They’re still sombre, but the Manchester pop duo flirt with optimism on a fist-pumping third album
It would appear that, in choosing such a title, The Courteeners are making a proclamation of their own genius too far; anointing themselves as not only the saviours of Manchester’s sterile ’00s music scene but also of the lumpen, hype-obsessed Britrock class of ’08. Nurse, you’d better break out the blister-packs of modesty serum – we’ve got an extreme case of Reverend-itis on our hands. However, if anyone needs Saint Jude’s divine intervention for a cause it’s The Courteeners themselves. In their ongoing quest to prove they’re more than just a bunch of gobby Mancunian dickheads who spent their break-out year writing verbal cheques their debut album could never cash, it’s clear they’ll need all the help they can get. Make no mistake: a couple of jokey asides made to journalists in the time-honoured tradition of gaining column inches have collectively become a monkey on The Courteeners’ back. In recent weeks, Liam Fray has admitted that snidey comments about the likes of The Enemy and Hard-Fi are a source of huge regret, something he’d even – whisper it – like to publicly apologise for.
Chiefly, one suspects, his reticence is down to the fact he’s(knowlingly or otherwise) amped up expectation for this record to gargantuan levels. While on the one hand thousands of the band’s northern brethren are baying for ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’’s belated successor, on the other a bunch of less partisan sorts are desperate for a backlash to gain momentum. They want to trip up the band just as Big League success is beginning to look like a possibility. It’s to its credit, however, that ‘St Jude’ confounds both of these expectations. At their best, when Fray’s gruff Manc-Irish rasp knits together with walls of thunderous guitars, The Courteeners sound not like some new Oasis but a British version of Kings Of Leon. Just as he did on Babyshambles’ ‘Shotters Nation’, producer Stephen Street has taken a band who are proudly raw and scruffy live and made their tunes sound 10 feet tall: opener ‘Aftershow’ – all chiming guitars and shoutalong lyrics – is like being caught up in a musical hurricane while ‘Cavorting’ whizzes past at breakneck speed. ‘Bide Your Time’,meanwhile, reveals the band’s affection for Kinksian pop and ‘Fallowfield Hillbilly’ (sample lyric: “Can you play guitar my boy?/Can you fuck!”), rails against Manchester’s indie scenesters in typical Fray style – biting and witty.
Make no mistake, then: when The Courteeners play it straight and go for the rock’n’roll jugular they’re a highly competent outfit but not, it must be said, a brilliant one just yet. ‘Kings Of The New Road’ runs a little to close to Kings Of Leon pastiche for comfort while ‘If It Wasn’t For Me’ should probably have been relegated to a B-side. Thankfully, though breakneck rock’n’roll accounts for only 50 per cent of the album, the remaining half is where ‘St Jude’ really begins to confound expectations and reveal a seldom-seen sensitivity. It’s the moments where Fray shows his tender, folkish side, where he harks back to his days as a solo acoustic troubadour and wears his bruised heart on his sleeve that things get really interesting. He may proclaim himself to be a “Morrissey with some strings” on lolloping former single ‘What Took You So Long’ but he’s actually more of a sweet and tender hooligan. Closer ‘Yesterday, Today And Probably Tomorrow’ is the sort of acoustic lament that Pete Doherty should have written, while the impressive ‘Please Don’t’ finds Fray deconstructing the breakdown of a relationship like Guy Garvey’s younger, much more naïve brother. Even more surprising is ‘No You Didn’t, No You Don’t’, a breezily nostalgic Smithsian jangle-pop wonder that truly bridges the gap between thug and hug. Consequently it’s easily the best track on the album.
The overriding message is that there’s much more to come from The Courteeners and that Fray might one day want to explore his acoustic, melancholic side further, either solo or with his band. Whichever path they end up choosing, ‘St Jude’ is conclusive proof they have far more interesting things to say when they let the tunes do the talking.
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