KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

SUPERGRASS Part 3 – The Way They Turned My Head / In Conclusion

Supergrass - Road To RouenRecorded 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, Supergrass Photo (circa 2005)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.

The Essentials:
♪ “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.
[Supergrass – “Low C”] [audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/dbzxeei557/Low_C.mp3]
♪ “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:

  • Supergrass Photo (circa mid-2000's)“Sad Girl” – Surprisingly with a title like that, it’s actually a catchy, upbeat song. Starts with bouncy organ before shifting to a tight, insistent midtempo groove. It’s filled with catchy melodies and their harmonized vocals recall Squeeze, especially at “There she goes, walking out the front door, you’ve only got yourself in deep.” The middle section/bridge brings to mind a non-psychedelic twist on The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.”
  • “Road To Rouen” – They combine elements of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin in the big, stomping, glam-rock groove, heavy riff & stabbing lead guitar, and I also hear hints of Jimi Hendrix’s “Dolly Dagger” in the verses. It swings more at “follow all the signs” and includes a looser instrumental section, but overall it’s probably the heaviest & most direct song on the album.

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 Supergrass - Diamond Hoo Hawith 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.

The Essentials:
♪ “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.
[Supergrass – “When I Needed You”] [audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/ct3crr43z6/When_I_Needed_You.mp3]
♪ “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:

  • “Diamond Hoo Ha Man” – The influence of The White Stripes can be heard in the dark, fuzzy guitar, simple stomping beat and glam-inspired shaker-driven groove. They especially capture Jack White’s sound at “When the sun goes down, I just can’t resist, bite me.” I like the bluesier, rustic feel in the instrumental sections prior to the verses.
  • Supergrass Photo (circa 2008)“The Return Of…” – I only really like about half of this song; the smooth chorus (“The return of…inspiration”). Otherwise, it’s a Strokes-inspired modern rock song…especially Gaz’s treated vocals…that didn’t make much of an impression on me.
  • “Whiskey & Green Tea” – Starts with a jazzy, avant-garde snare rhythm, skronking sax and chanted vocals, then shifts to an even more interesting arrangement, from bubbling synth & driving groove to stomping & melodic (“Whiskey & green tea nearly killed me”). This is a standout track as much for its audacity as for the melodies & performances.
  • “Butterfly” – The closing track is the longest song at just over 5 minutes. Begins with a lilting, Cars-esque synth melody, followed by a steady, almost robotic rhythm with a David Bowie-inspired vocal, shifting from low to high. The “devil has left me” section is decent but the main portion is exceptionally strong, and the hook at “Millions of people with butterfly wings, your tiny decisions could lead to anything” is a highlight. They wrapped things up on a high note with this song.

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 The Hotrats - Turn Onsinspiration 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.

Notable Tracks:

  • “Big Sky” – A Kinks song originally on their Village Green Preservation Society album, and ironically not one of the tracks I highlighted in my series on their discography. I really like Gaz’s guitar sound, and the arrangement is interesting as they shift from bright & splashy with dry, half-spoken vocals up front in the mix to a piano interlude that’s the most Kinks-sounding part of the song.
  • “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” – They transformed the Beastie Boys’ first Top 10 single into a rockin’ slab of fun influenced by The Who’s early years, which really plays to their strengths. I love Gaz’s shift from falsetto to gritty vocals. I used to “sing” this with my college band (when it was a new song), but we never thought of rearranging it like this. This is the way you cover a song & make it your own.
  • “The Lovecats” – They combine an Iggy Pop “Lust For Life” rhythm with Gaz’s Robert Smith vocal inflections for their take on this peppy song originally by The Cure.
  • “Up The Junction” – This early Squeeze song was a fitting way to close out the record since I’ve noted that band’s influence a couple of times in my comments on the previous two albums. It sounds like Gaz’s vocals are doubled so it doesn’t have the same quality as those Difford & Tilbrook harmonies, but with a shaker-driven groove and stark piano it’s still a very interesting rearrangement, breaking the song down to its essentials.The Hotrats Photo (in studio)

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.

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20 comments on “SUPERGRASS Part 3 – The Way They Turned My Head / In Conclusion

  1. Daddydinorawk
    March 14, 2015

    I love Road to Rouen, what a fantastic record. That and In It For the Money are brilliant. All of them are very good (haven’t heard Ho Ha yet but plan to soon) at the least. I am really impressed with Gaz, he seems like a pretty level headed cat and wish him the best of success. Maybe I’ll check out his solos. I really love his perspective. He never seems to get maudlin or trite or too highbrow as a writer.

    Thanks for the series, completely opened me up to a new thing.

    Like

    • Awesome. I’m glad you also love Road To Rouen. I never disliked it but until this past week it didn’t make a big impact on me. I don’t know a lot about Gaz other than a handful of interviews I’ve read, but he does seem like a pretty level-headed guy. For someone who was a rock star at such an early age it’s very impressive, and I’ve always appreciated how he continued to expand his musical horizons. The same goes for the other guys in the band, which is why no two records in their discography sound the same.

      Thanks again for checking out this series, and for being a part of the conversation.
      Cheers.
      Rich

      Like

  2. Vinyl Connection
    March 14, 2015

    It’s always a bit sad to reach the end of a discography we really enjoy, isn’t it? Thanks for an most enjoyable series, one where I also got great satisfaction from dusting off CDs not played for too long.
    PS. Nothing to add to your excellent coverage of the last too.
    PPS. Had no idea Gaz had done some solo work. Must check it out.

    Like

    • Hi Bruce. I always have mixed emotions when I wrap up an artist’s discography. I feel sad that it’s come to an end and wish there was more music to enjoy, but on the other hand these series can be exhausting and it’s good to take a deep breath, appreciate everything I’ve just revisited and then move on to the next topic. I really appreciate your input throughout this series and I’m glad we got to cross-promote each others’ posts. If you end up getting either of Gaz’s solo albums I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts.

      Hope you’re having a great weekend.
      Best…
      Rich

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ianbalentine
    March 14, 2015

    I remember buying Diamond Hoo Ha in an airport on a business trip, Atlanta, or maybe San Francisco. I also remember being highly disappointed. I thought, aside from the title track, that it sounded like the band had stopped caring. I’ve since revisited it and have found it a worthy end to their run. BUT now you tell me there is a Supergrass Holy Grail out there, a Smile for the Brit Pop generation. I had no idea, Rich, and I consider myself a big fan. Shame on me. And Road To Rouen remains pretty fantastic, and should have been their swan song. Thanks for this wonderful series, I’ve really enjoyed it!

    Like

    • Hi Ian. I love that you have such a vivid memory of buying Diamond Hoo Ha. Sorry it didn’t strike you at first but glad you eventually found things to like about it. In hindsight, it actually sounds like the kind of album they would do after a long split, doing their best to capture the sound of the records that made them famous. It’s probably my least favorite Supergrass album but it’s still very good, confirming what a great band they are/were. So, you weren’t aware of The Hotrats album? I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts whenever you get it.

      Thanks again for your feedback. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed this series so much. I had a great time revisiting all of their albums.

      Best wishes,
      Rich

      Like

  4. I’m really enjoying Gaz’s solo album Matador

    Like

    • Matador is a very good album. I’ve played it a couple of times, but it was right in the middle of this Supergrass series so it paled a little in comparison to all of their great albums. I’ll give it more spins in a couple of months and see if it strikes me even more at that time.

      Like

  5. stephen1001
    March 14, 2015

    Quite enjoyed this catalogue revisit Rich, thanks!

    Like

    • Thanks Geoff. I’m really glad I bought that Supergrass Is 10 DVD late last year. It reminded me how good they were and inspired this series.
      Rich

      Like

  6. Wayne
    March 15, 2015

    I have never heard of these guys….until now….again with education and insight for the serious music fan. Thanks Rich

    Like

    • I can’t believe you never heard of Supergrass before, Wayne. Have you been living in a cave? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). Hope you enjoyed some of their music.

      Like

      • Wayne
        March 15, 2015

        Haha Rich – yes, the sound good, especially with the extra reverb I am getting off the cave walls! 🙂

        Like

      • Gotta love that natural reverb. Glad you enjoyed their music.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. ianbalentine
    March 15, 2015

    Hey. Rich, no I have Hot Rats, but did not know about Release The Drones, the ironically named “lost” album. I hope they release it, just like I hope the Clash release Rat Patrol From Fort Brag.

    Like

    • Oh yeah, Release The Drones. I can’t imagine having an album completed and then just shelving it because the band broke up. I know that’s happened with plenty of artists but it’s still a shame for fans to miss out on new music. The Coral recently released a shelved album and it was great. Let’s hope Supergrass does the same thing eventually.

      Like

      • ianbalentine
        March 15, 2015

        The Coral? Again you educate me. I love their first 3 albums, but what was the unreleased album that was released?

        Like

      • It’s called The Curse Of Love an it was finally released last year. They recorded it in their home studio between The Invisible Invasion and Roots & Echoes but for some reason it sat on the shelves for several years. Definitely worth seeking out if you’re a fan.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. james
    June 4, 2015

    Thanks – really enjoyed reading this. I am currently revisiting them and I only had the first 2 albums, so I got the others. They haven’t made a bad album and with each album tried to move in different directions. Its sad that they are no longer together as I never saw them live. I have listened to Matador and its good and I hope to catch Gaz Coombes live.

    Seems to be lots of b-sides and live versions that could make a great compilation.

    Like

    • Thanks for stopping by, James. I’m glad you’re checking out more of the Supergrass catalog. They were incredibly consistent throughout their career. I hope you get to catch Gaz in concert. I only saw Supergrass once and I hope they reunite one day so I can see them again. I only have a handful of their b-sides, which are all excellent, and I assume at some point they’ll release them all (or at least the majority of them) in one place like so many of their contemporaries have done.

      Cheers!
      Rich

      Like

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