The Strange Ones: An Absorbing Look Back At Supergrass
When the weekly inkies reported that Supergrass had been approached by Steven Spielberg about fronting a Nineties take on The Monkees’ Sixties TV show, it didn’t actually seem that odd. Certainly not as odd as it does now. That hair and those bikes had been prime fodder for ITV’s video-driven Saturday morning Chart Show and their ascendancy amongst the blokey stodge of Britpop was glorious. The deliciously realised albums kept coming, even if the retro soul mood of their self-titled third seemed to slowly unhook them from the zeitgeist. The not insignificant evolution of a very fine band is documented in this exhaustive collection.
Its shortcomings are clear and should be addressed, most notably the decision to present as picture discs a series of records whose original vinyl editions are keenly sought by collectors. Not a format known for its high fidelity, the picture disc is, not entirely cryptically, rather lovely to look at and often fairly wretched to play. It should be said that the mastering of these marvellous songs is very good and they’re at the quieter end for the format, even though some surface noise is inevitably part of the package. It’s hard to imagine the label not using the same factory parts to bung out some traditional black vinyl pressings somewhere down the line, but it seems a bit of an opportunity missed here.
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However, get past that aesthetics-over-acoustics compromise and you’ll find an almost overwhelming library of delights. Everyone knows how great ‘I Should Coco’ is as a debut and it still possesses the uninhibited euphoria and sheer velocity that poured out of shitty multi-CD changers the length and breadth of the country, one summer twenty-five years ago. Remastering credits aren’t clear for the main albums, but the included version of their first is a fine example of the sympathetic mastering across this set which rights some of the wrongs done to Supergrass’ work in the past.
Follow up ‘In It For The Money’ is their highpoint, broadening the sonic palette and nodding towards the rhythmic drive of 1999’s ‘Supergrass’. That none of the diverse but wondrous tracks ‘It’s Not Me’, ‘Cheapskate’ and ‘G-Song’ were singles speaks to the standard on show, sitting alongside chart-botherers ‘Going Out’, ‘Sun Hits The Sky’ and ‘Richard III’. There’s so much more to this band than that piano riff. Although, potential purchasers of a £160+ box set are likely to be well aware of this.
Putting aside the pretty frisbees, what is provided to entice the already passionately converted? A quadruple-disc live anthology, a remarkably strong though not comprehensive 2CD B-sides collection and a whole album of demos and curios make quite a compelling pitch. The afore-referenced ‘Alright’ appears four times across the concert recordings, with the same batshit cry of recognition going up after mere seconds of its intro each time.
The discs offer a timely reminder of what a fine live band they were and soon will be again, a reunion tour providing the backdrop to this archive exercise. Acoustic sets at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and for Kerrang! Radio are especially exciting, recontextualising the familiar with an artful intimacy that truly showcases Gaz Coombes’ rich vocals.
Interview snippets from an early Mark Radcliffe session clearly reveal the source to be a tape playing back too fast and rendering the whole thing as an unwitting tribute to the debut’s ‘We’re Not Supposed To’. A slack error in a largely meticulous endeavour.
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The ‘Roots & Vines’ oddities disc is a fascinating listen once or twice but it firmly belongs in the ‘nice to have’ category from where it will receive a respectful nod whilst gathering dust. Overloaded, distorted 4-track sketches of ‘Caught By The Fuzz’ and ‘Richard III’ mingle with acoustic radio spots, garbled studio chatter and more conventional demos to lift a lid on an area logically left covered by its owners. Mick Quinn has assembled a seamless peek at the band’s inner workings, but even the hardcore will be hard-pushed to find much hoo-ha here.
The accompanying paraphernalia is rather sweet, with badges, reproduction posters and a seven inch containing two new remixes occupying a large, hand-stamped envelope which sits next to a glorious book featuring new sleevenotes from such journalistic luminaries as Everett True, Charles Shaar Murray and Sylvia Patterson. Indeed, the latter’s words on Supergrass’ third album should convince even the most misguided sceptic that it is a modern classic. The chance to explore unused aspects from artwork concepts, press clippings and assorted other miscellany makes for a pleasingly immersive fan experience. Accompanying literature can often be a deluxe edition’s downfall, but not so here.
Ultimately, the question with any box this size is whether it justifies its not inconsiderable cost and opting for picture discs as the vinyl versions hasn’t helped the case of ‘The Strange Ones’. However, think how easily a £30 picture disc reissue of ‘In It For The Money’ would have sold out amongst the Record Store Day trinkets, while a similar price might be commanded by the bumper live collection included.
Add five further vinyl titles, the complete album CD catalogue with endearing mastering, B-sides, demos alongside a rather fine textual accompaniment and the price tag makes more sense. If you want this set to provide your go-to turntable copies, you’re going to be disappointed, but if the chosen format is part of the fun then this is a package to treasure.
Whatever else this substantial undertaking might be, it is an opportunity to reiterate the majesty of their first five albums. ‘Life On Other Planets’ is often forgotten but it has so little fat on it and ‘Grace’, ‘Evening Of The Day’, ‘Seen The Light’ and ‘Rush Hour Soul’ are just four reasons to listen afresh. ‘Road To Rouen’ was oddly timeless upon release and finds Supergrass at their most wistful. It’s beautifully melancholic but much misunderstood. Their final album, ‘Diamond Hoo Ha’ is less likely to summon vast swathes of nostalgia but it holds up better than seemed likely upon its rather resigned release. Add in the deservedly praised opening trio of undeniable classics and it is quite a body of work. A little rough around the edges at times but great fun is perhaps a fitting final word on both the box set and Supergrass themselves.
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'Supergrass: The Strange Ones 1994 - 2008’ is out now.
Words: Gareth James
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