Monday, 17 October 2011

REVIEW: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Album Review


File:Noelgallagherhighflyingbirds.jpgSo here's the story: Man joins his brother's band and becomes chief songwriter. Band turns into the biggest group of the 90's. Band gets too big for their own good and excessive cocaine use makes their hugely hyped third album a bloated folly. A decade is spent trying to regain their position as a musical force, and after some disappointing albums in the late 2000's they produce their two finest records since the mid 90's. Then in 2009 the fiery relationship between the two brothers spills over into a full scale fight, and the celebrated songwriter leaves, bringing an end to the group that soundtracked so many people's lives. Now in 2011 the story continues as this man returns as a solo artist with his finest collection of songs in many many years.


Free from the pressure of writing for Oasis, it seems that Noel Gallagher has learned to relax and let whatever he writes flow naturally. The early 2000's saw his songwriting suffer as a result of trying too hard, as well as a lack of confidence in trying new things. Years later and his first solo album delivers a collection of assured, intelligent and accomplished tracks that make up Noel's finest album in years. 


It isn't an overstatement to call this album a classic: from start to finish there isn't anything that could have possibly been done better. The expectation to write number one hits and multi million selling albums meant that Noel could never stray too far from his musical comfort zone, but now free to take risks he only embrarks on new sounds when they come as a natural result of his creativity. Style wise there aren't too many surprises, but the thing that grabs you on the first is the consistent strength of each and every song. In a way similar to Paul Weller's creative rejuvenation in the 90's, Noel's debut solo album can easily stand alongside those first two classic Oasis LPs that everyone's been waiting for him to match for over 15 years. But he's not trying to write stadium anthems anymore, instead Noel sounds relaxed, refreshed and confident while the songs are more defined, intelligent and accomplished than before.


Noel Gallagher set to keep Matt Cardle off the top of the charts
'Everybody's On The Run' is a huge track that lyrically focuses on the theme of escape and sets the tone nicely, kicking off the album in epic style with dramatic strings, a strong yearning vocal, a McCartney-esque bridge and a powerful chorus that makes an incredible impact. Towards the end the string section takes off and flies into a stunning cinematic melody, and as a solo artist Noel sounds truly liberated. It's grandeur of the most sweeping kind, but not once does it sound overdone. Throughout the album the lyrics are a great improvement on his previous work, but thankfully they are still earnest and direct:"Try to walk in my shoes, but they don't belong to you" a reminder of this man's place in musical history alongside all the greats, and the fact that no songwriter has since achieved what Noel managed in the glorious 90's. 



Memories of those golden days come flooding back as touches of Britpop light up the supreme stomp of 'Dream On'. It bounces along like a darker, confused relative of 'Lyla' before it brightens up for a joyous bridge which launches into one of Noel's greatest ever choruses. Its "shout it out for me" refrain and ironically Blur-esque "la la la la"'s could put anyone in a good mood. And it doesn't just linger in the past either, as towards the end it is joined by the refreshing sound of those Dixie jazz horns that we'll hear more of later. Noel himself described 'Dream On' as a bit of a "throwaway" track, but in reality it's gloriously uplifting and provides just one of the many magic moments here.




 'If I Had A Gun' is a reminder of prime-era Oasis, beginning with a 'Wonderwall'-esque strum and building into a heartfelt and unforgettable chorus. It's the sort of thing that would have kept Oasis at the very top if it was written over a decade ago. Following this is the album's first single 'The Death Of You And Me', a Kinks-esque and slightly country-fied moment that comes with melotron and vocals that often dip into falsetto. It's quite possibly the album's most downbeat moment: even the bouncy stomp of the chorus is touched with melancholy and "storm clouds coming". Then at the point where you expect the usual guitar solo to arrive, a burst of New Orleans brass adds an unexpected ragtime jazz feel to the track as the song swings into an enjoyable march. 



The beginning of his solo career wouldn't feel right it he didn't knowingly mark the end of the Oasis era in a musical way, and to acknowledge the closing of that historic chapter two legendary "lost" Oasis songs are at last brought to life. The first of these is '(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine, again continuing Noels fondness for brackets and featuring another powerful vocal, luscious strings, big brass, choirs and to top it off a superb 'Champagne Supernova'-esque guitar solo. In places this is what 'Be Here Now' could've sounded like if it was approached with a degree of thought and subtlety. It's big, epic and loud yet not over the top in any way at all. 



If this is one of the last remnants of Oasis then 'AKA What A Life' is definitely the begininng of new musical adventures. A hard hitting disco rhythm and a relentless house piano riff are joined by wailing guitars and a world-weary and wise vocal. It's unlike anything Noel's ever attempted before, but at the same time it isn't a total dance makeover. It proves that all along Noel hasn't needed a major musical reinvention, all he's needed to do is learn a few new tricks to add to his previous strengths in order to refine his songwriting skills. 



Again there is a noticeable Kinks influence on 'Soldier Boys And Jesus Freaks' which leads the album into a darker and more downbeat mood. There are shades of 'The Importance Of Being Idle' as well as hints of 'Falling Down''s crashing confusion, but as with most of the songs here this one is another step forward songwriting wise, infused with a powerful melancholy that perhaps this 40-something Mancunian wouldn't have been capable of a decade ago. The Beatles influence is still there, shining through the trumpets and parts of the wonderful melody. However it's a Beatles influence that is tackled in a completely different way to that of some of Beady Eye's blatant Lennon pastiches, instead it's delivered with a certain degree of intelligence and personality, something that maybe Liam's gang are slightly lacking in (although I still really enjoy their music).



'Broken Arrow' is a true example of musical perfection, the sound of a man comfortable with the music he's writing and hitting a real creative high point. The smart shuffle of the verse has all the hallmarks of classic Manchester music, and the bittersweet melody combined with almost Smiths-like guitar chords are just two of the many things that make this career highlight a total joy to listen to. '(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach' is another classic, a simple steady-paced rock riff providing the backing for something that evokes a hard biting and more accomplished relative of 'The Importance Of Being Idle', with a great rhythm to hit the road to and another hugely infectious chorus. 


Closing the album in a spectacular way is what Noel describes as "the last postcard from the Oasis years", the magnificent 'Stop The Clocks' which dates back quite a few years and has been bootlegged many times in Oasis demo form. Here the song is finally given the top quality recording that it deserved, beginning with acoustic guitars, piano and a distinctive Beatles-like keyboard hook, before the drums arrive and join Noel's bullish yet mournful vocal. It leads into another 'Champagne Supernova'-like guitar solo before a final verse spins into a chaotic minute of crying guitars and drums crashing into squalling trumpets before ending suddenly. It's epic but certainly not overlong, the sort of thing we've been waiting well over a decade for Noel to conjure up. 


This is the first record Noel has written by himself since 1997's 'Be Here Now', and perhaps the fact he left some of the songwriting to other members of Oasis suggests he may have been having doubts about his abilities. But here he produces a solid album that flows perfectly and at 42 minutes 27 seconds it's pleasingly concise. It's packed full of incredible and accomplished songs that show spending a few years soaking up new influences and going by instinct has helped revive the craft of this legendary songwriter. This album reflects a more mature, settled collection of songs that show just how much Noel's progressed over the last few years. This is a legendary figure showing everyone else how it's done and producing an album that like those first two legendary Oasis albums, we'll still be reaching for in over 15 years time. Simply essential. 10



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