Grand Prix

Teenage Fanclub

Geffen, 1995

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Among other things, power-pop is one of those ever-so-slightly-obscure genres whose mention may inspire the uninitiated to ask what you mean by that.

Well, see, you take two guitars—the janglier the better, and if you don’t recognize that adjective, go listen to some middle Beatles or early Byrds—and compose some tight, punchy songs and arrange them for maximum catchiness with a steady backbeat, layered harmonies and singalong choruses. The lyrics can be anything you want—sometimes sunny, sometimes mournful—but the music is always catchy and concise.

Teenage Fanclub might have started out in the early ’90s as a sludgy, lumbering proto-grunge outfit, but by ’95’s Grand Prix—their fourth proper studio LP—they had completed their evolution into full-on power-pop revivalists. And they weren’t at all subtle about their affection for the genre’s classic practitioners along the way… first they named a song “Gene Clark” (Byrds) and then an album “Thirteen” (Big Star), and early EPs included covers of tunes by the Beatles and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

In the manner of so many of power-pop’s iconic outfits, Teenage Fanclub features multiple talented singer-songwriters in guitarist Norman Blake, guitarist Raymond McGinley, and bassist Gerard Love, who trade songs all the way down the track list, joined here by drummer Paul Quinn. (The TF drum chair has been a bit of a revolving door, but that’s another story.)


What’s fascinating from the perspective of someone like me—who’s backing into Teenage Fanclub after years of listening to bands influenced by them—is hearing those influences reflected back. The sturdy riffing and rich harmonies of opening pair “About You” and “Sparky’s Dream” immediately remind of The Legal Matters, while hooky, hummable “Don’t Look Back” and laconic lament “Tears” could both be Fastball covers. Except, of course, I have that exactly backwards…

Some reviewers have suggested more substantial differences in quality and approach between the band’s three songwriters than I can detect here; to my ears McGinley, Love and Blake are peas in a pod. Certainly McGinley and Blake match wits beautifully on the back-to-back “Verisimilitude” (which offers the album’s best line: “I don’t need an attitude / Rebellion is a platitude” and borrows a familiar tweaked-out organ sound from Elvis Costello) and “Neil Jung” (a witty and rather profound break-up song), while Love antes up with the propulsive “Discolite” (featuring an earworm riff and layered harmonies fresh off a Big Star album).

For whatever reason, the Beatles influence feels more obvious on the slower songs; on “Tears” they add strings and horns for pathos and pizzazz, while the rather mournful, sing-songy “Say No” feels like a Rubber Soul outtake. By the time Blake stretches the word “de-e-e-ear” into a four-syllable extravaganza in the slight but catchy “I’ll Make It Clear,” all you can do is smile.

Grand Prix drops off a bit at the end; McGinley’s penultimate “I Gotta Know” is a rather dull droner, and then Blake gets weird with the closing “Hardcore/Ballad,” 18 seconds of ragged punk chords followed by a 1:22 solo acoustic ballad that doesn’t leave much of an impression.

Perhaps it’s just that I don’t get the joke, because the overall impression I’m left with is of a lot of strong songwriting and arranging and some terrific bits, but without a lot of character. The power-pop bands of similar vintage at the top of my list—Fountains Of Wayne and Fastball, for two—sprinkle their songs with humor, often of the self-deprecating variety, and use it to make pointed observations about human nature and the vagaries of fate. While it shows up occasionally here—notably on “Verisimilitude”—to these ears, humor often feels like a missing ingredient on this album. 

In sum, the concise Grand Prix—13 songs spread across 42 minutes—is something of a hard candy treat. There’s plenty of sweetness in the hooks and harmonies and a pleasant crunch to the guitars—it all just feels something less than completely satisfying in the end. I suspect the guys in The Legal Matters would disagree, but c’est la vie. I’m still glad they listened.

Rating: B-

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