Nominee #3 – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, SourMash/Mercury Records
Anyone who knows me — well, anyone who’s known me since the mid 1990s — knows that I’m a bit of an Oasis fan.
I might take it one step further and refer to myself as an “Oasis Apologist.” That could seem harsh, but, truth is, that band has a serious legion of haters. And they exist in different degrees. Some loved “Wonderwall” but hated the egotistical ramblings of the Gallagher brothers. Others think they’re derivative trad-rock, unworthy of being lumped in with any credible English rock outfit, and were the pricks who introduced the lunkheaded, English version of douchebag to the world: The Lad. There are others who actually liked the band, long ago, but watched with detached amusement as they imploded and became a band that released mediocre album after mediocre album, before breaking up exactly how we’d all expect that they would: Gallagher vs. Gallagher.
There’s a bit of truth to any of the reasons mentioned above. (Truth be told, those three are a small sampling. I’ve heard more than that in one night at the bar.) The Gallaghers were/are egotistical loudmouths. As they should be, damnit. Anyone who gets into a band — a ROCK band — and says that they don’t want to be the greatest or most respected so-and-sos in the history of whatever are either nuts or liars. Anyone with a friend in a band will marvel at that friend’s confidence and balls to get up on stage and potentially make an ass of themselves in front of a bar full of drunks and morons. I sure have. I wish I had a tenth of the cojones that some of the fine folks I’ve called friends have who are able to play a show. “Bigger than the Beatles?” Fuck yes! Go for it! Rock and roll is about tearing down the heroes. It’s about energy. I also like John Lydon.
And yes, “lad culture” got pretty out of control there for a while. Hell, even I read Loaded Magazine for a bit. But the lunkheads moved on as soon as Oasis slipped, even a little. Those of us who stuck by aren’t morons. At least not all the time. And yes, Morning Glory WAS a great album, and Be Here Now was simply okay. And the ones that followed had some dud moments. But, they were still more gratifying and memorable than most (if not all) of the bands influenced by the first two Oasis full lengths. (I’m looking at you, Travis… “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” Christ.)
To the relief of many, Noel walked out. And while most of us figured that he would be the one who would be first out of the gate with the obligatory solo LP (Shit, he’d been talking a possible solo album for years.) it was Liam (the under-achiever, supposedly) who struck first — with the rest of Oasis MK 2.4 in tow — with the Beady Eye album, Different Gear, Still Speeding release early in 2011. (And I will talk about that one later, but it’s Noel’s turn now.) Meanwhile, Noel went silent. Well, quiet, maybe.
Finally, late in the year, Noel Gallagher’s Flying Birds arrived. Reviews for Beady Eye had been strong, so things were ripe for comparison. Some were quick to claim that Noel’s foray into solo-hood was lacking in experimentation and depth, that it was Liam — of all people — who proved to be the real fire of the Oasis legacy. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I got into Oasis because of Noel. I had heard Definitely Maybe and thought it was pretty weak. (I should add here that, at that time, I was insanely anti-English rock. I was drowning in a sea of American hardcore, Bob Mould, Rollins spoken word, and anything Dischord.) I liked the “Morning Glory” track and “Wonderwall,” but I couldn’t get over that voice of Liam’s. I didn’t understand the swagger of the frontman role he was displaying. One night, however, I stumbled upon a MTV showing of the Undrugged performance (I think that’s what it was…) with Noel on lead vocals and Liam up in some balcony nursing a sore throat with cigarettes, booze, and Patsy Kensit. (All items that might chafe you.) Suddenly, it hit me. Ah ha! This is the guy that writes the songs, and he can sing them! Without having to poke his chin out and walk around like a thug. Okay, I’ll try again. The story gets complicated from there, but suffice it to say, by 1998 I was sold. The final knockout blow was finally hearing “Acquiesce.” I was all, like, best band of the Nineties! Mad fer it! Etc., Etc., Etc., I spent much of the next few years listening to Oasis and getting drunk. They go well together.
But I digress…
I picked up Beady Eye. I listened to it. I reserve my comments for later.
I waited for Noel’s response. It showed up at the store on a big enough week that it could have gotten lost in the shuffle of all I had picked up that day. But after one listen, then another, I was convinced. It was Noel that had moved away from what had become Oasis. High Flying Birds is less over-baked Beatles and more… Noel. It’s considerably less cluttered than the last two Oasis albums, leading one (me) to think that perhaps it was Liam’s need to seem like the “Lennon” of the group that the band was pushed into rather lackluster sonic territory, sacrificing songs for sound. And not pulling it off. Yes, it’s a subtle record. But this is the guy who wrote some of the better ballads in 1990s English rock. He’s still writing catchy tunes, no matter what tempo, and while his “descendants” get lost in over-wrought melodic patterns, Noel keeps it simple. He’s no dummy, this is what made the early Oasis such a force. It wasn’t about experimentation, per se, it was about building up from great songs. That was the failing of Be Here Now — great songs slathered in a thick layer of Caddyshack sized piles of cocaine-addled, uh… “creativity.” This is the document of an artist comfortable with his own legacy, and willing to be influenced by it.
“Everybody’s On the Run,” the opener, is classic Noel. It’s that whole “you against them” vibe, simply done, well produced, and — if possible — gently anthemic. “Dream On” manages to erase the bad feelings that “Mucky Fingers” gave me on Don’t Believe the Truth, and if there’s one criticism that might pop up, it could be that that “gentle anthem” trend, further exemplified by track three, “If I Had a Gun…” is Noel not trying hard enough. But how many times have we, as music critics, hailed some troubled — or newly solo artist — when they release their “freedom” record, which is packed to the gills with anthems, both gentle and bombastic? Come on, this is Noel, free of the constraints of the Oasis “brand,” free to explore ideas without a certain detractor — who would probably shoot down any good idea if his vitriol against his older brother was at critical mass.
The fun side of Noel is here too. “The Death of You and Me” is pure English rock/music hall straight out of his musical education. Yeah, there are strings on the album. Yes, there are painfully obvious peons to the Kinks, Beatles, and… Oasis. If you had a strong musical pedigree surrounding you, wouldn’t you let yourself be influenced by it? Seems natural to me. Even those that “fight the system” have influences. To be fair, the only time Noel explores the bombast of his former guise is on the closer, “Stop the Clocks,” which originally saw the light of day as an Oasis tune.
The standout on High Flying Birds, is the side two opener, “Aka… What a Life!” Fact is, the best Noel Gallagher tunes were NOT straight up Beatles (if one takes a moment, it’s important to remember that it was Liam that was hell-bent on hitching his legacy to the Fab Four) rip-offs, they were the tunes that made you walk with your chin held a little higher, the ones that gave you the gumption to chat up that girl at the bar, the one you sang along with with your friends (probably at that same bar.) It’s probably the most “Noel” track and the least of what you’d expect from him, all at once. Funky guitars, a danceable (!) beat, additional guitars that don’t sound quadruple-tracked, this is the song on the record that proved — to me — that this was the album that best explained how Oasis happened.
What’s next? Who knows. It would seem that Noel has a lot less to lose than Liam. Noel can assemble any band he wants. (Hell, I’d like to see him do a show with Bonehead and Guigsy, but that’s not gonna happen.) Since Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, I’d been enjoying Oasis albums, but not loving them. I love this album.
Score: 9 out of 10. No prizes for guessing that Beady Eye won’t measure up to this.