived back in Blighty: “I miss your eyelashes, and the streets where I grew tall/I miss getting piss-wet through, getting to yours and getting warm”. It’s hapless romance, honest and endearing. It’s also the first instance on ‘Falcon’ when you realise there’s going to be a lot of choruses. Proud, chiming Mancunian sidewinders. Suddenly the Morrissey-heaped praise makes much more sense.
‘St Jude’ was plug’n’play, bashed out. Most of ‘Falcon’ began at Fray’s piano and was then jammed out. Hence why nearly the entire thing is mid-paced. Nowhere is it characterised better than on ‘Take Over The World’, half battle-cry, half proposal. Its towering walls of reverb sway and buckle with the refrain every disappointing noughties major-label-flop of a wannabe arena-indie band was searching for. Inevitably there’ll be accusations of Garvey-ism throughout, but in full swing here, Liam could easily stagger arm-in-arm with Guy.
It was often noted that The Courteeners’ sing-song slabs were infinitely more convincing than their stabs at barnstormers. In that sense ‘Falcon’ delivers tenfold, and Fray has no problem brushing cliché in the name of ‘maturing’. But it’s not all serious and sentimental. The rollick’n’roll fun element is replaced now by a kinda Hard-Fi-meets-Kasabian big-beat strut on groove-centric lead single ‘You Overdid It Doll’. Which, if bodged, would be all kinds of eek. But with a chainmail backhand of a chorus slapped right in the bloomin’ middle it’s just about the freshest festival fodder this country’s had in yonks.
But was Fray’s self-proclaimed, “gone soft” album ever going to be infallible? At points it’s drippy in a way that even the girlfriends on shoulders at Ashcroft solo gigs would wrinkle their noses at: see penultimate ‘Last Of The Ladies’ track for evidence. Closer ‘Will It Be This Way Forever?’ has a swagger that swings between emphatic and driving and clunky and obvious. There are also many couplets, notably in ‘Lullaby’, that will have the critics guffawing. Try: “Only a paperboy from the northwest/But I scrub up well in my Sunday best”
on ‘Take Over The World’ for size. Of course it’s not quantum physics, but how sexy is science? At points it’s over-ambitious, sure, but it feels stuffy to fault reaching for the stars.
‘Falcon’’s shortcomings are roughly the same as its predecessor. Similarly, then, your tolerance will depend on which side of the age-old Britpop divide your heart and mind reside. What’s different this time is that not only has the ratio of glories to mishaps been virtually turned on its head, it’s that The Courteeners have developed the ability to, at points, blow away tribal allegiances with hooks forged from pure indie gold. As Kasabian have become the thinking fan’s guilty pleasure via an arty makeover, The Courteeners opt for unabashed hands-aloft hits. At this album’s best it’d be impossible to sneer without feeling suicidally snobbish. The question of whether there’s enough anthemia here to take that next stride up to mega-band status isn’t even worth asking. When The Courteeners fly on ‘Falcon’ – just like them to do what they say on the tin – they really do soar.
So, are you Blur, Oasis… or maybe Courteeners?
What do you think of the album? Let us know by posting a comment below.
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