Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
By the time Supergrass released their third album, Supergrass (1999), aka “The X-Ray Album,” they were one of my favorite recording artists. I bought the UK version of the CD since I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the US release (which was probably several weeks later), and they were one of only a handful of artists for whom I was willing to spend extra money on imports. Needless to say I was eager to hear what the trio of Gaz Coombes, Mick Quinn & Danny Goffey (along with Gaz’s brother Rob, who would soon become a full-fledged band member) would come up with after two nearly flawless albums to start their career. Supergrass might not be quite as exciting as its predecessors, but those were tough acts to follow and album #3 is still a delightful collection of songs that showcased their expanded musical palette and a maturity that might have scared off some fans of their manic early singles. Numerologists would appreciate that this album peaked at #3 on the UK chart while debut I Should Coco reached #1 and sophomore album In It For The Money grabbed the #2 spot. Although the album was a big success in their home country, once again they failed to chart in the US. Whereas previously they were darlings of the UK music press and five of their singles were Top 10 smashes, only three singles were released from Supergrass, with just one cracking the Top 10. Their days of being hitmakers were starting to wane yet their music continued to grow, and it was clear that they still had a blast writing & recording together. Only 3 of this album’s 12 tracks aren’t included in my lists of highlights, proving to me that their quality control remained consistently high, and even the omitted songs are very good.
♪ “Moving” – The album opens in grand style with this Animals-era Pink Floyd homage, featuring strummed acoustic guitar & synth washes, as Gaz sings, “Moving, just keep moving, till I don’t know what’s saaaaane.” At around the 1:10 mark it shifts to a glam stomper with hand claps & bouncy piano (“Got a low, low feeling around me, and a stone cold feeling inside”). I love the blend of spacey atmosphere and funky groove on this Top 10 hit, one of my favorite Supergrass tunes.
♪ “What Went Wrong (In Your Head)” – Features a bouncy, slightly muted, midtempo groove, and the refrain of “What went wrong in your head…while we slept in our beds?” immediately grabbed me. I also love the Beatle-esque “La la la la la” backing vocals during the chorus. It’s a simple song with the same verse & chorus repeated, but that simplicity is one of its charms. There’s also a very cool bridge: “God save the unstable, they stand alone.”
♪ “Beautiful People” – I can’t put my finger on exactly which song or band I’m reminded of every time I hear the stabbing guitar riff, but it might be a ‘70s glam-era band like Slade or The Sweet. I believe that’s Mick singing the verses with Gaz joining in for the choruses. I like the way it opens up at the end of each verse (“People…people”; “Feel…feel”).
♪ “Mary” – Another song that’s been a favorite since the first time I heard this album. Highlighted by a funky groove, stinging guitar, tasty organ and a slight Latin vibe. It’s super catchy and those harmonized lead vocals (“I got a girl and her name is Mary, I like to shock her on a basis daily”) are simply awesome, as are the “ahh ahh ahh ahh…a-ya-ya” falsetto harmonies. How was this not a massive hit?
♪ “Pumping On Your Stereo” – An instantly catchy danceable rock song with the repeated refrain of “Can you hear us pumping on your stereo?” (apparently they actually sing “humping” here) followed by Gaz’s Bowie homage (circa Diamond Dogs) for “Life is a cigarette, you smoke to the end.” The bridge (“The wider your eyes, the bigger the lies, yes it’s true”) is another great melodic section in a song that’s not as simple as it initially seems. It’s also a giant blast of fun.
Other Notable Tracks:
They returned three years later with their first album of the new millennium, Life On Other Planets (2002). By now Rob Coombes was officially part of the group, but his contributions have always been essential to their sound. I’ve read numerous reviews that consider this a return to form after what was considered the slight disappointment of Supergrass, but clearly I don’t agree as that album was nearly as vital as the first two. In fact, as much as I enjoy Life On Other Planets, there are fewer timeless songs here than on any of their prior albums. It’s certainly a punchier & more rocking record, with the usual blend of influences that could only be the work of these four musicians, but just a couple of songs stood out as all-time classics while a number of others are “merely” excellent. Don’t get me wrong…I love this album…but it didn’t speak to me in the same way as the three that preceded it. For an alternate viewpoint, I invite you to check out this review from Bruce Jenkins at his excellent Vinyl Connection blog. Apparently my previous post inspired him to revisit some of their albums, and he’s clearly more passionate about Life On Other Planets than I am. We may feel differently about particular Supergrass records but we’re in complete agreement about just how much we love this band.
♪ “Grace” – A Top 20 single that probably would have been a bigger hit a few years earlier. It’s immediately catchy with pounding piano, ringing guitars and an obvious T. Rex influence (“Well we jumped all night on your trampoline…”), which occurs frequently on this album. There’s also a major hook in the chorus: “Oh Grace, save your money for the children.” Simply Supergrass at their best.
♪ “Run” – This album closer is also the longest song here, at just under 5-1/2 minutes. Begins with a deep synth bed and smooth Abbey Road harmonies (“Heaven had time to grow…lying in the afterglow”). It’s lush, gorgeous & peaceful with a sparse arrangement that recalls 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love,” John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” and various mid-‘70s Beach Boys gems. The vocals end before the 2:00 mark, followed by a Pink Floyd-inspired synth section and a huge guitar solo. It’s massive, epic…the perfect way to wrap up Life On Other Planets.
[Supergrass – “Run”] [audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/ww4lf9r8qk/Run.mp3]
Other Notable Tracks:
For anyone who’s not a completist like me, the compilation Supergrass Is 10 (2004) would likely be the only Supergrass CD you’ll need. At a generous 21 tracks they present all the big hits from their first four albums, with 7 from I Should Coco, 5 from In It For The Money, 3 each from Supergrass and Life On Other Planets, 1 b-side that also appeared on the In It For The Money bonus disc and 2 brand new songs. Only one of those two is worthy of inclusion among their best work, but fortunately it’s an immediate classic that’s worth further discussion below. As an added bonus, initial pressings came with a bonus CD featuring 12 live performances that must have been recorded shortly before the release of Supergrass Is 10 since it opens with the aforementioned new song, “Kiss Of Life.” The track listing of the live disc is weighted heavily towards the first two albums, with 7 songs from those early years; 8 if you count the b-side “Wait For The Sun,” which appears here as part of an acoustic section along with “Late In The Day” and “Caught By The Fuzz,” proving that they were just as electric without electricity. There are plenty of great songs that were left off this compilation, but I would heartily recommend it for anyone new to their music, and the live disc is icing on the cake. Be warned, however, that once you’re hooked you’ll probably want all the individual albums as well.
The Essential “New” Song:
♪ “Kiss Of Life” – Possibly their funkiest song which owes a lot to early-‘80s Talking Heads, specifically “Crosseyed And Painless,” while adding their own unique flourishes. It was a Top 30 hit in the UK but I’m shocked it wasn’t more successful than that. Vocals like “Your love’s like a heart attack” and the Bee Gees-inspired “Yeah!” response are among many reasons why this is such a groovy slab of fun.
For a band with only four studio albums and one compilation during their first decade, I’m still amazed at how consistent they were while traversing such diverse musical terrain. The sheer number of memorable songs in their catalog up to that point surely makes them one of the best bands of their era, and they could give their musical forefathers a run for their money. I’m happy to report that there are still a couple of albums left in their catalog that I haven’t covered, both of which I’ll be revisiting over the next several days along with a one-off side project by two-thirds of Supergrass. All of these will be discussed in my next & final post. Until then, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this “middle period” of their discography.