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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Charlatans: Some Friendly


1) You're Not Very Well; 2) White Shirt; 3) The Only One I Know; 4) Opportunity; 5) Then; 6) 109 Pt. 2; 7) Polar Bear; 8) Believe You Me; 9) Flower; 10) Sonic; 11) Sproston Green.

Although The Charlatans came together in the West Midlands and made their first recordings in between Birmingham and Wales, their first album is as stereotypically «Madchester» as it gets, so much so that occasionally it becomes hard to keep track of where one baggy piece ends and another one begins. It is, in fact, very easy to dismiss the entire album as «Stone Roses lite» and just move on, because at first it does seem that all they are doing is a less layered, less deep, more dance-oriented version of the Stone Roses — just like any other freshly formed band in late Eighties / early Nineties United Kingdom (think early Blur, etc.). Give it a few more spins, though... and yes, they are definitely doing a less layered, less deep, more dance-oriented version of the Stone Roses, no doubt about it whatsoever! But they are talented lads, and there are a few subtle, but important nuances that put some flesh on their shadows.

Although all five Charlatans are credited for songwriting, it is clear that one and only one domi­nates the sound or, at least, makes it a special kind of sound — keyboard player Rob Collins. This may not be heard so well on the opening number ʽYou're Not Very Wellʼ, where his organ forms a democratic triumvirate with John Baker's funky guitars and Martin Blunt's powerful bass; but already the second song, a more traditional power-pop number called ʽWhite Shirtʼ, is fully dependent on Collins' organ lead-riffs, whereas Baker is largely restricted to monotonous rhyth­mic jangling, and lead vocalist Tim Burgess delivers all the lyrics in largely the same, slightly whispery-ethereal tone (think Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, but without all the psyche­delic mixing). Collins is the real star on most of the tracks — if he is not playing optimistic pop melodies in mid-Sixties style, he is throwing out choppy, angry rhythm chords that add an aggres­sive angle to this otherwise inoffensive dance-pop; and in addition to the Hammond organ (already a somewhat obsolete instrument by 1990, one might say), he even drags out the Mello­tron from time to time, as an intentional antidote to the «futurism» of the baggy rhythmics.

The biggest hit from the album was ʽThe Only One I Knowʼ, and it is fairly typical of the band's overall sound at this point. You get to know everything there is to know by approximately 0:30 into the song, but it is no big deal because what there really is to know is that they got a groovy thing going, with Blunt's bass and Collins' slash-and-burn organ technique perfectly underpinning each other, while Baker is hanging somewhere out there in the shadows with his subtly mixed guitar parts. The vocalist is something you can take or leave: I feel no impulse to go and check out the lyrics, because what matters is the ghostly effect of Burgess' voice rather than the actual words (and the words?.. "well, it's a love thing", as Mike Love would say). But the groove is nice, and while being totally modern for the standards of 1990, it also reflects a strong influence of their Sixties' idols like the Spencer Davis Group (ʽI'm A Manʼ, etc.), so here is something that can satisfy both the conservative and the futurist.

The group fares worse when they try to introduce a more psychedelic flavor — one of the results is (missed) ʽOpportunityʼ, a seven-minute long atmospheric bore whose main point is in how dark guitar clouds gradually drape over the serene organ clouds: not without inspiration, but ultimately Baker is not even close to the wizardry of My Bloody Valentine, not to mention pro­fessional shoegazers of the Slowdive etc. variety, and with Collins taking a back seat to the guita­rist, the track does a better job of laying open the artistic limitations of the band than showing off their value. That is not to say that Baker adds nothing to the sound: it is his colorful pop riffs, produced in a San Francisco acid rock style, that breathe life into ʽFlowerʼ, another song whose groove power is relaxed so that the band can concentrate more on the melodic aspect. Elsewhere, you can sometimes fall upon Martin Blunt as the center of attention — his oh-so simple, but per­vasively nagging and paranoid bassline on ʽThenʼ, the album's second single, is probably the single most important thing responsible for its commercial success. But even that song would have not been nearly as haunting without Collins' organ in the background.

So does the record have some sort of conceptually overwhelming message / meaning? If it does, it is probably the same as with The Stone Roses — an exuberant celebration of life's bright and dark moments, a new strain of youthful futuristic idealism draped in slightly psychedelic colors. The album's finale, a track dedicated to a long-gone love affair and lovingly entitled ʽSproston Greenʼ (allegedly the place where it hap­pened), emphasizes this feeling with one of the album's most upbeat tempos, some of its most exuberant vocal harmonies, and a frantic coda with several overdubbed organ parts and Collins going completely out of his head — a psycho thunderstorm that, however, carries no threat whatsoever; on the contrary, it is a thunderstorm in which many of us would love to get caught. No, this is not a masterpiece of an album: too derivative, too repetitive, too unambitious to ever pretend to A-level status — but it's an album that can make you feel warm all over, and that's enough to warrant a solid thumbs up.


  1. The only one I know used to always remind me of The Doors when I was a kid. Maybe something off Morrison Hotel.

    It's been many years since I have heard this album so I could be way off though

    1. It actually reminds me a lot of Deep Purple's Hush (at least the rhythm and organ part).