Monday, May 19, 2014

In Defense Of: Oasis

This In Defense Of was written by Square Zeros' Jon Mann.

Liam and Noel Gallagher, immediately before and/or
after absolutely hating each other.
One of the Internet's best musical offerings of this year has been Sam Huxley's ten-minute supercut of Noel Gallagher's best comments from Time Flies, Oasis's 2010 box set, which includes a full DVD of Oasis music videos.  If you question whether Oasis needs to be "defended," you need look only as far as Noel Gallagher, because there is no single greater critic of Oasis that its own guitarist and principle songwriter. (Henceforth, Noel Gallagher will be referred to simply as "Gallagher", as he's the one that actually matters.)

Huxley's supercut of Noel's DVD commentary is a hilarious mash-up of Gallagher calling "bullshit" on his own band's decisions over, and over, and over again.  However, outside of Gallagher himself, there are entire camps devoted to breaking Oasis down: general listeners who think they sound too much like The Beatles (yawn); more deft listeners who point out that Gallagher actually steals riffs and melodies from a number of bands (originality is a myth — continue yawn); Britpop enthusiasts who hate Oasis for not being Pulp, or Suede, or Blur; and, of course, Radiohead fans, due to the war of words between the Gallagher brothers (both Noel and Liam) and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, which has been covered admirably by Steven Hyden of the A.V. Club.

Here's my predicament: when writers want to speak favorably (typically of early Oasis), they often invoke the image of the band as wayward hooligans writing coke-fueled, whiskey-soaked rockers with the occasional break for a perfect pop ballad.  Alternately, when they want to speak negatively (typically of mid-to-late Oasis), they often blame the band for being wayward hooligans writing overblown songs — you know, because they're so coked up — or phoning it in — on account of being so whiskey-soaked.  Gallagher himself commonly says of both his best and worst songs that he was drunk when he wrote them, so when we get to the bottom of all the rhetoric, we really have to listen for ourselves.

So let's start with the critical consensus: 1994's Definitely Maybe and 1995's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? are accepted as great records.  As recently as 2006, a reader's poll for NME claimed Definitely Maybe "the best album of all time," edging out Sgt. Pepper's, Revolver, OK Computer, and — at number five, wait for iiiit — Morning Glory.  Now: a poll that puts two Oasis albums before Nevermind (creeping in at #6) is obviously suspect.  That said, this indicates a certain level of musical success beyond "Wonderwall."

Indeed, an opener like "Rock 'n' Roll Star" reaches outside of a narrow Britpop designation to broader rock aspirations.  I hear Bob Mould-esque wall-to-wall guitars: trade one nasal singer for another, and you’ve got a solid cut off Copper Blue.  And just like a Bob Mould song, it doesn’t know when to end.  It’s not necessarily strong enough to justify its bloated five-minute length, but it’s good, and it gets weird enough at the end to intimate that there might be something deeper to listen to on the rest of the record.

"Live Forever", the best-known track off of Definitely Maybe, was an instant classic that I refuse to admit needs defense.  The only great critique of this song that needed to be written has been written.  It perfectly captures the ambivalence of hating on a song that's perfectly written, and you can find it here.  From the first listen, "Live Forever" comes off as timeless, despite being written specifically by Gallagher in response to the overwhelming, cloying melancholy found in contemporary grunge lyrics across the Atlantic.  Beyond these two hits, there is a lot of solid, fun guitar rock to be found on the record, with Gallagher deftly sampling from his idols: "Up In the Sky" is a solid rocker that borrows a riff from "Taxman"; "Cigarettes & Alcohol" is a tongue-in-cheek reprisal of "Bang a Gong"; "Bring It On Down" ends in a last act that satisfies with Gallagher and rhythm guitarist Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs trading and ultimately blending their instrumentation.

Don't get me wrong: I get why you don't like Wonderwall.
Morning Glory brought us the maddeningly simple and perfect "Wonderwall", which is probably Oasis's most beloved and most hated song.  Indeed, “Wonderwall” is on a short list for "Best Songs That Everyone in the World is Allowed to Hate."  Pros: Any guitarist can play its suspended chords, and any vocalist can sing its unforgettable melody.  Cons: Any guitarist can play its suspended chords, and any vocalist can sing its unforgettable melody.  It was truly its ubiquity in 1995 and beyond that wore on people.

My verdict?  Whatever.  Get over it.  It’s gentle, and melodic, and beautifully crafted.  It uses strings without ostentation.  Though people might oversell it when they cover it, Liam Gallagher really isn't hamming up the vocals.  Let's put it this way: if I turn it off when it comes on in my car, that’s not a denial of its inherent merits, it’s some form of cowardice that I fight but ultimately accept in myself for being unreceptive to such an objectively excellent song.

For that matter, following that song up with the equally perfect “Don’t Look Back In Anger” proved Oasis to be real sons-of-bitches.  This one-two punch absolutely defined mid-90s music, and could have defined mid-60s music.  Could it have been "imagined" without The Beatles?  No.  Do I care?  Still no.  It’s perfect.

While I don’t mind talking about the enormous hits on this record, the title track “Morning Glory” is an absolute slaughter.  If you don’t like that song, you don't like rock and roll.  Gallagher takes half the opening riff of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” and makes it louder than God.  The guitars rage the entire time, creating a wash under the vocals to cloud your mind.  The chopper sounds at the beginning are awesome.  Everywhere With Helicopter, indeed.

Most critics position Oasis's downward turn at the overblown, overproduced pack of songs that made up 1997's anxiously anticipated Be Here Now.  They point to the bloated length of the songs, which average over six minutes(!).  They're not wrong: this record is a drop-off from the first two; however, there's material for salvage.  "My Big Mouth" — which Hyden called “moronic” in the article linked above — storms out like a big, bad Neil Young song to me.  Deeper into the record, “Stand By Me” has a flow to it and an interesting rhythmic hiccup in the chorus.  Is the orchestral accompaniment necessary?  No.  But there are strengths here, dammit!

After Be Here Now, a lot of people stopped paying attention, which is a shame, because 2000's Standing on the Shoulder of Giants is a weird album, where the band took a significant departure from their established sound by integrating samples, psychedelia, and electronica.  Whether one gives a shit about Oasis, it’s definitely an interesting album that often sounds drastically different than anything before it.  Record-scratching on an Oasis album?  A questionable proposition.  But if Be Here Now sounded like a coke dream, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants — despite its new sonic means — sounds a lot tighter and more controlled.  “Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” comes in like “TNT” by AC/DC, all simple drums and chunky guitars.  Consider it the spiritual successor to “Morning Glory,” which I hope to have already convinced you is awesome.  “Gas Panic!” is stranger, spacier, and moodier, reaching toward The Cure and perhaps Massive Attack.  “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” brings that Neil Young sound back into the studio.  It doesn’t have the strength or staying power of a Young track, but there’s heart in the guitars.

Nope.  Not touching Heathen Chemistry (2002).  That's for a better man than I to defend.

Which is a shame, because Oasis enjoyed something of a return to form with 2005's Don’t Believe The Truth.  “Mucky Fingers” takes the chugging piano of Velvet Underground's “Waiting For the Man” and lays some Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg-style vocals over it.  And some nice harmonica.  Hell, I also don’t mind the big, fresh-sounding vocals on the subsequent track “Lyla".

The guys in Oasis sound surprisingly present on this record for (purportedly) not having given a shit in years.  This owed, perhaps, to a loosening of control by Gallagher, who finally began allowing the other members of the band to contribute as songwriters.  That said, I just told you I liked two Noel Gallagher-written cuts.  Heh, whoops.  Anyway, moving along, “The Importance of Being Idle” brings a nice dose of Muswell Hillbiliies-era Kinks into the mix, with its rambling vocals, twangy guitars, and loose drums.  “The Meaning of Soul” is a nice, surprisingly short (read: not very Oasis) track.

Maybe this is the Oasis record for non-Oasis fans.  “Part of the Queue” updates the Oasis sound by mingling a bit of a Badly Drawn Boy sound into it.  “A Bell Will Ring” sounds, perhaps exactly as it should, like a positive rocker by a band that’s been around a long time.  It reminds me of one of the better tracks you'd hear on a recent-ish Pearl Jam record: it pales somewhat compared to their early work, but it’d still be one of the better things on a traditional modern rock radio-formatted station.  You’d be pleased to hear it in your car.

Unfortunately, 2008's Dig Up Your Soul didn't continue the upswing I felt from Don't Believe the Truth.  For what it's worth, "The Shock of the Lightning" is a strong track that shows that Oasis can still rock out when necessary, and "Soldier On" is a nice, trippy album closer.

That said, Oasis does seem to be the sort of band that was always a bit better when they weren't overthinking things, and the 1998 B-sides compilation The Masterplan is worth picking up.  “Acquiesce” is a (relatively) lo-fi rocker featuring both Gallaghers singing in a way that frames their individual vocal talents, and “Underneath the Sky” is a melancholic rocker with weird, uncustomarily dark guitars: think The Cure covering a psychedelic Beatles cut.  “Fade Away” is one of those great, straightforward stompers that stick to the tape in a way that just screams out that they play it loud as all hell live.  The sonic texture of “(It’s Good) To Be Free” holds a lot of power between its big, gainy guitars that feedback gently and quavering, tremulous leads, and “Headshrinker” riffs as close to punk as anything Oasis would ever write.  Before you think that’s a strange departure from Oasis’s sound that shouldn’t work, consider exactly how snotty and nasal Liam Gallagher’s vocals are.  Okay, now listen again.

In a way, I think it's a shame (though often an awesome, hilarious shame) that Noel Gallagher has created a space in which listeners are allowed to dismiss Oasis songs as some trite bullshit that he wrote while pissed, just because he tritely wrote some of them while pissed.  For me, Oasis was always one of those bands that was almost preternaturally talented in finding the right melody and couching it within a song that revamped sounds and attitudes from which great rock and roll of the past was born.  Maybe they aren't in it anymore.  But maybe they were for at least a decade after you stopped paying attention, or maybe you never listened past that guy in your high school class who couldn't stop playing "Wonderwall".  I wouldn't give up so easily.

— JM

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Derek Hawkins, In Defense Of: Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus 
Jon Mann, In Defense Of: Foo Fighters 

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