Once upon a time, in a far, far off land, blokes used to come together and make noise using only guitar, drums and vocals, pouring their hearts out on the microphone, to audiences worldwide. Actually, that does sound kind of eccentric, when you think about it.
Oxford’s Supergrass were public enemy number one when it comes to this mess, seeming to master that doing more with less phenomenon, drawing slightly from punk but equally from funk, soul and even jazz, toward a masterly stew of alternative rock that seemed geared for the erudites who would be likely to spring from their academically leaning hometown. I slot their fifth album, Road to Rouen (2005), as a classic album, but it’s only my third favorite album by them, following their first two, so this should give you an idea of where I position them in the grand scheme of things. Third-best British band of the ’90s to Radiohead and Blur wouldn’t be too far off the mark, for them.
Right away, anyway, with I Should Coco (1994), which leant the sugary and infectious “Alright” to the Clueless soundtrack, they seemed to epitomize power pop — revved-up, perky pop madness from a bunch of guys who, from the way it sounds, must have spent their pre-music days eating too many Pixie Sticks and bouncing off the walls, terrorizing their parents. They hit their high mark with 1995’s satiric, mournful and sublime In it for the Money, and, really, maintained a certain consistency throughout their entire lifespan as a band, through the full and hearty Diamond Hoo Ha (2008) and their eventual breakup in 2010. According to Wikipedia, as of 2019, they are back together as a band, but have not issued any new releases, since.
Anyway, 2005’s Road to Rouen seems to kind of nestle in the underbrush and not get the credit it deserves, their innocuous penultimate LP with no huge singles or big buzz surrounding it. It came out in a time when indie rock was experiencing somewhat of a popularity glut — Canadians and Americans, mostly, grieving over the Iraq war, with keyboard-laden, Musique Concrete updates on the Beatles and classic rock. What’s ironic, then, given that Supergrass seemed congenitally ostracized from this camp, is that they were basically doing the exact same thing, on the Columbia subsidiary of Parlophone — their influences tended to be the Beatles, classic rock and maybe some Buzzcocks, somewhat like a dorkier, less “leather-cool” permutation of The Strokes.
But there was such a surplus of heady, catchy alternative rock being made and widely distributed around this time, from Franz Ferdinand, to Spoon, to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists to the whole indie/sludge-metal wave of Black Mountain, Dead Meadow and company, that nobody ever seems to talk about this Supergrass project from’ 05. To me, there’s a keen, newly vamped, inspired sense of mourning and purposefulness, evident right away on track two, “St. Petersburg,” which follows a sort of epic introduction, “Tales of Endurance Pt. 4, 5 & 6.” The band also peppers in some phrasing unorthodoxy to refreshingly complicate things on what’s otherwise a very, very simple and pliable pop tune.
“Sad Girl” struts in as the perfect foil to “St. Petersburg,” then, dissonant, ominous and set on ironically rendered chords, to portray a tale of desertion and frustration. True to Supergrass form, still, the whole thing is done really concisely and in a way that’s easy to digest and understand, making this craft look easy by way of a superseding element of vision and purpose. “Roxy” is classic, dramatic Supergrass fare that could have anchored Supergrass (1999) or Life on Other Planets (2002) and “Coffee in the Pot” is a droll, harmless instrumental two-minute instrumental, which, as you might have guessed, is very perky.
After “Coffee in the Pot,” the true DNA of side B emerges with the title track, a bulwark in funky Britpop that sounds like it could soundtrack a James Bond action scene. One thing I like about “Road to Rouen” is that it makes a platform for bassist Mick Quinn to show off his skills, with tiptoeing, agile basslines that romp around like a rocking puma, quick on their toes and artistically authoritative. Indeed, lots of times these mainstream bands have members who can really rock but just don’t usually get a chance to, given the stifling parameters of intentive radio rock. Another prime example would be Third Eye Blind’s bassist Arion Salazar, who was pretty much the featured member of his prior band, Fungo Mungo.
What do I say about the last three songs? They’re all just classic, great Supergrass numbers. If anything, I highly recommended them further for the production, which seems cleaned up on Road to Rouen in a way that’s fitting of these concise, succinct pop songs, carrying more enough feeling within their riffs and vocals so as to get by smoothly without any quirks or shtick in the department of the mixing itself.
And then, of course, there’s that title. Rouen is a city in France located with easy access from Britain — about 50 miles north of Paris and located on an adjacent major highway there. It’s also a place that’s off the beaten path, a little less tourist-y, and, perhaps a little more genuine than the big, bulbous metropolis. And it’s easy. It’ll be there for you, like a pillow or a whisky high-ball. And, ultimately, that’s the kind of record Road to Rouen is — it’s not outlandish, not an artistic revolution for the band or for their craft. It’s just a live, crystalline cluster of great songs, many of which deal with heartbreak and perhaps even depression, but each of which transmits its rudiments in a way that’s real and unique, offering especial zest and fervor for those fed up with the latest fads and just craving some good-old-fashioned human communication.
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