ASH: A-Z VOL. 1 (2010)
1) Return Of White Rabbit; 2) True Love 1980; 3) Joy Kicks Darkness; 4) Arcadia; 5) Tracers; 6) The Dead Disciples; 7) Pripyat; 8) Ichiban; 9) Space Shot; 10) Neon; 11) Command; 12) Song Of Your Desire; 13) Dionysian Urge; 14) War With Me; 15) Coming Around Again; 16) The Creeps; 17) CTRL-ALT-DEL; 18) Do You Feel It?; 19*) Kamakura.
Apparently, Wheeler himself quoted two main reasons for the band abandoning the LP format after Twilight Of The Innocents. Reason number one: disappointment with the record label that allegedly did nothing to promote an album that cost them so much time and effort. Reason number two: «LPs are on their way out» due to the spread of digital downloads that have once again taken the emphasis off lengthy, coherent musical statements and put it on individual songs. Roll over Sgt. Pepper, we're back to good old Sun Sessions days.
I am not sure either of these considerations stands criticism, though. For one thing, Twilight Of The Innocents was a miserable piece of shit; no responsible record executive should have considered releasing it on the market in the first place, let alone wasting time trying to promote it. For another, the rise of digital downloads still has not eliminated the need for LPs: few, if any, bands have followed the example of Ash, provided they have a record contract and a serious distributor in the first place. It is far more likely that the decision to switch to singles format was just a gimmick — a last minute trick to draw some press attention and, perhaps, re-carve a unique niche for the band. If they could not retain musical individuality, they could at least take pride in an individuality of format.
Ironically, Father Time has already judged that, if any of these singles are going to be listened to in the future, they will be downloaded as collections, particularly because Ash themselves eventually succumbed to the temptation and released the A-Z series of singles in two volumes as early as 2010. The title itself, where each single is assigned an individual letter and an individual color, is another gimmick (Tim Wheeler swears to God that he really sees each of these songs in a different color, but we won't know for sure until he donates his body to Science). So was there ever a point in making a big fuss of it in the first place?
In terms of a «greater good» or «innovativeness» — definitely not. But, amusingly, in terms of Ash's own musical integrity and career, definitely yes. The songs assembled on A-Z Vol. 1 are, overall, a huge improvement over the monumental boredom of Ash's last several studio albums. Releasing a new song every two weeks really helped them concentrate on the material: there is no issue of «filler», since every track is its own focus, and there may be more pop hooks here altogether than there have been over the entire course of the band's career, bar one or two better records like Free All Angels.
There are no attempts at serious musical change, except for a slight occasional nod to electronics (most evidently visible in the opening track, ʽReturn Of White Rabbitʼ), but all these singles are mostly just power pop — you don't need much except catchy hooks and a little bit of emotion to make this stuff work. And much of this stuff does work — as incredible as it may seem to those who, like me, have been so thoroughly disappointed in Ash's last couple of albums at least, if not their entire career and meaning of existence.
For instance, ʽReturn Of White Rabbitʼ is really a fun track. The synth loops that bubble beneath the surface are only really there for wall-of-sound purposes; the song in general hangs upon its R'n'B-ish bassline and catchy-as-hell chorus ("is this the end of the line my friend..."). There is even a little bit of paranoid atmosphere to match the lyrics ("I followed the rabbit and now I am lost and alone... locked in a nightmare that's all closing in on me") — not a lot, but enough to complete the hooklines and turn the whole thing into one of the more respectable «mainstream-oriented» hits of 2009. Nasty critics whined about the band transforming into a clone of Franz Ferdinand with this release, but at this point, nobody should really give a damn: Ash are now only as good as their pop hooks are, and these pop hooks may be in anybody's style, be it Franz Ferdinand, the Bay City Rollers, or Johann Strauss Jr.
I cannot admit to falling in real love with any of these numbers, but I could possibly see myself doing that, had I been a pathological fan of derivative power-pop, ready to listen to the whole thing thirty rather than the required three times in a row. Let's see... examples? All right. ʽArcadiaʼ, with its clouds-oriented chorus of uplifting piano chords and high-pitched whoah-whoah harmonies, is an attempt to write something in Arcade Fire style: shallower, but vivacious and friendly enough for us to look past that. ʽIchibanʼ is more of a classic Cheap Trick send-up, built on the same basic rhythms as ʽI Want You To Want Meʼ, but more anthemic. ʽWar With Meʼ is a tasteful mix of simple piano riffs, simple piano flourishes, and simple vocal harmonies that is almost impossible to resist. ʽThe Creepsʼ is funny pop-punk that manages to be accessible, inoffensive, and sincere-sounding at the same time. And so on.
Very few of the songs are in ballad mode, which is understandable, because you do not usually put out ballads as singles; the ones that veer towards balladry mode through slower tempos and increased sentimentality are usually my least favorite ones (ʽPripyatʼ, ʽSong Of Your Desireʼ), but they are not awful or anything — they just do not exploit Wheeler's strong sides, and should have been done as less heavily arranged folksy ditties instead. But most of these eighteen tracks are in fully dynamic mode.
In the end, the gimmick worked — not because of the gimmickry itself, but because it gave the guys a chance to clear their heads and get rid of the «filler bug». It is not very interesting to write about these individual tracks, whose only strength lies in a careful selection of chords, but that is a typical reviewer problem when it comes to simple, unpretentious pop rock. What is truly important is that there has been a genuine rebound, and with these songs Ash have propped up their, still highly dubious, body of work on extremely solid support. They haven't been that good for almost a decade — and these singles have legitimately established a point at which no artist can any longer be considered a «fluke». Maybe it ain't genius, but it's durable craftsmanship, and durable craftsmanship always gets a thumbs up from me.