Back in Britpop's golden days of 1995, marked by the amusing spectacle of Oasis and Blur scuffling over who got to be the new Beatles, it seemed like Supergrass could at least be the new Kinks. They were too cheeky and shambly to be top-rung superstars, but they had a knack for sly three-chord pop, and they could provide the occasional tabloid headline when the Gallagher brothers needed to rest for a day. More importantly, the trio had one near-perfect song: "Alright," a bouncy, piano-driven ode to youth, impulsiveness and clean teeth that was almost as good as "You Really Got Me" or "All Day and All of the Night." After saturating British airwaves, "Alright" came to the States via the "Clueless" soundtrack, accompanied by a playful Monkees-esque video. Who could resist?
Well, Americans. "Alright" captivated indie fans but barely dented commercial radio, and its accompanying album, the solidly fun "I Should Coco," floundered despite rave reviews. Its '97 follow-up, "In It for the Money," bolstered their stardom in the U.K. but stayed subterranean Stateside. Their new disc -- named eponymously, which bands do when they want to show us they're revealing their true selves -- faces another uphill battle, coming at a time when even Oasis can't stay on the U.S. album charts for more than three weeks.
Times like this call for a big, hook-filled single, and Supergrass have it in "Pumping On Your Stereo," a slice of glam-boogie somewhere between the New York Dolls and "Jean Genie." (Bowie-like first line: "Life is a cigarette ... smoke to the end.") It's a breezily fun, if slightly generic, rock song about the joy of rock songs, complete with woo-woos, handclaps and the all-too-rhetorical question, "Can you hear us, pumping on your ster-eeee-ooo-oh?" Listen more closely, and you'll realize that vocalist Gaz Coombes is actually singing "humping," not "pumping," throughout the entire song. (The new issue of "Revolver" reveals that they tried various takes and went with the naughty one.) Yes, they're humping on your stereo! Now try to get that image out of your head. But where "Alright" was genuinely youthful and ebullient, this just seems calculatedly juvenile. Given the arrested-development state of U.S. alt-rock radio, that could mean a hit.
The rest of "Supergrass" is a more textured and somber affair, beginning with its first (and best) track, "Moving." The song starts with a melancholy guitars/strings sweep and Coombes delivering an existential imitation of Radiohead's Thom Yorke. "I've been moving so long," he sighs. "The days all feel the same." Then it suddenly flips into chug-rock mode, and Coombes enthusiastically croons more depressing lyrics: "There's a low, low feeling around me, and a stone-cold feeling inside/I can't stop messing my mind up, or wasting my time ..." Repeat. Creating tension via musical bipolarity is an old trick, but it works nicely here.
The other tracks don't have the same spark. They're shiny and catchy on the surface, but Coombes frequently sounds like he's trying to shake a bad mood, and the music often slides into formulaic Britpop textures. Typical are the la-la-filled "What Went Wrong (In Your Head)" and "Jesus Came From Outta Space," casting the original hippie as an ironic pop-culture figure ("He came down for peace on earth and left in a secondhand car"). Other songs get mileage from sonic tricks -- observe the Air-like spaciness and vocal distortions of "Born Again" -- but the overall set, while not awful on any level, is unremarkable. Fans who still have glimmers of "Alright" stuck in their heads probably shouldn't give up on Supergrass just yet, though; even the Kinks had their "Schoolboys in Disgrace."