Sunday, January 7, 2018

Exclusive - The Verve’s lost tracks in review

 

Urban Hymns and What Might Have Been
The Verve’s lost tracks in review
By J. Adams

For fans of late, great rock & roll icons The Verve, the big news since the band’s last breakup hasn’t been frontman Richard Ashcroft’s solo albums but the surprise recent leak of unheard recordings from the sessions of their 1997 breakthrough Urban Hymns. Compiled for the album’s 20th anniversary super deluxe edition, the tracks were vetoed by Ashcroft for reasons undisclosed but understandable: collectively, they’re a startling glimpse into the classic record Urban Hymns almost was and could readily have been, fatally undercutting the notion that it was basically a solo effort with a few psychedelic jams tacked on.

Previously unheard demos and outtakes were highlights of prior reissues of A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul, which—a few quibbles and omissions aside—were excellently-curated collections. Devotees were disappointed, then, when it was announced that the mammoth Urban Hymns box would not include any unreleased studio material, not even any of the demos already circulating via bootleg, but instead lard the bonus discs with live cuts hardcore fans already had. So horrendous was the missed opportunity that many vowed to boycott the release. Happily, a mysterious benefactor saw fit to leak the suppressed songs, thrilling cultists and allowing students of pop history to better understand the genesis of one of the 90s’ biggest albums.

Urban Hymns, it has long been clear, was at least two different records—and two different bands—uneasily melded into something greater than the sum of its parts. Its most recognizable hits, including “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and “The Drugs Don’t Work,” began as Richard Ashcroft compositions around the time of The Verve’s first breakup in late 1995. Soon after, Ashcroft reassembled the band with bassist Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury but without aural auteur Nick McCabe, whose shimmering liquid guitars had always been central to the distinctive Verve sound. Tentative sessions with guitarist Bernard Butler of Suede quickly collapsed, and the trio recruited tasteful journeyman player Simon Tong, a longtime friend, to help them attempt to record Ashcroft’s new batch of songs.

It was from these months that the Sympathy for the Demos bootleg eventually emerged (and a promo video now online), essential listening for fans of The Verve and solo Ashcroft. Though raw, unfinished, and available only in mediocre sound quality, it’s a delicate set of sun-kissed pastoral pop brimming with potential and marking the explosive arrival of Ashcroft the pop songwriter in glistening versions of familiar songs later rerecorded as well as several impressive outtakes. But for all its promise the nascent Urban Hymns was undeniably missing something, and in a fateful decision Ashcroft eventually swallowed his pride and invited McCabe back into the fold.

Like the missing piece of a puzzle, McCabe summoned all of the danger and intrigue the recordings had lacked. Through overdubs on some songs, reimaginings of others, and a number of epic psychedelic expeditions he transformed what might have made for a handful of Britpop sleeper hits into the stuff of global megastardom. In the process, perhaps, he sealed the band’s fate, giving Ashcroft the confidence and notoriety he needed to launch a solo career.

Between Urban Hymns’ largely superb b-sides, many of which outshine blander album tracks, and the tepidity of much of Ashcroft’s solo catalog, McCabe’s essential contributions to The Verve have not gone unrecognized. What the leaked songs reveal, however, is how much more remarkable material the reunited band recorded than ever saw release, and how many of the duller songs on Urban Hymns and its singles took the place of material with all the expansive genius of their prior work.

Two of the leaked tracks predate McCabe’s return: a solo demo of “Sonnet” and a version of “Oh Sister,” an unreleased song included in an earlier version on Sympathy for the Demos. “Sonnet” is a lovely little gem and interesting curio, if not nearly as good as the Sympathy version or the soaring album take. Less charming is the somewhat generic “Oh Sister,” which lacks the sweetness of the demo and foregrounds the diminished band’s struggle to forge a sound without their founding guitarist.

Of the far more interesting tracks produced with McCabe, a few are curiosities: “Neon Wilderness (Idea)” is a brief instrumental of what became the last song recorded for Urban Hymns, while “Original Insanity” is a dystopian noisescape featuring the same baby’s cry as in “Deep Freeze,” the album’s hidden track. The “BeatNick Mix” of “This Time” is a quirky instrumental chockful of spacey little bits mined for the album take, particularly interesting in light of extended versions of the song that were highlights of the ’98 tour after McCabe had left. While not essential listening, these cuts demonstrate that The Verve were no less sonically progressive than other state of the art rock bands who released landmark albums in 1997, including Radiohead and Spiritualized.

The other six leaked songs together form the holy grail of Verve fandom, essentially a lost EP that is both the missing link between A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns and a tantalizing glimpse of what might have followed had Ashcroft not departed—a revelatory bridge between the scruffy druggies Noel Gallagher had called “a bunch of space cadets led by Captain Rock” and a group more mature, domesticated, and universal. In short, what the underrated reunion effort Forth promised but couldn’t quite deliver.

“Sweet & Sour” is a hazy late-night confessional of doubt and longing built on the familiar drum track from “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and b-side “MSG” with heartbreakingly expressive singing from Ashcroft and gorgeously moody colors from McCabe and Jones. “Tina Turner” is similarly nocturnal, a wistful rumination that begins like a tribute to the band’s early labelmates Acetone and ambles to a gentle refashioning of the outro to “One Way to Go.”

“Wednesday Madness” conjures a memorable mindfuck with spacey textures and a magisterial groove, while “Jalfrezi” refracts the jangly indie-pop of “Oh Sister” into something vastly more emotive and resonant. “King Riff 2” is vintage Verve—the first “King Riff” became “This Is Music”—with undeniable space funk that leaves lesser album tracks like “Space and Time” and “One Day” in the dust.

If “All Ways Are Maybes,” reportedly a favorite of The Verve’s late manager Jazz Summers, is not quite the lost classic it was reputed to be, it is still a solid outtake, perhaps the most completed composition of all the leaked songs. Surprisingly reminiscent of some of Ashcroft’s solo b-sides, it might have anchored a proper fourth album while the creative and commercial momentum were still there, and certainly warranted release before either of the middling bonus tracks on The Verve’s 2004 greatest hits, both of which lacked contributions from McCabe.

In an infamous interview a year after the band’s second breakup, the guitarist likened “The Drugs Don’t Work”—and by extension Urban Hymns—to a Bon Jovi record. Conventional wisdom has tended to affirm McCabe’s assessment; for all the units it sold, even cracking the elusive U.S. market, Urban Hymns has retained little of the precious cred lavished on critical darlings like OK Computer and Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. The newly leaked outtakes help excavate the buried legacy of The Verve, the brilliantly intuitive players beneath the arena anthems, and could generate fresh interest in the band—if the songs were widely heard.

But these tracks won’t be on Spotify or legal streaming services, let alone CD or vinyl, and even if they aren’t scrubbed from the internet they will seldom be heard beyond the hardest of hardcore fans. It’s unfortunate, but probably inevitable: in the wake of an underwhelming solo career, the canonical Urban Hymns that sold millions of copies is central to Ashcroft’s marketability and rep. Critics already dog his every move, emphasizing how little of his solo work measures up to the band, and he can ill afford to feed more unflattering reassessments.

Despite all of his missteps, the truth remains that Richard Ashcroft was always the prime mover behind The Verve, a singular singer-songwriter whose pop sensibilities and wild ambition pushed the band beyond jamming to making a real go of it. There would be no Urban Hymns without his determination and catchy songs, and his best material already made the album and b-sides, taken for granted after two decades. Ashcroft’s better unreleased tracks were long since rerecorded for his solo albums, and releasing Verve versions of “A Song For The Lovers,” “C’mon People (We’re Making It Now),” and “New York” could only undermine his claim to those songs as a solo artist.

For whatever personal reasons, Ashcroft seems incapable as a middle-aged family man of collaborating with his former bandmates, and one can’t entirely blame him for placing his legend and livelihood ahead of embarrassingly great recordings that underline the tragedy of what might have been. It is ironic, though, after a world tour in which Ashcroft repeatedly invoked Julian Assange and Wikileaks, that it took an anonymous leaker to expose his inconvenient truths to the judgment of history.

Grade: A

 
J. Adams is a writer and avid poster on the Northern Souls forum. His previous reviews include: The Captain Returns: Richard Ashcroft’s These People In Review (2016), Black Submarine Selections from the Java Heat Soundtrack (2013) and A Critique of RPA & The United Nations of Sound (2010).