Playing God
Teenage Fanclub: Thirteen

teenage Fanclub are not a terribly idiosyncratic band in many ways, but they are a band it’s easy to be idiosyncratic about. Three strong songwriters, a wealth of amazing songs and the kind of stylistic non-progression that (as much as I love them) screams “cult act!” means that fans of the Fannies can get into many a good natured debate about the merits of this or that album or song.

One thing that’s generally agreed on, though, is that 1993’s Thirteen is one of their weakest moments, especially coming on the heels of the triumph that was Bandwagonesque. Well, I don’t like Bandwagonesque nearly as much as I like everything that came after it. And although I think Thirteen as released is too scattered and weighed down with subpar efforts to really be a great album, many of the songs stuck within rank with the Fannies’ best for me (how ‘Gene Clark’, for example, didn’t make their recent anthology I’ll never know).

So here we have my openly idiosyncratic reorganization of Thirteen, boosted by a few key b-sides but shorn down to 11 tracks and a sleek 42 minutes and change. I’m not even pretending to go for consensus here: This is what I wanted the album to be like, and I’m sure many will disagree.

In fact, before I begin, a brief word on one of the missing songs: While I agree that ‘Norman 3’ has a certain kind of blissfully dumb genius, I think it would have worked best as a non-album single. So it’s not here.

01. Ret Liv Dead (2:09, from album)
One of the key things about Thirteen to me is their expert if sparing use of strings on some of the tracks. This brief Norman Blake stomper is a good example of same, and during the refrain they’ve absolutely swoonsome. A nice quick punchy start to the album, Blake singing of someone who “[says] you need her/but she don’t need you”.

02. Tears Are Cool (3:48, from album)
I firmly believe that, as god as their fast songs are, Teenage Fanclub is essentially a midtempo band. And unlike many fans, I like Raymond McGinley the most of the three main songwriters. Why? Because each of the songs he sings in his almost sullen, rougher voice sound like a cynic awakening to the possibility of romance again. And that’s exactly what ‘Tears Are Cool’ is about: “I might say ‘who cares?’/but I know you do/you’re the one who knows/all my lies aren’t true”. Plus the moment three minutes in where Brendan O’Hare comes in with the kickdrum under the jangly bits is classic.

03. Golden Glades (4:31, from ‘Norman 3’ single)
Speaking of O’Hare, this is one of his (few) songs. The only person I know of to play with both Teenage Fanclub and Mogwai (during the ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ era, no less), O’Hare is a pretty damned good drummer on this album, and ‘Golden Glades’ is not only a great b-side, it’s a great song. Given that the constant guitar churn of the original Thirteen got a bit monotonous at times, this also adds a bit more variety to the album, both because it’s O’Hare’s voice rather than the normal three, and because this bass-lead beauty is much mellower than most of the Thirteen material.

04. Radio (2:56, from album)
Two slower ones in a row, though, means it’s time for a patented Gerard Love barnstormer. Someone who had never heard the album before might hear the six-second acoustic intro and think the record’s stuck in a rut, but then everything hits and Love sings “I think I’ll kill the radio/don’t wanna hear this song” and offwe go. One of the great things about the original Thirteen has how much of Love’s bass playing you could hear under the guitar scree, and the brief, rocking ‘Radio’ is a great example. It’s what’s really driving the song.

05. 120 Minutes (3:07, from album)
More McGinley, more jangle; given that the immortal Byrds homage ‘Gene Clark’ occurs later in the album, two songs of jangle out of eleven isn’t too much, I think. Originally I thought this was a twin to Love’s criminally dreary ‘Song To The Cynic’, but after listing all the things he doesn’t want to be, McGinley sings “I just want to see your/face again/be my friend” with such yearning I get a bit misty. That most of the “don’t wanna”s are contradictory (“I don’t want another drink/I don’t wanna have to think”) adds to the charm.

06. Fear Of Flying (5:24, from album)
I seem to recall that in an old NME they said there should be an award given out when Teenage Fanclub release albums for the song with the best-placed use of the word “fuck”. While I think McGinley’s ‘Verisimiltude’ from Grand Prix has a lock on the title, this unexpectedly tough Gerard Love ballad comes close: “this is your one-way ticket/so don’t fuck it up” isn’t exactly what I was expecting the first time I heard this, nor was “don’t always look for comfort in a song”. It’s a beautiful tune, though, and the end part where a whistle blows and then a Hammond comes in and a crowd of Loves chant “hey hey hey” only sweetens the deal.

07. Get Funky (1:23, from album)
O’Hare’s other composition included here, if only for two things: the voice sample saying “Howdy disco citizen!” cracks my shit up every time, and the minute of riffing that follows is actually really fucking catchy. More great bass, and the end bit with handclaps is doubleplusgood. A brief breather after ‘Fear Of Flying’ that also breaks up another span of a few slower ones.

08. The Cabbage (2:56, from album)
I love Norman Blake, but only two of his songs from this era made it into this version (see comment on ‘Norman 3’ above). This is great, though, and one of my favorite break-up songs of all time: ‘we were together/but now we’re not/asked you for nothing/that’s what I got… are we together?/I guess we’re not/do you still want me?/that’s what I thought’ is brutal in its simplicity. The inexorable kickdrum stomp and surging guitar are great too, even if it’s hard not to wince when Blake sings “it’s okay/even better this way/that’s what they tell you/that’s what they’ll say”.

09. Gene Clark (6:36, from album)
This worked fine as the original album’s closer. But I’ve got a different culprit in mind for that, so it gets put in as the beginning of the end instead. As readers of past Playing Gods may have noted, I like albums with discrete ending sequences. ‘Gene Clark’ is a great three minute long, fainting pop song. It just happens to be preceded with three and a half minutes of some of my favorite guitar work outside of a Television album. It’s extremely reminiscent of Neil Young’s electric sound circa Weld, but that’s a (very, very) good thing. The most “epic” thing the Fannies have ever done, and my favorite long track of theirs (yes, I do think it’s better than the admittedly great ‘The Concept’). Love’s closing refrain of “no matter what you do/it all returns to you/no matter what you say/we’ll do it all some day” makes for a lovely tribute to a great songwriter and, by all accounts I’ve read, a truly decent guy.

10. Weird Horses (4:23, from ‘Radio’ single)
After that wall of noise, a return to simplicity, and McGinley’s last contribution to my version of Thirteen. Starting with only guitar and voice and staying that way for roughly half the duration, with Love then pitching in subtle bass shading and eventually the whole band dropping by, ‘Weird Horses’ nails precisely the same McGinley feel I described above. The first time it got to the point where McGinley sings “when I feel like I’m fucked up/if I feel like the stars have been stuck up/and somewhere behind time has snuck up/you call by/to say hi” as it was his salvation, the hairs rose on the back of my neck. If you find McGinley’s aching adenoidal rasp not to your taste, well… it’s my Playing God. Tough nuts. I love it, personally. And no, I don’t know why this song is called that either.

11. Hang On (5:05, from album)
Just as ‘Gene Clark’ was a fine ending to the original Thirteen, ‘Hang On’ made a pretty awesome first song. But it works even better, in my opinion, as a summing up. After an opening with the prettiest harmony on the album and just the right mix of abandon (“of all the stars I’ve ever seen/you’re the sun”) and wariness (“I’ve not forgotten all the tricks you’ve done/I just need someone”) to encapsulate the feel of an alternately lovelorn and bitter album, a tentative flute starts up and it and some strings lock in to carry the song up into the stars. A soaring end to what is now, in my opinion, the great album it should have been.

Plus, really, the album really should end with the music subsiding, three seconds of silence, and then a polite Scottish voice saying “OK?” It’s just too perfect.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-03-11
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