ASH: FREE ALL ANGELS (2001)
1) Walking Barefoot; 2) Shining Light; 3) Burn Baby Burn; 4) Candy; 5) Cherry Bomb; 6) Submission; 7) Someday; 8) Pacific Palisades; 9) Shark; 10) Sometimes; 11) Nicole; 12) There's A Star; 13) World Domination.
Lighter, faster, less folksy, but more actively rock'n'rollish than Nu-Clear Sounds — I have almost taken a liking to this album, despite the obvious fact that this is still very much an Ash album, and that Tim Wheeler is not the Pete Townshend of his generation and will never be. However, each time that his inner «Heavy Lead Monster» goes to sleep and the «Light Magnesium Elf» takes over the watch, the sickness wanes and the music becomes listenable — and, in places, even highly enjoyable. This is one of the better samples.
The early parts are not particularly promising. ʽWalking Barefootʼ starts things off on a happy pop-punk note — fast, frivolously romantic, but generally hookless and flat; and the five-minute long ʽShining Lightʼ is optimistic enough not to get condemned as generic depressed alt-rock crap, but just as flat and predictable («now we are relatively quiet... now we SUDDENLY become loud as heck... what else do you need to get it shoved down your throat?»).
However, already the third track, ʽBurn Baby Burnʼ, lights up a little candle. A nice picking pattern, a fast rumbling bass line, a «choppier», livelier rhythm, a slightly less trivial chorus, a classy trill-based solo — is this an attempt to put the fun back where it belongs, or what? ʽSubmissionʼ builds up a hot funky groove whose principal hook (an electronically treated "you turn me on...") may irritate you, but that wouldn't make it any less of a hook. ʽPacific Palisadesʼ is the next entry in the ongoing series of Beach Boys / Ramones tributes, and arguably the best one so far —lyrics like "I lie with candles by my bed / Brian Wilson in my head" may be a bit too obvious, but the chorus resolution is still tremendously uplifting. ʽSharkʼ brings back the aggression in the form of a deep guitar tone, pitch-torturing effects, and vocals pressed into an ugly sneer on the "violent mind, violent mind" chorus. And so on.
The sentimental domain of the album generally comes in the form of loud, but not particularly «power-loud» ballads, usually acoustic or joint acoustic-electric in form and more often than not backed up with a thick layer of fake strings — sometimes emulating actual strings and sometimes bringing back Mellotron memories (ʽCandyʼ). I cannot see any great discoveries, but, considering that ballads are a dangerous thing altogether, Wheeler gets off all right this time. The "was it a dream I had..." bit on ʽSomedayʼ even manages to have a special ring to it. ʽSometimesʼ sounds like Blur on a cloudy day, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
A decent affair altogether, and it succeeds in lifting a small corner of the «alt-rock curse» which lay heavily all over Ash all through the 1990s: on more than one song here, they let in a little bit of sunshine, and do not seem so genuinely eager to honor the limited array of distorted rock guitar clichés of the genre. Of course, it also has to do with all sorts of other honorings: from the Beach Boys to the Jesus and Mary Chain, almost every one of these songs could be deciphered as a sum of several influences. But if you ask me, it's better to be inspired by the Beach Boys than the Stone Temple Pilots, regardless of who you are and where you stand.
A touch of experimentation, a drop of diversity, a smudge of lightness and poppy optimism, and Free All Angels may even be a better album than 1977, if not as historically important — but then again, is there anything about Ash that will seriously look «historically important» ten years from now? Thumbs up, in the meantime.
Check "Free All Angels" (MP3) on Amazon