Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Recorded in France during a tumultuous time in the band’s career, Road To Rouen (2005) is the least immediate-sounding album in the Supergrass discography but ultimately one of their most rewarding. The quartet of Gaz Coombes, Mick Quinn, Danny Goffey and Rob Coombes were dealing with the death of Gaz & Rob’s mother and the intense tabloid scrutiny that Danny was under while dating a fellow British celebrity named Pearl Lowe (of whom I know nothing, but apparently the media pressure had a negative effect on the band). The album title offers a play-on-words combining “Road To Ruin (a possible Ramones reference?) with the French town of Rouen (which I’ve known since high school thanks to Claude Monet’s beautiful series of paintings focusing on the Rouen Cathedral). Whereas in the past their sense of humor shone through their music & lyrics, in this case the title is the most humorous element on display. However, it’s no gloomy affair; it’s just that the songs don’t grab you the first time like they did in the past. Instead, the melodies & textures slowly unfold, and it’s only after four or five listens that their beauty is revealed. At 35-1/2 minutes and just nine songs, Road To Rouen is somehow their loosest, most sprawling work and yet also their most concise. Even though it was their fifth consecutive Top 10 album in the UK, only one song was a minor hit, so this was the point where Supergrass officially became a cult band in their home country. It’s probably the last album I would recommend to a Supergrass newbie, but for anyone who already appreciates their ability to blend disparate influences into their own unique sound, they offer up some of their most spellbinding songs that unveil new layers each time you hear them.
♪ “Tales Of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)” – Opening the album with a 5-1/2 minute track where the vocals don’t come in until the 2-minute mark was surely a sign that commercial appeal was not at the top of their list of priorities. They begin with a combination of English folk and Pink Floyd via strong 12-string acoustic strumming & atmospheric slide guitar accents. It becomes stately & orchestral at 1:30 with strings & horns, followed by bouncy piano and finally Gaz’s vocals on a syncopated funky rhythm. At 3:30 the louder, stomping sound is classic Supergrass, and the final 90 seconds feature angular guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s not quite progressive rock but certainly one of their most ambitious recordings.
♪ “St. Petersburg” – The highest charting single (which didn’t even crack the Top 20) reminds me at times of early Cat Stevens and Pentangle, with its light folk/jazz arrangement, brushes on snare drum and pretty piano. Gaz also delivers one of his most delicate vocal performances.
♪ “Low C” – A single that barely scraped the charts and I’m not surprised, as it’s an ideal album track that wouldn’t meet the “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” requirements of Pop radio. The strummed acoustic guitar, light piano, sparse bass & simple rhythm bear a striking resemblance to Badly Drawn Boy. Gaz’s semi-falsetto vocals suggest a Beatles influence, and the melody at “We were younger, oh the way you turned my head” is absolutely stunning. It might be my single favorite moment in the Supergrass canon, sending chills up & down my spine each time I hear it. Simply one of their prettiest songs.
♪ “Fin” – A peaceful conclusion to the album, with phased vocals, a quiet guitar hook and subtle programmed percussion. It’s a perfect companion to “Low C”; not as striking as that song but possessing a great atmosphere. I like the way it opens up at “Lost from all so dear, yeah, well it’s a long…way…home.”
Other Notable Tracks:
Three years later they returned with an even less commercially successful album, Diamond Hoo Ha (2008), but that lack of success was not a reflection on the quality of the music. This is essentially a slightly older & wiser band recapturing some of the youthful spirit of their early years but with added experience & diverse influences. It’s a return to more concise & punchy songs, with only three of the eleven songs exceeding four minutes. There aren’t quite as many instant classics here as on their first three albums but it’s still a fun collection that proves just how good these guys continued to be even after radio and mainstream media had moved on to the next “flavors of the week.” Unfortunately, the band split two years later after completing the follow-up album, Release The Drones, which ironically remains unreleased. I’m hopeful that it eventually sees the light of day but, if not, Diamond Hoo Ha is an excellent swan song from this great often-overlooked band.
♪ “Rebel In You” – Their final single release and the second longest song on the album at more than 4-1/2 minutes, featuring a stomping 4/4 rhythm through the intro, then more melodic & slightly funkier during the verses. There’s a solid hook at, “Can’t save the rebel in you, hands down you’re beautiful,” and the vocals are strong throughout. I love the little Casio-style synth bubbles in the instrumental section.
♪ “When I Needed You” – The shortest song, at just 2:30, features a clever arrangement for such a brief running time: A peppy piano melody, steady, sparse rhythm, great half-time drumming for the chorus (“In the back of a stolen car, doin’ 80 with the headlights off, that’s when I needed youuuuu…”), a killer melodic bridge (“Out of my sorrows, livin’ out of hollow steel”) and a simple, stinging, melodic guitar solo.
♪ “Ghost Of A Friend” – Tight harmonies give this a strong Squeeze vibe throughout the verses (“Oh my darling I could only try”), followed by vocals that sounds like a cross between Ronnie Lane & Gerry Rafferty (“They’re the clowns that’ve taken the town, yeah the fools here are running me down”). Great “ooh” and “ahh” harmonies and nice shifts in mood & tempo.
Other Notable Tracks:
Supergrass may have disbanded in 2010, but the story didn’t officially end with Diamond Hoo Ha. Gaz and Danny formed a cover band called The Hotrats in 2009 and the following year released the album Turn Ons (2010), which featured their versions of songs by artists like The Velvet Underground, The Doors, Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, Roxy Music and David Bowie (whose own album of covers, 1973’s Pin Ups, had to be an inspiration for this project). Their approach to songs by the aforementioned artists was fairly straightforward, making them fun but rather unnecessary (beyond the ability to introduce their fans to artists that influenced them). This isn’t simply a raw recording of live-in-studio performances, as they turned to noted producer Nigel Godrich (best known for his work with Radiohead) who gave the record a big sound that stands up to anything in the Supergrass discography even though many of the songs are sparsely arranged. The name Hotrats was borrowed from one of my favorite Frank Zappa albums, and I wish they had incorporated some of Zappa’s unpredictability in their choice of material. It’s far from an essential purchase but any Supergrass fans who enjoy this kind of project would find a lot to like, including the handful of songs highlighted below.
I’m a little sad to wrap up this brief series on the Supergrass discography. Over the past few weeks I’ve enjoyed revisiting the albums I already knew extremely well but hadn’t played in several years, and I was finally able to spend some quality time with the albums I was less familiar with, discovering some new favorites along the way. Since they split, Gaz Coombes has released two very good solo albums, Here Come The Bombs (2012) and Matador (2015). They’re a clear departure from his previous work so it didn’t make sense to include them in this series, but I highly recommend them to anyone who enjoys Supergrass and wants to hear more of their inimitable lead singer. I’m confident that somewhere down the road the band will reunite (they always do) and there will be more new Supergrass music for us to enjoy. Until then, let’s bask in the glow of all the amazing music they left behind. I’m curious to hear how other fans feel about the albums covered in this post. Thanks for reading along.