Teenage Fanclub

I believe there exists an alternate universe--a parallel world in which Eminem doesn't win Grammys, Fred Durst doesn't run a record company and the Backstreet Boys work at Abercrombie and Fitch. In that world, bands like Teenage Fanclub top the charts. The Scottish trio has been crafting infectious power pop since way back in 1989, when it began as a Brit-grunge band. Disguising pop as ironic metal, TFC's first two albums (A Catholic Education and Bandwagonesque) garnered critical acclaim; however, the subsequent 13, Grand Prix, and 1997's Songs From Northern Britain were all greeted with a commercial yawn.

Despite their overwhelming lack of popularity, Gerald Love, Raymond McGinley and Norman Blake press on. Howdy! is another collection of classic guitar pop, bringing to mind the likes of Big Star, The Beatles and The Byrds. Sure, it's derivative, but TFC believes pop was perfected 30 years ago, so why screw it up? As usual, Love, McGinley and Blake share the songwriting, contributing four songs apiece. And true to form, it's Love who pens the most memorable tunes: The album opener, "I Need Direction," is full of rich vocal harmonies; while arena-rock drum fills, trumpet, tuba and French horn highlight the eclectic "Near You." "The Town and the City" is a positively giddy track--so damned optimistic you'd think it was co-written by Tony Robbins. Later, Love experiments with a lounge sound on "Cul De Sac"--which ends with the dreamy refrain "Ooh, ooh, ooh, it's no good/La, la, la, it's no good." Ah, but it is.

McGinley's and Blake's compositions are more hit-and-miss. The melancholy "Happiness" is quite possibly the best thing McGinley has ever written; on the other hand, "My Uptight Life" seems to go on forever like Chinese water torture. Blake breaks out the hooks on "Accidental Life" and "Dumb Dumb Dumb" but comes up empty on the unengaging "Straight and Narrow" and "If I Never See You Again."

In spite of its shortcomings, Howdy! is better than 99 percent of the shite that will be released this year. As the band has matured, TFC has traded in its early-'90s cynicism for an endearing earnestness. It doesn't sell records, but it should. (Shouldn't it?) As Love sings on " I Need Direction," "Nobody sees the same way I do." Unfortunately, he's right.

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