Monday, April 13, 2009

Underappreciated Appreciations #1 - Oasis (Volume One, Issue Two)

As per the suggestion of Daren Urban "Urbane" Sprawls, I have decided to publish the liner notes I recently wrote for an Oasis mix comprised exclusively of post-Morning Glory tracks. Although I do cheat somewhat by including a handful of songs from The Masterplan, an album that came out in 1998 but is comprised of songs from 1994 to 1997. I also break my own rules right off the bat with the inclusion of the "Wibbling Rivalry" excerpt which was recorded before the Morning Glory album, but released soon afterwards. I must confess that my desire to make the best possible compilation of less-heralded Oasis songs overwhelmed my desire to follow my own arbitrary rules. My real goal here was to illuminate the ever-expanding back catalogue of what I think is the greatest contemporary rock band (Radiohead being an "alternative" or "experimental" rock band, Animal Collective being whatever it is they are, Arcade Fire not being particularly good, etc.) The idea is that you listen to these selections and then you go back and you listen to "Rock N Roll Star" or "Some Might Say" or "Wonderwall" or "Slide Away" or "Live Forever" or "Champagne Supernova" or "Don't Look Back in Anger' or"Cigarettes and Alcohol" or "Morning Glory" or "Cast No Shadow" or "Supersonic." The very thought is staggering. 

No, Oasis are not risk-taking, genre-busting explorers of the sonic avant-garde nor have they always made the best decisions as to album track listings (the story of Oasis b-sides is the story of a pop music kingdom deferred). But what Oasis have done is assembled the strongest and deepest catalogue of good or even great pop/rock songs of the last fourteen years (as well as two nearly perfect albums in Don't Believe the Truth and Dig Out Your Soul). And as Charles Mingus once said, "Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that's easy. What's hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity."

Oasis represent an ideal that has never actually existed: a blending of T-Rex and Burt Bacharach or the Sex Pistols and the Kinks or the Smiths and Slade. They've been called everything from "the greatest melodist of his generation" (Noel) to "the greatest singer in rock n roll" (Liam) to monobrowed morons (both). Depending on your point of view they're either gifted classicists or fame-hungry plagiarists. I only hope that you can get beyond these associations, both positive and negative, and simply listen with fresh ears. And I hope you're still enjoying the mix, Urban.

The Whole 'Story' - Pt. 1

1) Wibbling Rivalry - "Noel's Track" (excerpt - 4:07 to 5:03)

Although recorded well before the Morning Glory sessions (in April, 1994, to be exact), this “spoken word” EP was not released until late 1995, in the warm afterglow of “Wonderwall.” It is a testament to just how fucking gigantic the band were at this point that a CD containing 14 minutes of oft-unintelligible rants reached number 52 on the singles chart in Great Britain. While this meager minute offers ample evidence of why the Gallaghers are so loathed by many (Noel’s whiny insistence, Liam’s non-musical enthusiasms), it also gives a glimpse as to why they are adored by equally as many. Noel’s witty rebuttal to Liam’s assertion that the Sex Pistols are the greatest band of all time (“they made one album”) and his idealistic view of rock n roll is as endearing as Liam’s unbridled enthusiasm for whatever he happens to be doing at the moment, whether it’s crooning or being thrown off a ferry. If the best art is a result of a perpetual conflict then perhaps this excerpt will provide context to the work of a band which is consistently at war with itself. Whether it’s Liam roaring and sneering over a standard-issue chord progression, Noel stealing the vocal spotlight (at which point Liam literally exits the stage during live performances) or Liam mutating Noel’s words into a language all it’s own (“shine” becoming a 4-syllable word), it’s an unyielding rivalry. 

2) Standing on the Shoulder of Giants - "Go Let It Out"
Recorded in France as the band was trying to ditch the drugs (and being ditched by two founding band members), this #1 single ironically stands out as one of the most euphoric of all Oasis recordings. Compared to earlier tunes like “Supersonic” or “Shakermaker,” this is an exquisitely structured rocker, offering up 3 or 4 melodies most choruses would kill for, until a sugar-rush finale reveals them as cleverly interlocking parts of a greater whole. One of an unfortunately few number of singles that can be counted as a sonic journey, including that mysterious guitar coda. The most affecting moment in the song occurs near the end when Liam, mangling the chorus’ words to reveal a deeper meaning, appears to be pleading: “Go let it out, don’t let it in, don’t let it end, don’t let it end.” For a group who were briefly the biggest band in the world (for roughly six weeks at the end of 1996, according to Noel), it’s a heartfelt plea, only three years later, to simply survive. 

3) Don't Believe the Truth - "Guess God Thinks I'm Abel"

That’s “Abel” as in “Cain and…” not “able-bodied man.” The brotherly connotations should be obvious, although Liam subverts his “hard-man” image by casting himself as the murdered brethren. This was written during a period at which Liam claimed to be a church-going sinner (although he rejected the Bible due to its lack of aliens). He has since claimed he never set foot in a church, but no matter, Liam’s lyrical offers of friendship, reconciliation and love still resonate. The strongest components of this song are its melody (a Gallagher specialty), textured percussion, yearning backing vocals and thundering coda. 

Keep in mind this is a live, and not particularly great, version of the song which is therefore lacking most of the instrumentation I mention in the write-up. But something is better than nothing. The YouTube giveth and the YouTube taketh away.

4) "Lyla" single b-side - "Eyeball Tickler"

A terrific example of Liam’s late-period throat-shredding. Legitimately badass riffs buttress nonsense lyrics, pummeling drums and Liam’s voice at its most fearsome. In short, classic Oasis. And the only song on this anthology which wasn’t written by a Gallagher. It comes from the pen of Gem Archer, guitarist, songwriter and Noel’s lieutenant since joining the group just after the release of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants in 2000. He claims to write specifically for Liam’s inimitable voice and when Gallagher Jr. screams those ‘ahhh’s you believe. In everything. You can almost see Liam slap the microphone to the ground as the song fades out (something he used to do all the fucking time). 

5) The Masterplan (b-sides compilation) - "Half the World Away"

Jesus fucking Christ. Where to begin with a song so choked in emotion, thought, resonance and longing. I can only tell you what remains with me since I first heard it: “I would like to leave this city;” Noel’s plaintive vocals; “I can feel the warning signs running around my mind;” the sympathetic purr of a Fender Rhodes piano; “my body feels young but my mind is very old;” “you can’t give me the dreams that are mine anyway;” brushes on a snare drum, “(you’re) half the world away;” that chord progression during the chorus; “I’m still scratching around in the same old hole;” when the person you love the most seems as far away as possible; “I don’t feel down,” making the journey, guitar chimming into the twilight; the Fender Rhodes purring to sleep; (It should also be noted that this song was recorded by Noel in Texas while he was AWOL from Oasis’ first U.S. tour)

6) The Masterplan - "Headshrinker" 

Whiplash. “The Sex Pistols are the greatest band ever, mate” Liam declared. This is the sound of his John Lennon/John Lydon vocal stylings reaching an early apex. Dig those elongated vowels. Dig that chunky guitar solo. Dig the Stevie Wonder reference about bowing down “to the tears of a clown.” Dig out your soul, a little later.


7) "The Hindu Times" single b-side - "Idler's Dream"

Gentle whiplash. Noel’s balladry at its least meat-and-potatoes. Those amateurish piano arpeggios prepare one for the worst, but that is before the melody (the constant Oasis saving grace), the last-second harmonies, horizontal synth and those magnificent words. Simultaneously Noel’s most emotionally vulnerable and most cryptically poetic set of lyrics he sings about his heart skipping a beat when he catches his lover’s eyes, as well as his desire to meet this person “on a day that never ends.” He describes lying down carnally in leaves and then being buried under them in his sleep. He recognizes his love as an idler’s dream, but doesn’t want to wake up alone. Noel was once asked if he was secretly a romantic. “That’s a good question,” he mused. It may be a good question, but it’s an easy answer. 

8) The Masterplan - "Stay Young"

“It’s about growing up, but not growing old,” Noel once said about early b-side “Fade Away.” “Stay Young” is a song in a similar vein and one that grows in poignancy as the furrows deepen on the brow of its writer (Noel) and time slowly ravages the throat that once thundered its words (Liam). Noel’s endlessly sunny guitar riffs ride atop one of his most stridently positive chord progressions and alongside one of Alan White’s most irresistible drum tracks. A tune that defines the pleasures of what people used to call “AM pop” (even down to its fuzzy texture and minimal bass), the damn thing just shimmers. But for all the song’s musical assurance it’s rather lyrically ambivalent, from the impossibility of the title phrase to the simultaneous boast and apology of its self-conscious refrain: “We know just what we are.” 

9) The Masterplan - "Listen Up"

Yet another embarrassment of melodic riches. A pre-chorus, chorus and post-chorus more dynamic than most bands’ entire album, as well as one of Noel’s best-structured guitar solos. The segments of the song stretching from the moment Liam elongates “one fine daaaaay” over that unusual chord to his declaration of independence (“I don’t mind being on my own”) summarize, for me, the transcendent potential of modern pop music. A song to get lost in and a song to find yourself in, even if you never do find your way home.

10) Be Here Now - "Don't Go Away"

Written by Noel during a time when his mother feared she was dying from cancer, this is unquestionably the best sounding song from Be Here Now. A thoughtful melody is bolstered by a string-and-horn arrangement inspired by Marc Bolan and the orchestral counter-melodies of Burt Bacharach. Despite an uninspired bridge (which was never played live anyway), the song features what is arguably Liam’s finest ever performance. Emanating a vocal strength and cleanness lacking in both earlier and later recordings, Liam slips just the right amount of grain into his most conventionally accomplished singing.

Noel’s lyric, “damn my education, I can’t find the words to say” is also a key line to appreciating much of the group’s lyrical content. Like the way Robert De Niro finds the poetry in his characters’ inarticulateness, Liam often found an emotional undercurrent in Noel’s mishmash of nonsense, cliché and occasional poetry. Or as Terrence Malick once put it, “When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make it laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.” Shockingly, this was a single only in Oasis-crazed Japan.

11) Be Here Now - "My Big Mouth"

Too long, too loud, too stupid, yet somehow just fucking right. Only the Brothers Gallagher would publicly apologize for their loose lips with a song featuring dozens of squalling guitar tracks. First unveiled to the lucky 200,000-strong crowd at Knebworth, at Oasis’ commercial zenith, it is one of only three songs from Be Here Now that Noel still enjoys (the other two being lead single “D’You Know What I Mean?” and the aforementioned “Don’t Go Away.”)

12) Heathen Chemistry - "Songbird"

A lilting, country-rock gem as intimate and dewy as the feelings it suggests, this is one of the most accomplished Oasis songs. It was also Liam’s first single, hitting #3 in the charts, and his first composition heard by the public since the “Little James” debacle of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (a song so detested that it’s lyrics were regularly printed in the tabloids as mockery). As the NME wrote of a later Liam song (Dig Out Your Soul’s “I’m Outta Time”), “Liam is at his best when he’s at his sweetest.” And he is never better, or sweeter, than he is here. A tune full of trilling vocal inflections and bubbling synth lines, this song conveys the joy and fear that new love brings. “Whispered in my ear the things I’d like/ Then she flew away into the night” has always struck me as a beautiful approximation of the limbo of the heart, stuck between flirtation and commitment. Although the chorus sounds shrugged-off on paper (“She’s not anyone”), it gains its emotional content through Liam’s compassionate melody and defiant vocal reading. A minor masterpiece only in scale.

13) Don't Believe the Truth - "Part of the Queue"

One of the most recent entries in the long line of British pop songs to mine the rhythms of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown,” this tune features a desperate, passionate vocal from Noel and a late-night tempest of percussion, piano and acoustic guitar all swirling together in a sledgehammer waltz. Also one of the highlights of Noel’s lyrical renaissance on Don’t Believe the Truth, the song both owns up to the band’s failures (“every beginning has broken its promise”) and promises fans a future worth believing in (“keep on/ trying”).  

14) Don't Believe the Truth - "Let There Be Love"

In his review of 2005’s Don’t Believe the Truth, All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine declared that it was the album with which Liam Gallagher “reclaimed his crown as the best singer in rock.” No vocal performance makes that case as strongly as “Let There Be Love.” The melody/lyrics of the verses can be described as Lennon-esque in the most flattering sense of the word. Liam’s naked vocals ache on the high notes and soothe on the comedown. Only the chorus could be described as a (relative) disappointment. But this is more than made up for by a bridge of astonishing melodic invention and one of Noel’s finest vocals ever (before he disappears into the clouds on the Imagine cover).

Andy Bell, bassist and songwriter for the band, once compared them to tour-mates the Black Crowes saying: “The Black Crowes are all about riffs. We’re all about chords.” And it’s on a song like this, full of big, open, majestic chords that the ineffable magic of Oasis is felt at it fullest. The space between the chords and within the chords themselves “gives us room to dream,” as Jonathan Rosenbaum loves to say about films employing extended long-takes. Within these vast chords, Noel and Liam are able to evoke both time (“a world come undone at the seams” referencing the chaotic times of 2005) and timelessness (“Suspended clear in the sky are the words that we sing in our dreams”) in what Noel would rightfully call “a modern hymn.”

15) Don't Believe the Truth - "The Importance of Being Idle"

One of their greatest titles, as well as one of their best videos, as well as, fortunately, one of their best songs. I could just type up the complete lyrics and be done with it, but instead I’ll simply mention that Noel returns to the short-story format of “Married with Children” and “She’s Electric” with similarly spectacular results. And he fucking nails the falsetto. While not in the life-changing vein of “Don’t’ Look Back in Anger,” it won enough public favor to give Oasis their first back-to-back #1 singles in the UK (following “Lyla”) since 2000 (and those two singles that were separated by three years). This moment also signaled the definitive comeback for the group from the perceived doldrums of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants and Heathen Chemistry.

16) Dig Out Your Soul - "Bag It Up"

A tune that simply gets everything right from the glam rock stomp to the intertwining vocal melodies to the huge chorus to the howling coda to the cool-as-fuck vocal delivery to the whimsical-yet-menacing lyrics to the return of the “ecstatic harmonies” of “She’s Electric” and “Champagne Supernova.” 

17) Dig Out Your Soul - "Falling Down"

Noel’s second attempt to rewrite “Tomorrow Never Knows” is perhaps not as earth-shattering as his first (that is, his collaboration with the Chemical Brothers, “Setting Sun”) but it undoubtedly more thoughtful. Singing like a man lost in outer space (his own description), Noel sighs about the summer sun, kissing the world goodbye and other notions of psychic drift. It’s not all resignation though. Noel reveals his cosmic wit by informing God Almighty, “if you won’t save me, please don’t waste my time.” And when he declares “we live a dying dream/ if you know what I mean” Noel is both decrying Oasis status as a giant-sized cult band and winking at the true believers. If the psychedelic legacy of the 1960s must give way to the mundanities of “modern rock,” then “Falling Down” serves as an moving epitaph. Dig that piano reverb.

18) Standing on the Shoulder of Giants - "Gas Panic!"

“My family don’t seem so familiar.” A fortunate example of  Noel producing a song as exquisitely as he wrote it. A creative zenith at the band’s absolute commercial bottom, Noel penned the tune in the post-traumatic afterglow of his decision to quit shoveling cocaine up his nostrils. Abandoned by founding members Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs and Paul McGuigan, scorned by critics, outsold by rivals, regarded as an instant nostalgia act by a formerly adoring public who only wanted to hear the old hits…panic wasn’t “on the way,” it was living with the band, under their skin, at every moment. This is their victory.


Bear in mind that this single CD was painfully whittled down from twice it’s current length, a process which resulted in the exclusion of absolutely essential Oasis songs (“The Masterplan”, “D’You Know What I Mean?,” “Acquiesce”), #1 UK singles (“All Around the World,” “Lyla,” “The Hindu Times”), recent triumphs (“Waiting for the Rapture,” “I’m Outta Time,” “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”) and songs that just happen to be among the greatest of the band’s career (“Who Feels Love?,” “Roll It Over,” “Thank You For The Good Times”). What I’m saying is: there’s more where this came from. A lot more. 

It goes without saying that a physical copy of this mix is available upon request

Don't Look Back in Anger?



  2. I heard you say.. at least not today.