ASH: NU-CLEAR SOUNDS (1998)
1) Projects; 2) Low Ebb; 3) Jesus Says; 4) Wildsurf; 5) Death Trip; 6) Folk Song; 7) Numbskull; 8) Burn Out; 9) Aphrodite; 10) Fortune Teller; 11) I'm Gonna Fall.
Girl presence detected! Or not detected, because new band member Charlotte Hatherley had been hired primarily for her guitar playing skills, thickening the sound during live performances and saving time for extra overdubs in the studio. She does add some backing vocals as well, but as far as I can tell, she does not get to sing lead at all (unless she can pose as Wheeler's double).
Nor does the lineup expansion result in any mind-blowing stylistic turn-arounds. Nu-Clear Sounds (a really awful title, if I might add; nothing that begins with «nu-» has ever proven to be good) starts off horrendously, with a bunch of songs that go, «Hey! We bring you the excitement of power pop baked in grunge guitar tones! Uncumbered with original chord changes — no more danger of getting sidetracked by silly inventions like ʽmelodyʼ! Go with the flow, and the Force will always be with you!» The fast-kicking «rock» of ʽProjectsʼ, the slow-moving «meditative rhythmic balladry» of ʽLow Ebbʼ, and the third-rate Iggy Poppisms of ʽJesus Saysʼ are the kind of total garbage past which so many of the critics simply couldn't make it — which explains the overall cold reception in comparison with 1977. Dark, morose, nasty, and boring: an unbeatable combination for anyone desiring to sully the good name of rock'n'roll.
It does get somewhat better from there on. ʽWild Surfʼ is another in Ash's series of Ramones-inspired bubblegum anthems, and even though it should have been played twice as fast for optimal effect, at least it has a friendly, funny, catchy chorus that slightly deflates the deadly, exaggerated seriousness of the first three numbers. Then they step back, regroup, take a deep breath, and let rip with ʽDeath Trip 21ʼ, which is probably the closest this album really gets to nu-metal, but at least it's faster, sharper, and flashier than ʽProjectsʼ.
But, as curious as it could be, Nu-Clear Sounds is at its best when Wheeler quiets the band down in order to inject some sentimentalism. The basic guitar picking of ʽFolk Songʼ, supported by a bunch of pseudo-strings in the background, is no more outstanding than anything else here, but, all of a sudden, Wheeler puts together a soft, cozy, naturally-sweet sounding vocal and applies it to a catchy chorus — his "springtime slipping away, my love, springtime slipping away" is just about the only moment on the album that has pledged to stay with me at least until the next morning. Two tracks later, the trick is repeated with ʽAphroditeʼ, and it almost works, except that this time, they resort to the usual trick of «make that chorus louder! It's the CHORUS, goddammit!», and spoil much of the effect of the "all I know 'bout is desire baby" refrain with the same power chords that we have already had the chance to chew up, swallow, shit out, scoop up, repeat process etc. so many times.
In between these and other ballads, however, we still keep getting regurgitated trash like ʽFortune Tellerʼ, which has no instrumental melody that I am aware of, borrows its verse vocal melody from some other song that I am fairly sure I have heard many times before, and is not ashamed to actually quote from the other, much better known, ʽFortune Tellerʼ (Benny Spellman / Rolling Stones / Who, etc.) in the first line of its chorus vocal melody. I mean — come on, really, that is not how one is supposed to come up with new rock'n'roll songs, even if they have an explicit retro orientation. Really!
Clearly a thumbs down here overall: for a band that gets most of its acclaim for distorted guitar-driven rock thunderstorms, Nu-Clear Sounds produces a way too suspicious impression of an album written by an aspiring folk songwriter, a wannabe 1990s Donovan, cruelly mishandled by Fate and thrown into the lion den of rock'n'rollers with a stern order to prove yourself or die trying. And that's me attempting to put it in an interesting framework — when, really, the album is so dead boring that I am frankly amazed at my own self with that phrasing.
Check "Nu-Clear Sounds" (MP3) on Amazon