Supergrass (Island)

Jun 28, 2000 at 4:00 am
From their earliest singles, Supergrass seemed perfectly cast as the jesters in the Britpop court. Their debut, the frenetic "Caught by the Fuzz," recounted a youthful episode of drug use and its consequences, which were presumably fresh in the memory of still-teenage frontman Gaz Coombes. The sunny "Alright" was further preoccupied with the concerns of youth: "We get up/We go out/smoke a fag/put it out," they sang ("fag" being British slang for "cigarette"). Supergrass seemed like the perfect foil to the cynicism of Blur and the often-empty grandeur of Oasis: young, unpretentious and, most of all, funny.

No less a personage than Steven Spielberg approached the band about starring in a Monkees-style big-screen caper, but, indicative of their approaching maturity, they declined. Indeed, many commentators overlooked the inventive melodies and assured performances of the singles and I Should Coco, their amazing 1995 debut album, preferring instead to focus on Coombes' freakishly huge sideburns.

Supergrass themselves soon grew tired of being considered a novelty act. Their second LP, In It for the Money (1997), was a more considered affair and had its share of solid guitar rock and affecting melodies. Alas, a serious sophomore hangover set in among the fans; earnestly attempting to enjoy the new record while gazing longingly at I Should Coco up on the shelf, many befuddled listeners wondered, "Why can't they make another one like that?" Instead of the Monkees, they were now Woody Allen: "The new stuff's all right, but we liked you better when you were funny." But the album still sold well, and their reputation as one of the most exciting live bands in Britain remained untarnished.

Two years later -- a veritable eon in British pop terms -- came this self-titled album, now belatedly released here in the States. Tempering some of the capital-R Rock seriousness that made In It for the Money such a harsh comedown, Supergrass seems ready to have fun again. The first single, "Pumping on Your Stereo," is built around a Stonesy riff as catchy and energetic as anything they've done since the first album. The band's attitude toward such hijinks is still ambivalent -- their Web site describes the song as "released to annoy the hell out of everyone" and "written in ten minutes" -- but "Pumping on Your Stereo" is clearly Supergrass doing what they do best.

Much of Supergrass has a piano-based bounce that recalls nobody in particular but sounds instantly familiar, as if every pop hit recorded in the '70s were melted down into one song and speeded up a little. It helps that the Supergrass gift for memorable melodies is in full effect. "What Went Wrong (In Your Head)" manages to be both hummable and ominous; "Jesus Came from Outta Space" is so catchy and intuitive that it feels like a standard the first time you hear it.

Most important, this album goes. The worst thing about In It for the Money was the cluttered production, which burdened some of the album's energy with a mass of guitar tracks. The leaner sound on Supergrass spotlights the rhythm section and the piano, and the results are much the better for it. Even a slower song like "Mary" (with its classic '70s electric-piano sound) has a spare drive that In It for the Money often lacked.

There are some dull moments on Supergrass. A few tracks waft past with little noticeable effect, and anyone expecting high-energy punk-pop like "Caught by the Fuzz" should save her money for the next Bis record or pick up a Buzzcocks reissue. But on the whole, this album is more pure fun than what most of their peers are up to these days.

With characteristic disregard for flaunting the "right" influences, Supergrass has somehow made some great '90s pop that takes some of its cues from such monsters as Elton John and Fleetwood Mac. A record that sounds like that shouldn't be this good.