ASH: 1977 (1996)
1) Lose Control; 2) Goldfinger; 3) Girl From Mars; 4) I'd Give You Anything; 5) Gone The Dream; 6) Kung Fu; 7) Oh Yeah; 8) Let It Flow; 9) Innocent Smile; 10) Angel Interceptor; 11) Lost In You; 12) Darkside Lightside.
Listening to «alt-rock» almost always produces a poisonous effect on me — there is something innately sick about that sludgy sound, something very, very uncomfortable. When all is said and done, pop is pop, and metal is metal: you cannot assure a healthy, stable marriage between the two (which makes me all the more admire those few lucky bastards, like Kurt, who did manage a temporary union; on the other hand, he did that at an expense that might be too heavy for the rest of us). Ash, even at their very best, never strived to be the exception from the rule. Therefore, all of the music that Ash ever produced makes me sick, period.
But a more interesting subject to discuss would be the reason why 1977, the band's first proper LP, propelled them into the limelight like crazy — by 1996, the album was hot enough to push Jagged Little Pill off from the top spot on the charts, and, although both records certainly qualify as «alt-rock» to whoever uses «alt-rock» as a bad word, they are certainly different enough to acknowledge that 1977 gained its popularity somewhat on its own, not just because it was the trendy thing to do (even if it was).
One thing is for certain: 1977 is more than just a «three guys play tinny rawk» album. Certainly Tim Wheeler is not the easiest person in the world to pigeonhole. The songs here blast off a whole wide variety of influences — of which classic Ramones/Clash-era punk, heralded by the album title, is but one, and not necessarily the strongest (in fact, it is claimed that the title simply refers to the birth year of two of the band members, and is also a subtle Star Wars reference — ʽDarkside Lightsideʼ ring a bell?). But there is also regular Oasis/Blur-derived Britpop, gruff retro-1970s metal, Springsteen-muscle-powered «urban rock», shades of Hawkwind psychedelia, and... you fill in the rest, I'm sure I've missed something along the way.
It is too bad that Wheeler's imagination is blocked on subsequent steps — he seems to be doing his best to take all these various ingredients and reduce them to the same formula, compressing chords, tones, and moods into one big headbang-fest. 1977 may have been God's gift to modern rock radio stations — here was something you could disseminate at top volume from your creaky car stereo without spooking off the environment — but we will never know why he chose as his mediator this particularly odd guy, taking off on a major highway and then ending up on a one-track dirt road. It doesn't help that he can't sing, either. One genuinely bugging aspect of 1977 is that nearly all of the vocals are... murmured?
Still, even with all the aspects of this record that one could detest, 1977 is likeable, to a degree. It has a mild sense of humor and hipness — not everybody could have come up with the idea of using a Ramones-inspired (with an explicit lyrical reference to «teenage lobotomy») two-minute pop-punk tongue-in-cheek anthem to ʽKung Fuʼ as the lead-off single. In fact, had the Ramones recorded the song themselves, it could have been a minor classic — as it is, Wheeler's muffled guitar sound and boring vocals (that try to simulate excitement but fail) make it more of a bark than a bite. A pleasant bark, nonetheless — cheap swipes at pop culture will never die.
The other big single, ʽGirl From Marsʼ, rolls along on what seems like the laziest chord set in the world, but is somewhat redeemed by Wheeler's attempt to channel the spirit of Ray Davies, even attempting to trade the whiny murmur in for a higher-pitched, naïve-romantic delivery (which certainly works better for him than any attempts to raise the aggression bar). The melodic wah-wah solo in the middle is also attention-worthy: in fact, Wheeler's lead playing is quite superb throughout the record — crisp, fluent, technical, and with plenty of love for various pedals and stuff. What this band really needed was a fourth member, one that could take away his rhythm playing and especially singing duties.
Some of the stuff is quite below par, though. The lumpy, leaden take on 1970s metal, ʽI'd Give You Anythingʼ, really plays out like an inferior variation on Black Sabbath's ʽN.I.B.ʼ with all the cool Satanism taken out and replaced by... never mind, it's impossible to make out anything from that murmur anyway. ʽGoldfingerʼ somehow became the single that truly put them on the map for the world to see, but it is the weakest of 'em all — a rather transparent take on the basic Oasis style, yet without a mighty hook to boot. But that's probably the exact reason why people were buying it at the time. Does anybody even remember it any more these days, though?
Overall, 1977 is a firm chunk of 1990's musical history now, and should probably be listened to by all those who are interested in learning more about the «spirit of 1996» — and also by everyone who wants to know how a melting pot of superior influences should not be brewn. But hey, these guys just didn't want to stick to the underground — they wanted to make it big, and in 1996, if you wanted to make it big, you didn't invent the rules, you stuck to them. They even had to go to Oasis' producer for this album, for God's sake. Sorrowful, but understandable.