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Teenage Fanclub

Yahoo Music (May 2005)

What's in a name? If "Howdy!" suggested a flash of cheerfulness that meant well but was gone in a second, then "Man-Made" deliberately slows everything down. On the face of it, the title's a cute reference to self-sufficiency - the Fannies' sixth album is the first for their own label - but dig a little and you'll find a deeper resonance. Now in their late thirties and early forties and facing a make-or-break moment that could determine exactly where their lives go from here (if the album's a flop, is that it for the band?), it's unsurprising that Teenage Fanclub's thoughts have turned to uncertainty, mortality and the prospect of what comes next.

The most obvious example is Norman Blake's "Cells", which charts "the slow decay" with a chorus of "breaking down/cells breaking down". In other hands, this would make for a faintly depressing song, but tied to an expansive jangle melody that breathes a softer, more quietly measured energy into the Fannies' sun-kissed blueprint, it almost feels luxurious. Gerry Love's "Save" views the same point in the human condition from a slightly different angle: "stuck between the lines/things don't change", considering how you can still feel lost this far in. Again, there's an unspoken optimism here that makes the song a pleasure, a sense that an unclear future isn't entirely to be feared.

What "Man-Made" represents, therefore, is a subtle tweaking of details, a tidying of the margins. The Fannies remain the same group in essence - at this point, we're contractually obligated to mention the three Bs: Byrds, Beach Boys and Big Star - but their values feel broader, their motivation more assured, less given to the simple rush of euphoria. Producer John McEntyre, of Tortoise fame, has simultaneously polished their sound and taken the band back to basics, and the message is clear. You may need to spend a little more time getting to know the Fanclub these days, but without any clutter you get closer, deeper, right to the very heart of it all - emotionally and musically.

Beyond all that, it's the Fanclub as usual: three gloriously talented songwriters in thrall to harmony, democracy and the simple joy of melody. Blake's still has an uncanny knack with a romantic ballad ("Flowing") and a reflective anthem ("It's All In My Mind"). Love's still the pop heart of the group, knocking out the songs to get the dancefloors bopping ("Born Under A Good Sign", "Time Stops"). And Raymond McGinley still writes melodies as if he's constructing a cat's cradle, weaving words and notes into chiming lullabies.

In all, it's a familiar picture, but the band's slower, quieter confidence makes the focus sharper. As McGinley sings on the album's closing track: "Don't hide who you are". It's advice that Teenage Fanclub have clearly taken to their man-made hearts.


Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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