Wednesday, February 27, 2008

That Difficult Second Album...

The Charlatans - Ignition
The Charlatans - Can't Even Be Bothered

The phrase 'difficult second album' has become something of a music journalism cliche over the years, but there are certain albums that definitely reinforce the theory. The Charlatans' 'Between 10th And 11th' is one such album. Following a swift and relatively painless rise to fame in 1990, sprawled in the back of the baggy bandwagon, humming their signature hit, 'The Only One I Know', the band suffered something of an identity crisis under a sudden press backlash to their retro-psychedelic sound, dominated by Rob Collins's signature, swirling Hammond organ.

Unfairly labelled as a poor man's Stone Roses (and much worse), the Charlatans suffered growing pains as they tried to develop their sound. Their guitarist, Jon Baker, left the band after the 'Over Rising' single in February 1991, and the bassist, founding member Martin Blunt, was hospitalised after being diagnosed with manic depression. Baker was replaced by Mark Collins, and Blunt's stay in hospital was thankfully short, but a black cloud had descended on the band, causing them to scrap sessions for their sophomore album with the producer Hugh Jones, that had already spawned the poorly received (but rather excellent) single 'Me. In Time' (released November 1991). Reconvening to the studio with genius producer Flood, best known for his work with U2, Depeche Mode and Erasure, the Charlatans recorded 'Between 10th And 11th'. The album was originally due to be called 'Anti Clockwise', but the band changed it at the last minute, opting to name it after the location in New York that housed the band's first US gig. It was released with little fanfare in March 1992, following the single, 'Weirdo', the previous month.

The chiming, discordant guitar on opener 'I Don't Want To See The Sights' sets out the album's stall from the get-go, with a marked absence of uplifting Hammond swirls, and singer Tim Burgess's bleak portrayal of a British life - "...dirty pictures plastered on the wall" and "A classic alcoholic argument" - reminiscent of the same worldview of early 1990's Britain Damon Albarn was documenting on Blur's 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' (another 'difficult' second album). In fact, Burgess's lyrics throughout were a marvel, revealing the floppy fringed optimist appeared to have morphed into something of a brooding, joyless figure, harbouring predominantly negative thoughts. The opening lines of many of the songs on the album make compelling reading -

Ignition: "The sick and complicated eyes are mine to find, a way inside"
Page One: "Physically I resemble a vulture"
Tremolo Song: "The birds don’t sing, they crush my skull, And I'm worthless"
Weirdo: "Most of the time you are happy, You're a weirdo"
Chewing Gum Weekend: "Don't ask me to socialise"

Not exactly laugh a minute... In 'The End Of Everything' you even had an anti-war song, with Burgess revealing, "There is no soldier in me, I want my guts where they are..." He also pilfered an enigmatic line from the poet e.e. cummings, “Not even the rain has such small hands” (from album closer '(No One) Not Even The Rain', which also contains the somewhat gloomy couplet, “And I don't like the air that I breathe, It can't escape from me”). Understandably, the band wanted the lyrics printed on the sleeve, but Burgess would only agree if the album's cover depicted an overripe bunch of bananas, as opposed to the cheesy band shot wanted by the label - a statement of sorts, perhaps, of how Burgess was determined to drastically alter the band's media image, or at the very least, bring everything in line with this bleaker outlook.

Musically, this is a dark, claustrophobic album, with Flood's sparse, spatial production allowing the band to experiment and create some thoroughly modern guitar pop. New boy Mark Collins would make a strong contribution to this musical about face, as 'Between 10th And 11th' showcased a guitar heavy sound, packed with slashing riffs on 'I Don't Want To See The Sights' and the funked up 'Page One', alongside ominous bursts of heavy distortion on 'Ignition' and 'The End Of Everything'. Namesake Rob Collins would also broaden his range, adding pumping, funky piano to the second single 'Tremolo Song', and atmospheric, ambient washes throughout 'Subtitle' and '(No One) Not Even The Rain'. The Hammond that had defined the band's previous output was still present, but far heavier, to compliment the guitars. The bass of Blunt pulsated in perfect compliment to Jon Brooke's terse, electronic drums - all part of Flood's brilliant production masterplan.

I was tempted to post the entire album - apparently, the band hate it, and are actually in the process of giving away their tenth studio album for free, so I don't suppose they'd mind. But no, that's not what this place is all about. I'm sure you'll be able to find it somewhere, but nothing can replicate the joy of buying it and pushing play or dropping the needle. I'm posting a couple of highlights instead - the aforementioned 'Ignition', along with 'Can't Even Be Bothered' - the Charlies own slacker anthem, demonstrating a solid understanding of Nirvana's quiet/loud dynamics, and even bearing a passing resemblance to 'Come As You Are' from 'Nevermind'. Or maybe that's just me... Two gems, plucked from an album full of doomy sparklers.

On a personal level, 'Between 10th And 11th' is the soundtrack to the first time I realised that love hurts, and being in love could be a transitory feeling. I fought hard against this realisation, clinging on to previous good memories of a relationship and spending a futile and difficult period trying to win the girl back, and smoking prodigious amounts of dope and drinking more than was healthy. Eventually I succumbed, and allowed my heart to break in two. Shortly after, 'Between 10th And 11th' rarely left my stereo. I pulled it apart, lyrically and musically, relating everything to my situation. It was a perfect fit - it helped and it didn't. I wallowed and I eventually moved on. 'Between 10th And 11th' meant everything to me, and still has a very special place in my heart. When I interviewed Martin Carr for Spoilt Victorian Child, I told him how much I loved 'Everything's Alright Forever', the Boo Radleys' first album for Creation. He revealed that he didn't "understand" the album at all, and that it meant "nothing" to him. I feel this is probably the case with the Charlatans and 'Between 10th and 11th' - they don't understand their album either, and have decided to pretend it never happened. In fact, if it wasn't for 'Weirdo', nothing from this era of their career would have survived. Tim, Mark, Jon, Martin - life's too short. It's time you made your peace with this brilliant album. It deserves some love from its makers.

Buy 'Between 10th And 11th' from Amazon
The Charlatans official website
Full Charlatans discography