Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Beady Eye

This post must begin first with a prelude, and then a confession. First, the actual review portion of this post does not begin until the third paragraph. If you're only interested in my thoughts on Beady Eye, feel free to skip ahead. In the meantime, you'll be treated to very abbreviated (but not unopinionated) history lesson of oasis.

Now for the confession: I am (was?) very much a closet fan of oasis. File it squarely under "guilty pleasures;" but ever since Definitely Maybe, I've loved the trademark swagger and cockiness of the now-disbanded Manchester unit previously fronted by Noel and Liam Gallagher. They put so little effort into making the masses despise them, which is why they were great. Whether it was the legendary feuds between the brothers that canceled tours, dominated tabloid headlines in the U.K. and, ultimately, led to their recent demise, or their conspicuous arrogance – in the one appearance I managed to catch on their final U.S. tour, Noel noted that the White House was his easily dwarfed by his Buckinghamshire mansion – they were certainly distinctive, and undeniably British – with Liam's nasally wail hardly masking his heritage, as is the case many other English vocalists, who too often sound quite American. Meanwhile, few of their contemporary peers could match their absolute delight in being rock stars, with all the trappings and largess associated with that life. It was such a welcome counterpoint to all the shoe-gazing and I'm-so-misunderstood cliches that defined 90's alternative and grunge. oasis always meant to be exactly understood, and made their ambitions plain to anyone willing to listen.

Even better was their ability to translate that ethos into their recorded material, especially at the outset of their career. Definitely Maybe was fun and brash, with tracks like "Cigarettes n Alcohol," "Rock n Roll Star" and "Shakermaker" thrusting their own snarly stamp on 90's alternative. Their sophomore follow-up, (What's the Story) Morning Glory, was a bit more serious, but also catapulted the group onto the world stage with megahits such as "Champagne Supernova," "Wonderwall" and the Noel-sung "Don't Look Back in Anger." At the same time, they carried over some of the exuberance of their debut in similarly playful affairs like "Roll With It," "Some Might Say," and the record's title track.

But as the band became more established, their urgency waned and their act grew stale. Although its third release – Be Here Now – included a handful of solid numbers, like "Stand By Me," "It's Gettin Better (Man!!)" and "All Around the World," each subsequent record dialed back the swagger and grew increasingly generic. At the same time, the promise and peril of the fundamental dynamic between Noel and Liam edged closer to its breaking point. Make no mistake, oasis is inseparable from the presence of both Gallagher brothers – in fact, Noel frequently fired anyone not named Gallagher and replaced the entire lineup more than once. Noel – the older of the two – exercised such extreme control relative to his younger brother as he wrote nearly all the group's material, both words and lyrics, while also manning the lead guitar post, which defined their sound. Liam's role was more limited – gnashing out lead vocals and occasionally shaking the tambourine. And while Noel was responsible for the artistic output of the outfit – and arguably possesses the more natural and sonically pleasing singing voice – he also recognized his little brother added more bite to lines like, "all your dreams are made when you're chained to the mirror and the razor blade" in "(What's the Story) Morning Glory." When Noel covered the same material during Liam's sporadic departures from live shows, much of the gritty edge went with him. Nonetheless, Noel retained strict control over the songwriting process, and it became gradually more apparent that Liam was dissatisfied with his part in the production. During the band's last tour, Liam would leave the stage entirely for more than a half-dozen songs, leaving Noel to toil through the numbers he'd devoted to himself. It all came to ahead on August 28, 2009, when a backstage fight between the brothers before a Paris show led to the group's disbanding. Following the split, Noel announced he'd pursue a solo career, while Liam retained the remaining oasis lineup – guitarist Gem Archer, bassist Andy Bell and drummer Chris Sharrock – to form a new project, which ultimately became Beady Eye.

It is within this post-oasis backdrop that Beady Eye's debut offering – Different Gear, Still Speeding, released March 1 on Dangerbird Records – should be considered. The most notable questions facing the reformed quartet – with Bell also contributing guitar parts, and rounded out by touring performers Jeff Wooton on bass and keyboardist Matt Jones – would be to what extent could the new outfit write material without Noel, and how much would that material sound like their previous group?

To some degree, these questions are answered in the very title of the record and its baker's dozen set of tracks. The collection is largely built upon a foundation of oasis-style material (still speeding), but with new flourishes and less boilerplate song structures than under the Noel regime (different gear). The introductory track – "Four Letter Word" – offers a rather conventional take for listeners familiar with their previous group. Archer and Bell weave a classic Noel Gallagher-sounding riff pattern comprised of acid-laced psychedelia, which Liam arguments with his signature snotty whine. Its a solid starting point for the new project to gain a foothold with its holdover audience before striking out with something new.

The succeeding "Millionaire" is bit more adventurous, even if its simpler in its construction. Harking more to Rubber Soul than Magical Mystery Tour, the rusty acoustic guitar riffs and bouncy beat would have been unlikely survivors under Noel's regime. It's lighter and more upbeat than anything oasis had put forth in more than a decade, and is complimented by the collection's leadoff single, "The Roller." The foundational piano part here is another signal of the growing distance from Noel's preferences, who would never have allowed a similar instrument to overshadow his guitar work beyond a few bars at the intro or bridge.

Even more drastic is the tres upbeat "Beatles and Stones." Although the Beatles influences were obvious and much-discussed throughout the oasis era, this track is interestingly less directly patterned of the quintessential British rock acts, despite its moniker. Liam – in trademark bravado – announces his intentions to achieve the sort of legendary status attained by his heroes. Sounding more like a Everly Brothers tune – with its emphasis on the off beat – its clearly less important that the band actually ascends to "stand the test of time" than the restoration of its playful sneer. A pairing of the number with "Cigarettes & Alcohol" would be delightful.

Most impressive is the barnburner "Bring The Light." Again, a lo-fi keyboard part that would have been banished by Noel sets the stage for the record's tour-de-force. Including R&B-style background singers adds a welcome twist and there's no doubt Liam is enjoying the hell out of himself here, while his mates never loose pace with the intensity, making for what will surely be slotted for a blistering finale on stage.

Still, there a few boilerplate oasis-sounding cuts manage to sneak through in "Wind Up Dream" and "Standing on the Edge of the Noise," but the album would have fared just as well without them. The former is only a slight improvement on Be Here Now's meandering "D'You Know What I Mean?" while the latter toils on like "The Shock of the Lightning" from Dig Out Your Soul."

On another front, a trio of ballads in "For Anyone," "Kill for a Dream" and "The Beat Goes On" are palatable, but hardly the best vehicle for Liam's act. His nasal pitch is only enhanced when there's more time to listen to individual notes. The songwriting is solid, but its hard getting past the voice. More enjoyable, but not overly bombastic is "Wigwam." Sporting pianos and a sing-along, sha-la-la chorus, the piece has more motion to it than the ballad-y approach. It's also the album's longest track at 6:36, but only sags for a bit at its belly before morphing into a McCartneyian repeating refrain.

Come for: "The Roller"
Stay for: "Beatles or Stones"
You'll be surprised by: "Bring the Light"

P.S. An absolutely outstanding parody of mid-career oasis can be found in The Fountains of Wayne's original "Elevator Up." Check it.

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