Ash - Free All Angels
Ash started as teen prodigies...or, more accurately, a group of teenagers with a lot of potential who were hyped so much by magazines like NME and record executives that they were accepted as prodigies. Unfortunately, their songwriting skills were woefully undeveloped, full of huge, sloppy melodies that attempted to be like the Ramones and just came off as amateur and desperate. Nonetheless, their debut, Trailer, showed admirable energy, and their sophomore album, 1977 was a bit of a cult hit, especially in England. The follow-up, Nu-Clear Sounds, was more middling than inexperienced, with only the unrelenting two-chord charge of the roaring opener "Jesus Says" to recommend the album. The rest of the album was shockingly short of decent melodies and riffs, a rather large problem for a self-styled punk-pop outfit. After listening to Nu-Clear Sounds, I distinctly remember thinking that there was a really good band hidden underneath that mediocrity that could reveal itself at any moment. However, I had no idea their next album would be the punk-pop equivalent of Radiohead's seminal release The Bends. While not yet domestically released (and their website gives new indication of an intention in that direction), Ash’s Free All Angels is the runaway best album of the year so far. The difference between Angels and their previous work is equivalent to the difference between Rubber Soul and Please Please Me.
The first thing I read about Angels was from a British monthly where "Burn Baby Burn" was called the best single of the year, and it wasn’t even summer yet. Incredulous, I downloaded the song off the internet, and, I cannot overestimate this, the song was great, the type of undeniably solid and well-written song that bespeaks of true writing talent instead of fluke inspiration. "Burn Baby Burn" is the type of song that can revive faith in an entire musical genre, let alone jumpstart a career. Nonetheless, I decided to buy the album when it was released domestically because, as "Jesus Says" on Nu-Clear Sounds had adequately proven (and, to lesser degree, "Goldfinger" on 1977), Ash had the tendency to create a truly fantastic single without supporting it with a complete or even mediocre album. That is until, out of curiosity, I downloaded another song at random from the album, just to be sure, and soon "Cherry Bomb" was blasting from my speakers. My first thought upon hearing it was, "I'm sure Joey Ramone is smiling somewhere."
So, I spent a small fortune to import the album from Japan. I have a bad history of importing albums from Japan, as Japanese copies of monumentally overrated disasters like Manic Street Preachers’ "This My Truth Tell Me Yours" can attest. This purchase, however, is the musical equivalent of a new model Jaguar: it may have cost a lot, but, by God, it was worth it. My comparison to Radiohead’s The Bends is apt in that both albums, while not having any unifying structure or subject, contain roughly eight fantastic songs and then some other ones which you never listen to again. I am much more thankful for such revelations as "Sometimes" and "Submission" than I am indignant on having spent money on unconsidered filler like "Shark" and "World Domination".
There are no original thoughts or innovations on Angels; its greatness relies shamelessly on melodies so well-crafted that they make the average ‘N Sync single sound as catchy as Trout Mask Replica. A review of Angels not based exclusively around the individual songs’ merits would have to rely on the imaginary artistic statements or irrelevant personal facts of the group. The album starts out with the impressive trio of "Walking Barefoot", "Shining Light", and "Burn Baby Burn". The first two are cliche but peerless odes to immature, naive love, while "Burn Baby Burn" is a vicious tornado of a punk-pop song, the type of aural Trojan Horse that Blink 182 has been endlessly trying to create and failing so miserably at, a pissed-off, intelligent autopsy of a destructive relationship. Then, like Tony Orlando and Dawn following the Sex Pistols, comes the maudlin "Candy", at first one of the album’s more uncomfortable tracks. Riding along dumbly on a faux-Britney Spears keyboard riff, the song starts off pretty bad , only to be saved by an elegant chorus. It is a close call. Luckily, Ash was wily enough to follow "Candy" with the godlike "Cherry Bomb", a song which loosely translates to what Brian Wilson’s best material would sound like if it was made today. It is followed by the most surprising track of the album, the Shaun Ryder-inspired "Submission". By adapting Happy Mondays’ and Black Grape’s intoxicated funk and clumsy sensuality to their style, Ash has created in "Submission" one of the catchiest and most debauched songs of 2001; if they are so inclined, the song works perfectly as a blueprint for their next album. Unfortunately, "Submission" is followed by another dry spell, as the saccharine, Sound of Music-esque ballad "Someday", the dumb beach-rock "Pacific Palisades", and the frankly awful Soundgarden-lite "Shark" all have nothing to offer. This trio of swill is followed by another trio of songs as good as the previous three were rote. "Sometimes" is possibly the most mature song on the album and least punk of the pop numbers, the type of conflicted rock ballad that people like Bryan Adams make in their dreams, where they are not fifteenth rate hacks. "Nicole" is perhaps the most subtle of the great songs on the album. Built on the type of grimey guitar riff that needs careful handling and good production for it to work, "Nicole" pines a sinister note, referencing the story of "Hey Joe" with the nonchalant killer of Hendrix’s classic replaced by Dostoevsky’s conflicted Raskolnikov. It is the type of tenuous song that could go either way, but Ash manages to pull off the tightrope act and deliver a great track."There’s A Star" is a confident ballad that exposes "Someday" for the desperate tripe it is. The album should have ended with "There’s A Star", as the flagrantly precious punk number "World Domination" ends the album on a lame ironic note.
The question on an album such as this is if the bright spots make up for the lack of overall cohesiveness and originality on the album; in the case of Free All Angels, there is no doubt it does. The eight worthwhile songs range from merely good ("There a Star") to song of the year contenders ("Cherry Bomb" "Submission" "Burn Baby Burn"), and the five lackluster tracks are more misguided or unconsidered than truly offensive abominations. The eight best songs are so good that it almost completely compensates for the remainder, and it would be criminal to paint an overly critical picture of this album. Free All Angels, in terms of songwriting, verve, and all-round quality is heads and shoulders above any other album released this year.
- Matthew Randazzo