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THE BLUETONES

Return To The Last Chance Saloon
(Superior Quality/All formats)

"MONDAY... COUNT ALL THE TEETH in my head...
Tuesday... anointed by a man in a dress...
Wednesday... got pissed..."

So sings Mark Morriss on The Bluetones' new single. And after a few days living with their new album, that's roughly how your friendly neighbourhood reviewer feels trying to find inspiration, take heart, get hard or make sense and sensibility out of such a uniquely underwhelming band.

Which is all the more frustrating when faced with the fact that at its best this is a very fine record by a band who still frequently promise greatness. The trouble with The Bluetones, you are tempted to conclude after a while, is that they are so easy to like, always demand your respect, and invariably sustain your interest. But you can't imagine ever loving them.

They just never quite get that far into your head, and rarely seem to touch your heart. Still, smashing tunes, though. Sometimes.

Like 'Tone Blooze' and 'Unpainted Arizona', for example. These first two tracks segue into one another, the first a dusky, riding-into-town instrumental, evidence of admirable indulgence in their own idiosyncratic fantasies of tequila, cowboys and dustbowls. Impeccably expressive, melodic twanging from Adam Devlin and Mark Morriss' creamy croon are more impressive than ever, moving the sound on significantly from the slightly simpering jangle of their debut album. And yet, what do we remember of this track? Well, a last line that goes, "But that's the way it goes I suppose... but then again, who really knows?" Hmmm. So when's the revolution, then, gringo? Oh, never mind... 'Solomon Bites The Worm', the aforementioned single, is similarly unimpeachable in class and the fact that, with lyrics like the above and the lolloping guitar motif, it all sounds alluringly off-kilter, a brave departure from generic Bluetonic waters.

A couple of typically well-crafted tunes later, we find 'Sleazy Bed Track', possibly the best song they've recorded to date. It manages to combine a sublimely melancholy lament with a rocking upbeat counterpart that tells us that "all you've got to do, baby, is kick off your shoes and lay down" to banish the blues from your house. Meanwhile, 'If...' has a creeping funk to it which emphasises the musical versatility of a band once seen in some quarters as an inexcusably lily-livered, terminally generic bunch of white guitar weeds.

But for all Adam's Zepular rock muscle, Mark's emoting and undeniably 'mature' string and horn arrangements, the second half of this album starts to merge into a mess of competent, but slightly stodgy quite-good tunes.

It was often (erroneously, according to our Mark) said of The Bluetones' debut album that all the songs seemed to be about a relationship split. Maybe such universally understood subjects would have made for easier listening here, since only a couple of these songs have any great emotional resonance and the lyrics are invariably too oblique to strike any cerebral chords either.

But then they don't appear ever to have had any great desire to communicate. They've always had that gang group insularity, that slightly uptight, understated cool that said: 'The more you know, the less you need to show'. Good attitude, and all that, but that doesn't always make for an exciting or affecting rock'n'roll band. Their intrinsic steely confidence and cool is all very well, but maybe that's why there's the sense that they don't need to be loved, and don't have any great urge to project their art into our souls. They're just into it, like they're into smoking dope, drinking Mexican spirits and staying up late. So while they will surely carry on making quietly accomplished, gently odd records, we may never get that passionate about them because they don't need us to feel that way. They're alright doing their own thing in their own little world, thanks all the same.

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If The Bluetones are to achieve the success their obvious talents suggest they are capable of, you sense it'll be in a Radiohead-esque way, slowly turning heads and twisting ears by word of mouth and on the back of pure undeniable quality tunes rather than charisma, self-publicity or Zeitgeist-surfing. And while this album is virtually impossible to criticise on any musical level, more ambitious than ever, and at times better than anything they've ever done, it just doesn't demand to be heard. In summary: anyone fancy a pint? (6)


Extracted from nme, March 1998