Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Select: A Northern Soul review

Wigan Peerless - The Verve's engine-room propel "Mad" Richard towards new horizons. More thrust, man! 

The third best album of the year? To 'Mad' Richard , Ashcroft's ears, that's like damnation with faint praise, but then it was his mate Noel Gallagher who said it. Oasis' LP would be tops (obviously), then Paul Weller's, then 'A Northern Soul' by The Verve. Richard probably won't be punching Noel's lights out over it.

For a band who emerged looking like a bunch of fragile young poets, 'The' Verve (it'll sit right one day) seem to have acquired a good line in Class-A British rock'n'roll thuggery, finally graduating in advanced hotel-wrecking, even coming on a bit handy when confronted by a Parisian security team five times their size.

Some may even say that Wigan's premier space-cakes, have just Oasis-ed up their act, especially as, for this second LP, they've hooked up with 'Definitely Maybe''s makeover wizard Owen Morris.

The truth of the matter is that the two bands share a markedly similar vision, borne of hopeless afternoons in Lancashire, doomed romantic liaisons and fantasies of somehow escaping it all. The Verve even have a track with the same title - and sentiment - as Gallagher's 'Slide Away'. It opened their debut album, 'A Storm In Heaven', in 1993.

Musically, mind, The Verve are on another planet altogether. Like early U2, Bunnymen or Waterboys, they're after a Big Music that knows no horizons. It often seems like theatre, with Ashcroft as the leading player, howling ! off-mike, pulling wacko faces and flapping his arms like a loony, but that's just down to the sheer dynamic aspirations of the band behind him. One minute, they're launching him to the top of a mountain in a force-ten gale, the next laying him down on a deserted beach in summer, with waves lapping at his feet.

Until now, Richard has had a rather submerged vocal presence. On 'A Northern Soul', he - and the band as a whole - hit full voice, as he weaves a series of narratives and dialogues that, in the process, lure you into the thrall of their drama. "Come on and listen along with me, I think you need a little company" entices the big bro-type, character on the opening 'A New Decade'. And on 'This Is Music', "I've been on the shelf too long/Sitting at home on my bed too long/Now it's time to hear my song/How's the world gonna take me?.. Come inside. " Let the ceremony begin, kind of thing.

Richard's sheer motivation and intensity is astonishing. On the awesome 'History', The Verve make their most elaborate use of strings to date, and yet there's hardly a moment on it when he's not singing. "I've gotta tell you my tale, "he urges. Several times. By and large, the tales are pretty bleak. 'History' is about a Northern lad who runs away to London and loses what little he had. 'So It Goes' offers the desperate insight that "You come in on your own in this life/Youknow, you're gonna leave on your own", while 'No Knock On My Door' and the exquisitely folksy 'On Your Own' plumb Morrissey-esque depths of low-rent gloom. The title track, meanwhile, is about someone having a bad trip alone in their bedsit. Drugs aren't the answer, folks.

The transcendence comes, for Richard as much as anyone else, in the music. When the band hit on their maximum-thrust-Scotty space-rock roar, they're unstoppable. They're still far from concise - 'This Is Music' and 'On Your Own' were probably the singles because they were the only tracks beneath the five minute mark - but the album's rammed with groovy pyrotechnics and melodic dazzle. Guitarist Nick McCabe especially shines, proving himself the master of both flamboyant, flipped-out electricity (check the Hendrixy 'Brainstorm Interlude' - phwor!) as well as blissful moments a la Tim Buckley ('Drive You Home').

After Ashcroft's opening entreaties and the urban nightmare scenarios that follow, the final tracks resolve into an elemental calm and a closing instrumental, 'Reprise', which might almost have you believing you've pegged out and claimed a free ride to heaven. That'll be a bit too proggy for some tastes, but the way the whole lot hangs together as a complete journey puts 'A Northern Soul' ahead of most albums you'll heart his year. Third best or whatever, it'll still be blazing at your synapses for many months to come.
  • Select, by Andrew Perry, picture by Neil Cooper, August 1995, Soundbite: "Wiggin' Out Casino re-opens to great acclaim."
  • Kudos: Jeff Birgbauer