Ben Gibbard has produced a record which will appeal to himself… and that’s about it. This cover of Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque is one of the least essential albums this year.
|Artist: Ben Gibbard
Album Title: Bandwagonesque
Genre: Indie Rock
There are few instances in musical history where artists have been permitted to so wholly demonstrate their devotion to and adoration of their favourite album as plainly Ben Gibbard’s new cover album of Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. I can understand the appeal to Gibbard, and as a musician myself if I ever had the chance to record my own version of Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights I’d jump at the chance. I’d also like the think I’d have enough self-awareness to know an album like that would appeal to only one person in the world (no prizes for guessing who).
So with Gibbard’s cover album here the prime question on everyone’s lips should be: why should anybody care about this project? It’s a classic example of self-indulgence from a man who’s got enough industry cred, experience, time and money to be able to make this record, but from a consumer point of view, what’s the point of us getting invested in someone who’s doing nothing but indulging their musical fantasies and demonstrating their undying fandom? I’m sure it was fun for Gibbard but that doesn’t necessitate it will be any fun for us.
Let’s go back to the original Teenage Fanclub version. Having listened to it for the first time last week I was decidedly underwhelmed. I’m sure at the time (1991) this would have seriously tapped into the musical zeitgeist of the moment. The album comes straight out of the alternative-rock underground, blending contemporary shoegaze-leaning, lo-fi guitar-led stoner sounds with an injection of Beatles and Velvet Underground inspired melodies. Tonally it’s akin to early REM but is more lax in that 90s pizza boy slacker kind of way. Did anyone care about anything in the early-to-mid-90s? The album is so painfully of its time it’s genuinely awkward to listen to. While their contemporaries like Pavement have aged well in large part due to their comedy, or My Bloody Valentine due to their innovation and accomplished (if homogenous) sound, Teenage Fanclub disappeared as quickly as the musical fads and penchants they adhered to.
It’s because of the nature of the original album’s musical ingredients that makes it such an ill fit for Gibbard. I’m a big fan of Gibbard’s main band, Death Cab for Cutie, and one of their defining characteristics is how safe and clean their sound is. The band’s weakest moments have always come when they tried to experiment or be less tightly-wound. Because of Gibbard’s logical mentality and his scientist’s brain he is literally incapable of producing muddy music (that doesn’t like it’s been painstakingly produced to sound muddy). As a consequence when Gibbard covers the dirtier tracks on Bandwagonesque like ‘Satan’ it feels like your ears are being boxed by two cold, flat, floppy pancakes.
Gibbard’s strengths, and therefore the record’s strengths, revolve around melody, and he’s on much surer footing on tracks like ‘Star Sign’ and ‘December’. It’s nice to listen to but always undercut by the feeling that any initial power the original had with these tracks is diminished in transition. Part of the problem is his vocals, uncharacteristically lacklustre, like a man who doesn’t believe the words he’s singing (strange for someone producing their favourite album, no?). Therefore his guitar playing shines through in place, which is a nice surprise as it’s not often he gets to demonstrate such proficiency with the instrument.
This is an album I would only recommend to people who like both Teenage Fanclub and Death Cab for Cutie, and even that would be with reservations. ‘Guiding Star’ towards the back end of the album almost makes it all worth it, but ultimately there won’t be many albums more skippable than Bandwagonesque this year.