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Friday, June 23, 2017

The Charlatans: Tellin' Stories


1) With No Shoes; 2) North Country Boy; 3) Tellin' Stories; 4) One To Another; 5) You're A Big Girl Now; 6) How Can You Leave Us; 7) Area 51; 8) How High; 9) Only Teethin'; 10) Get On It; 11) Title Fight; 12) Two Of Us; 13) Rob's Theme.

Rob Collins died in the middle of the recording sessions for this album — apparently, while drunk driving without a seatbelt, making him an honorable member of the «27 Club Latecomers» (he was 33, actually) along with Keith Moon and all those other crazy rebels who were given a mercyful deferment by Fate. This may have had something to do with Tellin' Stories going to #1 in the UK, but then the previous album also went to #1 — then again, Rob's wild antics, including involvement in armed robbery etc., may have contributed to that earlier just as well. Because, honestly speaking, the mid-Nineties were too full of excellent music to let somebody as deri­vative and clearly second-rate as The Charlatans rightfully enjoy major fame.

By now, the band has completed the transition to standard Britpop market, although echoes of the «baggy» sound still resonate throughout the record, and the rhythm section seems so addicted to funky swing that playing in 4/4 is to them what playing a right-handed guitar is to a left-handed person. But now they have themselves a new gimmick: they see themselves as some sort of post-modern heirs to classic pop/rock legacy, and the main point of nearly every one of their songs is to insert one or more musical and lyrical references to one or more of their idols. The little nibs that they took on Lennon and Dylan in the previous two records were judged tasty, and Tellin' Stories goes on an open rampage — it is as if the band has really discovered its purpose, and found a surefire way to establish its own «context-based» identity that would at least clearly sepa­rate them from Blur, Oasis, and the rest.

I will not even begin to pretend to having caught all these little bits — it's a great way to viciously and mercilessly kill your time — but there is no way a review of the album cannot center around some of them. Dylan is probably the most frequent reference point, although the references are not too trivial: the song titles ʽNorth Country Boyʼ and ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ are the first ones to spring to attention, but melodically they are not Dylanish, or, at least, not Dylanish in the way you'd expect them to — ʽNorth Country Boyʼ is a loud, guitar-and-organ-blazing pop-rocker, and ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ, though it is acoustic, sounds more like Donovan than Dylan. On the other hand, ʽOne To Anotherʼ, even if its main riff is closer to the Allmans' ʽMidnight Riderʼ than anything Dylan ever wrote, partially borrows the vocal melody and intonations from ʽMaggie's Farmʼ — making no secret of that once Tim gets to the line about "boxing up all our records and a head full of ideas". And ʽGet On Itʼ breaks in like some unknown outtake from Highway 61 Revisited, with the same triple-barrel guitar/organ/harmonica attack and a ʽQueen Janeʼ-like start-up: "When you're low and I'm feeling awry...". But so that you could feel all the depth of the penetration (sorry), the second part of the song breaks away from the first and evolves into a satanic ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ-like jam, replete with the obligatory woo-woos and stuff. Also, "I'm going to let you pass" (ʽHow Highʼ)? Ah cripes...

More Rolling Stones references: "You keep it under your thumb" (sung to the verse melody of ʽLoving Cupʼ) and "I could wait forever, love in vain yeah" on ʽTitle Fightʼ, a song otherwise completely undistinguishable from the average Charlatans funk-pop number. The pairwise question to ʽHow Can You Leave Usʼ is "how can you bleed on us?", sung to the vocal melody of ʽRocks Offʼ. The same song, however, once again returns us to Dylan territory with a line about "catchin' dinosaurs", and "darlin'... promise me you'll be home soon"... aw crap, John Sebastian? And the psychedelic vocal harmonies feeding off each other, that's ʽShe Said She Saidʼ, right? And a song called ʽTwo Of Usʼ... and an instrumental number called ʽArea 51ʼ, that's clearly a reference to ʽHighway 51ʼ... okay, enough already.

From a global and straightforward perspective, this is all nonsense. The Charlatans aren't really making much sense with all this appropriation — most of the lyrics sound as if they just assigned a smart computer algorithm to extract random references and mix them in with some new lines, and the melodic borrowings are grafted onto basic rhythmic structures that have not progressed all that much since 1990. But from another perspective, they are really doing the most honest thing possible: after all, Britpop is such a clearly derivative genre by definition that it makes total sense to acknowledge this unequivocally, and refrain from being too serious about it. That's one thing that totally separates them from the ghosts of the past — while there's a lot of sneering and jeering going on here, you never get that «character assassination» vibe that is predominant on classic Dylan records. It might be due to their unfortunate choice of words, or to the lack of the necessary color in Tim Burgess' voice, or maybe even to that «dance vibe» that most of the songs still have because of the rhythm section's never-ending funkiness, but the reality is such that I cannot perceive Tellin' Stories on its own emotional terms — I'm not even sure there were any of those set out to begin with.

They do care about their fallen comrade, ending the album with some serene nature sounds mor­phing into an acid organ-drenched trip-hop instrumental called ʽRob's Themeʼ; but even that one somehow seems a bit post-modern in nature. And it all makes the band sound dated — twenty years later, listening to a bunch of guys churning out typically mid-Nineties send-ups of heroes from the Sixties makes you feel more like an archivist than a music lover. Although, of course, there's nothing wrong with the noble work of the archivist as such.


  1. > somebody as deri­vative and clearly second-rate as The Charlatans rightfully enjoy major fame

    Oooh, that was harsh. While I do understand why the overly-inspired spots here and there may be buggin' you too much, I'd still argue that Charlatans were head and shoulders over the rest of numerous Britpop bands (Gay Dad, anyone?). Yes, a step lower than your standard Blur/Oasis/Pulp trio but I'd take Charlatans over Ride (one-hit-wonder, really), Shed 7 (burnt out too quickly) or Teenage Fanclub (too inconsistent for pop) without thinking.

    As for this album, I think it pushes the main Charlatans' advantage — their working capacity. While from your review one may think it's a simple copy-paste game they're plating here, in reality it took a lot of work and taste to come up with a rock record without sounding too much retro or commercialized or alternative. Probably, after the embarrassments of 80s' hairy metal and such it was vital for the newer generations to be introduced to rock music without any negative connotations. In fact, I'd argue that Oasis were doing essentially the same jobs, with far more hooks and stronger melodies.

    Oh yeah, and it's also my favourite Charlatans record just because it contains their most complex (not in "difficult" sense of word, rather "a bit more sophisticatedly structured") songs.

    1. Oh, and 'One To Another' also has a line 'Can you please crawl out of your window' taken directly from Dylan's song title.

      Another point of view on these borrowings: I guess, in the 90s general listener had much less opportunity to connect with much of the out-of-print (sometimes) music and since these little tributes were not all immediately noticeable, they might be considered cool and clever. I mean, in Charlatans' case it's never a direct rip-off and they could have evaded them by simply replacing a single lyric, title or a riff. To me these borrowings are highly intentional.

      I think that after all the main Charlatans' weakness, which couldn't be outweighed even by their willingness to work hard or their great band unity, was the next-to-zero lyrical skills of Tim Burges. Really really really bland generic stuff. I like Charlatans but I can't tell what the hell their songs are all about.

  2. "a mercyful deferment by Fate"

    I guess this was written by some sort of post-modern heir to the classic black metal legacy?

  3. I honestly think this lack of charisma should be illegal. And I would disagree with Sergey on Teenage Fanclub. Dull as they are now, most of their 90s songwriting was absolute chiming brilliance. You combine all the best songs by Charlatans and you still won't get an album half as accomplished as Grand Prix.

  4. Britpop is even better evidence than most power-pop that good taste doesn't automatically translate into making good music. Free-association lyrics sung by singers superficially imitating Lennon's 66-era singing voice and later 'love is all you need' themes. Usually buried in layers of distorted guitar sludge. Far from all bad, but imagine if these bands had tried to imitate their idols' interest in production techniques, arrangements, and quirky genres like music hall and folk instead of trying to remake "Rain" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" 1000 times over.