Friday, 19 June 2015
Classic Albums No. 16: Let’s Bottle Bohemia
Back in the days when buying the music papers was an almost essential, weekly, ritual, the NME and the Melody Maker would like to try and out-do each other by claiming they had discovered so-and-so first. In the early part of 2003, it was Irish band The Thrills who were the recipients of excitable hysteria from the press. They had existed in one form or another for several years, but it was after demos started doing the rounds in mid 2002, that labels began fighting over getting the band’s signatures on a record contract.
It was Virgin Records who won the battle, and by the end of 2002, had released a 4-track EP led by the title track “Santz Cruz”. It revealed itself to be a record of sublime indie-rock beauty, marrying the jingle jangle of classic REM with Beach Boys style harmonies, and throwing in a bit of a Neil Young-esque country-rock vibe just to finish things off. They sounded like a Californian based band who had never even heard of Ireland, but what they might have lacked in subtlety over the wearing-of-influences on their sleeves, they more than made up for in the quality of their sheer anthemic, joyously, sunny pop, the likes of “Your Love Is Like Las Vegas” being so catchy, it felt as though this was a record that had been made in some sort of bouncy-indie-rock factory, so utterly glorious was the result.
Once the EP was out, people fell over themselves to show their adoration towards the band. As such, with the band’s debut LP in the can, the promotional push for the album’s release was watched extra keenly than usual. Radio programmers jumped at the chance to playlist the follow up release, “One Horse Town”, another piece of near-perfect summer-indie, all pounding off-the-beat drums, banjo riffery, xylophone-driven pop of the highest order. It made waves in the lower reaches of the charts, possibly helped along by the fact that most copies of the vinyl edition that were pressed were pre-signed by the band, offering an instant collectible. When the even more summery “Big Sur” was issued as the next 45 in the summer, it sounded tailor-made for the season, and complete with it’s brilliant “hey hey we’re The Monkees” lyrical steal, helped seal the band’s sudden reputation of making the most happy sounding pop music heard on these shores in years. “Big Sur” dented the top 20, and, in a very short space of time from those demo-hawking days, The Thrills were stars.
The summer of 2003 belonged to The Thrills. I saw them play a swelteringly hot London Astoria that July, which was a sell out - and came hot on the heels of a successful Glastonbury show. A follow up UK tour announced roundabout the same time also shifted tickets quickly, so quickly in fact, that my wife (to be) and I had to settle for upstairs seats only for one of the two shows the band were due to play at the Shepherds Bush Empire that October. In August, they returned to the Astoria as the opening act for The Stones, doing another one of their “stadium warm up” club gigs. Debut LP, “So Much For The City”, hit the top 3 in the UK, and received positive write-ups all over. It came in a slightly surreal sleeve - the five band members with what seemed to be two random women in shot, and recalled those 60s sleeves by listing the song titles on the cover. The band’s logo, in situ on all the recent (and future) single releases from the LP was abandoned for a more generic design, for some strange reason.
With the band now big stars, Virgin reissued “Santa Cruz”, this time as a more regular ’multi-formatted’ 45, whilst a fifth single release was then issued to coincide with the autumn UK tour, the equally summery “Don’t Steal Our Sun”. The tour gave the band the opportunity to try out new material, and future 45 “Whatever Happened To Corey Haim” was one of the new songs played during the tour.
“Corey Haim” was issued in August 2004 as the lead single off album number 2, “Let’s Bottle Bohemia”. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have played this album over the years. Whilst it doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, it has a bit more diversity within it’s sphere than the debut, veering from slowed down, more downbeat numbers, through the summer-indie sound of before, and beyond onto to some occasionally heavy and quite rocking numbers. I absolutely adore it. As I have said before, I find it hard to describe the sound of music - after all, you are supposed to listen to it, not read it - so all I can say is, it is so catchy, it hurts.
By the time it was released, The Thrills were already starting to be seen as “last year’s thing”. We saw them play at the Stafford leg of V2004, where the band seemed to go a bit over everybody’s head for some reason - the joyous, celebratory, vibe of the 2003 shows replaced by a festival crowd seemingly unaware of just how magnificent this band was, and indeed, by the time the promo campaign was being wound down in 2005, radio was losing interest and latter period singles were failing to do much at all. The BBC were shunting them from Radio 1 to the more MOR-oriented Radio 2, and units were not shifting as fast.
But who cares for festival crowds, radio playlisters, and record sales. Because “Bohemia” is a glorious record, and one of my all time favourites. Again, another strange choice you might think, mentioning this one before “The White Album “ (it’s time will come I am sure), but the sheer summery bounce of this record, at least as far as the musical side of it is concerned, is utter genius, and it is at times so hook-driven, you almost end up in tears of sheer joy at the unbridled brilliance of it all.
“Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” opens with a clanging guitar riff, which sets out the “heavier” stall from the off. The choruses are incendiary - led into by a key change in the preceding verse, then another one, and then dominated by some pounding drums, throbbing guitar licks, and harmonies that sound like they have been transported straight from heaven. You just want to punch your fist in the air like a loon. Then, when it calms down for breath after chorus number 2 for a relaxing saunter through the middle 8, a glorious “whoo hoo hoo hoo” by singer Conor Deasy appears in the middle, lifted straight out of the school of genius pop music. What a start.
“Corey Haim” is driven along by a magnificent string section and a keyboard line that sounds like it’s been nicked, then rejigged a bit, from Stevie’s “Superstition” - the jingle jangle tag that threatened to follow them around forever replaced here by something a bit more sophisticated. But whilst the summer pop roar that mostly defined the band is still more or less in situ, at least in terms of the anthemic vibe that the song still manages to produce, the lyrics themselves also go someway to trying to move the band away from that joyous summer sound - the subject of the song, Corey Haim, was a troubled actor who found problems in trying to deal with his gaining of fame as a child actor, and had more or less disappeared from view by the end of the 90s. He is now, also, no longer with us.
“Faded Beauty Queens” plays up to the REM obsession by getting Peter Buck in on guest mandolin. The choruses, again, are sublime...Deasy’s vocals, which often felt like he was struggling to be heard over the music, have a frailty which works brilliantly here - as the hook-laden chorus kicks in, Deasy delivers the withering diatribe “well, I don’t know how it ends up here...wide eyed and new money, with faded beauty queens”. It feels both gloriously upbeat in terms of the music, but slightly miserable in terms of the lyrical content. This seemingly downbeat fascination continues on the majestic “Saturday Night” - again, unbelievably catchy throughout, but with Deasy seemingly distraught at the state of the world...as the song once again wheels through another massive key change, he sings “I’m just a man, not even a great one...is this what they call love on a Saturday Night?” It feels like a disdainful attack on night club culture, youth, life, and, well, just about everything. And you thought The Smiths were leaders in bedsit humdrum.
“Not For All The Love In The World” takes the tempo down, and finally, the feel of the music - sad piano riffs, sadder guitar ones - matches the tearfulness of the words...”and so you crave recognition, but the keys to the city went missing..I guess everybody went to a better party”. Staggeringly brilliant. More strings in the background lend this song a certain poignancy, and by being released as the second single from the album, thus became the first Thrills 45 to bear little resemblance to the far bouncier ones that had preceded it. This was the point at which the chart positions started to suffer.
“Our Wasted Lives”, which opens up the second half, returns us to a faster pace but Deasy still seems unhappy (“hey kids, there’s no romance in fate”) but it’s easy to miss this gloomy view, as the verses race along in a blur of piano romping and electric guitar roars. The choruses then suddenly change course, the song going into a bit of space-rock style ambience, before the REM-esque harmonies kick in once more to bring it back up to speed again. “You Cant Fool Old Friends With Limousines” is a more piano driven piece, sounding not unlike “About A Boy”-period Badly Drawn Boy attempting to cover 70s era Bruce Springsteen with an Irish accent. And still, the lyrics remain quite bleak - “I don’t love you, I just love myself” Deasy scowls at one point.
“Found My Rosebud” is astonishing. At times, it is the sound of Teenage Fanclub and Ozzy-fronted Black Sabbath fighting in a car park. Within just 30 seconds, it has built up into a noisy, catchy-as-hell bastard-son mashup of “One Horse Town” and “Big Sur”, the choruses an incendiary roar of jingle jangle guitar, Deasy’s “sore throat” vocals fighting for space over the top, whilst Charlatans-esque keyboards and Elton John-style piano ensure everything sounds like it is turned up to 11. Deasy is still unhappy - “it’s not like I said that I loved you” he snarls.
“The Curse Of Comfort” recalls the sadness of “Saturday Night” - it trundles along in a sort of minor key misery, interspersed with some marvellous “baa baa ba ba” backup vocals, then explodes into more space-age choruses, marked by one of the greatest key changes ever committed to vinyl, as Deasy cries “wouldn’t want a heart that’s been dented by you”, followed by one of the second greatest key changes ever committed to vinyl. This is music of such beauty, my limited journalistic skills (ie. absolutely none) make it difficult for me to tell you just HOW good this song is.
“The Irish Keep Gate-Crashing” remains one of the great lost 45s, issued as the third and final single from the LP - and a massive flop. “Lust, Top 40 fame, I can smell your catholic shame” Deasy spits as the song rocks along, throwing out hooks and catchy harmonies left right and centre. Another string section soon comes in to up the ante, and towards the end, it sounds like Sgt Pepper-era Beatles battling with Billy Joel, The Shadows and The Byrds all at the same time.
Hidden track “A City Of Long Nights” doesn’t necessarily deserve to be hidden away - it’s shuffly, almost drum-machine like beat, does seem to put it at a bit of a disadvantage compared to what has come before, but there are still some great words here, as Deasy mutters about used car salesmen and plastic surgeons. It brings the album to a bit of an odd close, you would think at this point that the anthemic stride of “The Irish” would work better as a proper finale, although there is still something to admire in it’s jingle jangle guitar rhythms. But then, things are brought full circle with an orchestral reprise of “The Irish”, and the record suddenly feels like it is springing towards a classic album finale. The reprise reminds me of early period ELO - which is only ever a good thing. And that’s it.
“Let’s Bottle Bohemia” was a top 10 hit in the UK, and a number 1 in their native Ireland - helped along, possibly, by the fact that initial copies of the album there included a free DVD unavailable with regular UK copies. But with The Thrills being seen as “last year’s news”, the lack of radio play combined with the music press already having found somebody else to slobber over, meant that it was going to be difficult to keep momentum - and the final single from the LP stalled outside the top 40. The group, in danger of burnout from what felt like a non stop 2 years, took time off before work began on a third LP, with a desire to try and keep expanding their sound. Numerous songs recorded during sessions in 2006 were abandoned because they were deemed to be under par, too similar in sound to what had been released before, but eventually, enough material was deemed suitable for the band’s 2007 effort, “Teenager”. However, their return was not greeted like the second coming, and the only people interested were the indie kids who had loved them first time around - the “floating voters” were unable to be coerced, as radio play of the album’s first single was limited, so sales of the album were restricted really to the hardcore following. “Teenager” failed to dent the top 40, and a second single from the album was cancelled as Virgin feared that the band had lost their pulling power. After a summer tour in 2008, the band went on hiatus, Virgin dropped them from the roster, and that really was that. Interviews in the following years suggested a return was possibly likely, but it never happened. A curious mail order only “hits” album was issued in “Teenager” style packaging on Amazon’s website, and the group became yet another indie band to sadly fade away.
Which is a shame, because The Thrills, at the time, were genuinely, well, thrilling. Some of those songs were, and still are, sublime, so having them dumped into pop’s dustbin is a bit sad. I know, there are plenty of other 90s and 00s indie bands in there as well, but the fact that one of BBC’s “Sound of 2003” bands have sort of just withered away, is not something to celebrate. I remember the excitement of those shows from that period, and for it all to be now just a fading memory...the fact that the bass player, last I heard, was an accounts manager, barely a decade after sharing a recording studio with the guy out of REM, is a bit heartbreaking. Guitarist Daniel Ryan says that the release of “Teenager” coincided with Virgin’s parent company, EMI, being taken over by private equity firm Terra Firma, which didn’t help matters, numerous EMI acts soon after attempted to jump ship as the running of the label went downhill. He said the band “never split up, but there came a point where we just did not want to do anything anymore. I feel we made a good third album...but there comes a point in the music business when your credit just runs out”.
Oh well. But at least we still have the music. And those Thrills records, especially, “Bohemia”, remain glorious pieces of work. Their jingle jangle bounce is infectious, and the hooks that run throughout that LP are near perfect. I am not sure, if you don’t know this band, if I can really convince you to go and pay a fiver for an 11-year old indie rock album by a now defunct band...you know, what with Radio 1’s obsession with “youth culture” and “new music” which prevents anybody from being allowed to listen to anything that was recorded more than 6 months before. But if, unlike Radio 1 bosses, you actually LOVE music, and quality music at that, then you will love “Let’s Bottle Bohemia”. It is beautifully constructed pop music of the highest order, and that’s what counts.
ALBUMS - RECOMMENDED EDITIONS
So Much For The City (2xCD, Virgin 596 533 2, with 7-track bonus disc)
Let’s Bottle Bohemia (Irish CD+DVD, Virgin ICDV 2986)
Teenager (CD+DVD, Virgin CDVX 3037)
UK COMMERCIALLY RELEASED SINGLES
Santa Cruz/Deckchairs And Cigarettes (White Vinyl 7”, Virgin VS 1840)
Santa Cruz/Deckchairs And Cigarettes/Your Love Is Like Las Vegas/Plans (CD, Virgin VSCDT 1840)
One Horse Town/Don’t Play It Cool (Orange Vinyl 7”, Virgin VS 1845)
One Horse Town/Car Crash/Don’t Play It Cool (CD, Virgin VSCDT 1845)
Big Sur/Your Love Is Like Las Vegas (Acoustic Version) (Blue Vinyl 7”, Virgin VS 1852)
Big Sur/No One Likes To Be Upstaged/One Horse Town (Demo)/Big Sur (Video) (CD, Virgin VSCDT 1852)
Santa Cruz (Radio Edit)/Don’t Play It Cool (New Version) (Burgundy Vinyl 7”, Virgin VS 1862)
Santa Cruz (Radio Edit)/Blue September (CD, Virgin VSCDT 1862)
Santa Cruz (Video)/It’s So Easy/Just Travelling Thru (Live, London Abbey Road Studios 2003)/The Thrills Home Movies (Video) (DVD, Virgin VSDVD 1862, unique p/s)
Don’t Steal Our Sun/The One I Love (Live, BBC Radio 1 Jo Whiley Show 27.6.2003) (Green vinyl 7”, Virgin VS 1864)
Don’t Steal Our Sun/One Horse Town (Live, London Abbey Road Studios 2003) (CD1, Virgin VSCDT 1864)
Don’t Steal Our Sun/Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me/Santa Cruz (Acoustic Version)/Don’t Steal Our Sun (Video) (CD2, Virgin VSCDX 1864, different p/s)
Whatever Happened To Corey Haim?/A City Of Long Nights (Acoustic Version) (7”, Virgin VS 1876)
Whatever Happened To Corey Haim?/Big Sur (Brooklyn’s Own D Sardy Mix) (CD1, Virgin VSCDT 1876)
Whatever Happened To Corey Haim?/If I Wasn’t So Pretty/Whatever Happened To Corey Haim? (Live, London Maida Vale Studios 4.8.2004)/(Video) (CD2, Virgin VSCDX 1876, white p/s)
Not For All The Love In The World/Saturday Night (Acoustic Version) (7”, Virgin VS 1890)
Not For All The Love In The World (Radio Edit)/What A Cruel Trick To Play Upon Myself (CD1, Virgin VSCDT 1890)
Not For All The Love In The World (Radio Edit)/This Guy’s In Love With You (Live, BBC Radio 2 Ken Bruce Show 3.8.2004)/Not For All The Love In The World (Sebastien Teller Remix)/(Video) (CD2, Virgin VSCDX 1980, unique p/s)
The Irish Keep Gatecrashing/Not For All The Love In The World (Acoustic Version) (7” Picture Disc with poster insert, Virgin VS 1895, numbered, original copies sticker sealed)
The Irish Keep Gatecrashing/Viva Las Vegas (Live) (CD, Virgin VSCDT 1895)
The Irish Keep Gatecrashing (Video)/Movie Premieres/The Making Of “So Much For The City” (Video) (DVD, Virgin VSDVD 1895)
Nothing Changes Around Here (Radio Edit)/Second Guessing (Pink Vinyl 7”, Virgin VS 1947, poster sleeve)
Nothing Changes Around Here (Radio Edit)/Some Other Day (Blue Vinyl 7”, Virgin VSX 1947)
Nothing Changes Around Here (Radio Edit)/That Boy (CD, Virgin VSCDT 1947)
Note: promo editions of all of these exist, including CDR promos of things such as the first “Santa Cruz” pressing - some feature all of the tracks listed, and some come in unique “titles” sleeves. These may be easier and cheaper to find than some of the pressings listed above.