If this doesn't exactly sound like a thrill a minute, that's one of the reasons why the Teenage Fanclub are so precious. While it's very easy to make exciting music about illicit erotic encounters or driving a stolen car into a tree on the bypass, it is very difficult to bring people out in a swathe of goose pimples with a song about staying in love with the same person or trying to buy a house. But this is exactly what the Teenage Fanclub did with their last album - 1995's intoxicatingly mellifluous Grand Prix - and are about to do again with their new one, Songs from Northern Britain.
Far from the dour and gritty production its title might suggest to regionalist bigots of a southerly bent, Songs from Northern Britain is actually a heady assemblage of pollen-rich melodies, awash with breezy harmonies and sun-kissed romanticism. Go with its 12 songs' seemingly effortless flow, and it feels like this record was composed in a daydream. Inevitably, this was not actually the case - the final judicious balance being the end-product of a tortuous series of delays and mishaps; a process into which Teenage Fanclub have been generous enough to invite us.
First some introductions are in order. Norman Blake is a man of awesome geniality who used to have an amusing beard but doesn't any more. People tend to think he is the leader because he talks the most on-stage and stands in the middle. Gerard Love is the quietest and most strongly accented of the group, and the only one yet to settle down with wife and / or children (though these facts are not thought to be connected). He tends to write the songs the others like best. Raymond McGinley sometimes gets a bit of stick for his singing. He is also the Fanclub member most likely to say "The way a record turns out is surprisingly dependent on whether something works when it's plugged in". Paul Quinn, the drummer, is quite fond of Glasgow Celtic.
One fine day, this time last summer, rough mixes of some songs from the album are being played back for assorted dignitaries from Creation records at Surrey's Ridge Farm studio. Given Teenage Fanclub's status as Creation boss Alan McGee's favourite band - at moments of emotional stress he has been known to jump on a plane up to Scotland just to talk to them, never mind hear their music - you might think they would get an easy ride from their record company, but there is still a certain amount of nervousness in the air. While other acts have become chart regulars with a fifth of the mild-mannered Glaswegians' talent, Teenage Fanclub have never quite reached the commercial heights that their fervent fanbase and rapturous reviews ought to have guaranteed them. This is supposed to be the record that takes them beyond respectability and into the clover.
In the studio complex's homely front room, an imposing pair of speakers are turned up to a volume that gives the intestines a proper shake-up. Norman is apologetic about the roughness of the mixes and sweetly attempts to picks holes in the sound but it still washes around him like the incoming tide around a happy child's legs. The standout songs are a big swirling romantic number called "Planets" and a hilarious piece of almost social comment called "It's a Bad World". The record company men nod their heads with intent looks on their faces and say it sounds fantastic (which it does). Later, the word will come back that they "didn't hear any singles".
This is the sort of verbal hammer-blow that professional musicians have to get used to. But no one who has been to Ridge Farm could deny that there are some compensations: the chance to have delicious dinners made for you in an idyllic setting for a start. With American producer David Bianco en famille and Norman's Canadian wife Krista and baby daughter Rowan (named with characteristic Fanclubbian perversity after the little girl in The Wicker Man) also in attendance, the latter enjoying her first curry, the atmosphere is more akin to a family holiday than a high-pressure recording session.
There is work to be done too, though. When making Grand Prix, Teenage Fanclub were really up against it. Their previous album, Thirteen, hadn't quite lived up to expectations, and it was the new sense of purpose engendered by the resulting disappointment that made Grand Prix such a beautifully focused piece of work. So the band have been working hard to replicate that backs-against-the-wall atmosphere this time around, even though everyone likes them again now. The band's unusual working methods are a help in this respect. With three different songwriters, none of whom ever finish their lyrics till the last possible moment ("It makes life a bit less boring," says Norman), there is always going to be a certain amount of adrenaline around.
Isn't there a lot of rivalry and unpleasantness involved in deciding whose songs get used? Raymond shakes his head. "We hate any form of tension," he says earnestly. "It really spoils things."
However, into each band's life a little rain must fall. As the evening sky begins to soften, and the general excitement induced by Gerry's sighting of a hedgehog creeping round the patio finally subsides, a chaotic game of football ensues in the handsome gardens. In one of the more regrettable moments in the generally-quite-regrettable history of journalism, The Independent's representative on the field breaks Norman's glasses in the midst of a clumsy goalmouth challenge. This is just the first, and most trivial, of a chain of setbacks that delay the album's release for many months.
A contractual glitch prevents David Bianco from mixing the album as had originally been planned. (The band eventually end up doing it themselves with friend and Primal Scream collaborator George Shilling.) Paul's brother gets meningitis and, worst of all, the band's warm-hearted manager Chas Banks is struck down without warning by a rare spinal virus that leaves him confined to a wheelchair. By the time spring comes around, things are looking up again. Chas has negotiated a great new US deal with Columbia records, and the finished album is a winner.
The album that first brought Teenage Fanclub into the limelight, 1991's definitive Day-glo guitar-pop statement Bandwagonesque, was full of such verbal felicities. But as the band have moved on, they've cut down on this tendency a bit. Has that been in a deliberate bid for timelessness? "It's true that if you have a jokey lyric people don't tend to take the song seriously," Norman admits, "but I think it was more that I didn't really know what I wanted to write about at that time." The band's creative project is certainly well-established now: it's to write the most heartfelt love songs on the market.
Contrast the youthful uncertainty of Bandwagonesque's "Alcoholiday" ("There are things I want to say, but I don't know if they will be to you") with the monogamous fervour of "Your Love is the Place Where I Come From" and you have a very unusual thing in popular music: an authentic emotional progression. Don't Teenage Fanclub get nervous about wearing their hearts so blatantly on their sleeves? "If you think about the things you really like, and you want to do something that creates the same feeling, you can't afford to feel embarrassed," Raymond insists. "A lot of these people who are trying to be lads all the time, when you see them, they actually look pretty nervous."
Looking round at the men and women in the crowd at the band's triumphant show at the Astoria a couple of weeks ago, a lot of different expressions were on display - rapture, glee, undisguised yearning - but no one looks nervous. The new Teenage Fanclub single, the shimmering Byrdsian strum of Love's "Ain't That Enough", might even break their Top 30 hoodoo. "We've got to have a proper hit one day," Norman says afterwards, optimistically. "Everyone else has".
`Ain't That Enough' (Creation single) is out now. `Songs from Northern Britain' follows on 21 JulyReuse content