The Charlatans – Different Days

The Charlatans – Different Days

Of course you remember The Charlatans, or The Charlatans UK if you are a US resident, a band that were at the forefront of the indie-dance scene of the early-’90s and that are probably best known for the string of hits they enjoyed during that decade, songs like “The Only One I Know”, “One To Another”, “North Country Boy” and others, a band that you may occasionally think share a sound with Inspiral Carpets, Kula Shaker, The Teardrop Explodes and which has much to do with their keyboard-propelled psych-rock approach, a band whom you possibly haven’t heard an tremendous amount from in recent times. The Charaltans (UK) are very much still with us though, continuing to be fronted by vocalist Tim Burgess and his trademark mop of bleached hair, although the award for longest-serving band member goes to bassist and band founder Martin Blunt.

They may have had their ups and downs in the approaching three decades since their formation, but the list of guest performers on their thirteenth album should leave even the most sceptical in no doubt whatsoever as to The Charlatans status as musicians. New Order’s Stephen Morris, Anton Newcombe, Johnny Marr, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, actress Sharon Horgan, novelist Ian Rankin and lastly Paul Weller all make supporting appearances, as musicians or providing spoken word accompaniments.

With a cast such as this on hand, it must seem that Different Days cannot actually fail, or indeed as an event, although some will inevitably ask questions along the lines of “without so many guests on board, would it be as notable an album?” and as I don’t have a complete who-did-what info sheet to hand, and also as what I really know about The Charlatans revolves mostly around their ’90s chart successes, I am approaching the thirteen tracks with some amount of caution, as well as a need to reacquaint myself with a band that I always associate with the 1990s, aware that my own preconceptions about The Charlatans are very probably about to be reshaped.

Bringing in figures of the stature of Newcombe, Marr and Weller begins to seem like a distraction from the actual Charlatans themselves, but there really is something a bit unusual happening, as Different Days unfolds. With its Mediterranean imagery, the cover art and video for single “Plastic Machinery” photographed in Barcelona, the extended cast and the combination of songs and spoken-word inserts, there appears to be some form of concept at work here.

Opening track “Hey Sunrise” has a mostly acoustic beginning, as Tim Burgess declaims “It’s my sunrise / In your eyes” over a vaguely euphoric psych-pop backing that’s authentically the indie-dance sound of the early ’90s, and while you may think that The 2017 Charlatans could produce music to this standard without actually getting out of their beds, “Hey Sunrise” has the contained urgency, indeed the actual vibe of that sound too, and it’s as refreshing to hear as finding a long forgotten although still playable mixtape from 1992 in a shoebox under the stairs. “Solutions” continues the momentum with its neatly-handled chord changes, an actual (or imaginary) hit single from The Charlatans mid-period that found its way onto Different Days as an afterthought.

There isn’t any sign of those guest performers yet though, although perhaps they all appear on the album’s title-track, and the tone of the group changes perceptibly, from hedonistic baggy dance-pop to a more obvious groove, a sound that’s nearer to Happy Mondays than to The Stone Roses and ? And The Mysterians, and it’s here that the first audible guest actually appears, in the fifty one seconds of “Future Tense”.  “If I stay here, I’m safe, safe from the machinery” says the crime novelist Ian Rankin, although he then qualifies this statement by admitting that “I’m too well known for the machinery not to be interested”, and as the next track is “Plastic Machinery”, the single trailer for the album that you may already have heard, it now definitely seems that a pattern of some sort is emerging. Both Johnny Marr and former Verve drummer and long-time Charlatans associate Pete Salisbury can be heard on this track, and while we don’t actually need to know that they are involved to appreciate the song, this is where Different Days takes off as that concept I alluded to earlier, an album that is also a story, indeed a thriller of some description.

“The Forgotten One” is the second of the short spoken word inserts that break-up the musical revelries and that has to be Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner slurring his whiskey over a melancholic piano backdrop. “I know where the past begins, and the future ends,” intones Kurt, adding yet another layer of depth to the rapidly thickening plot, although anyone expecting the next track to turn into a bluesy jazz session might not completely get it about the Madchester influenced “Not Forgotten”, a song that echoes in some way the Monday’s “Loose Fit”, and Kurt’s introduction is in fact part of the song’s lyric. “There Will Be Chances” is another can of DAT tape entirely though, and that has to be Johnny Marr’s sparkling guitar intro leading into a jaunty electro folk number and with Tim Burgess in a reflective lyrical mood. “Memories disintegrate / The best of them remain,” he sings as the assorted ensemble turn in an inspired sounding tune, and one owing little to the actual musical past that is a recurring theme throughout Different Days.

Around here, I really need to know who is doing exactly what, and this information isn’t available at time of writing so I need to use just a bit of license and speculate that New Order’s Stephen Morris had a hand in writing “The Same House”, that “Let’s Go Together” might have made a slightly better choice of single than “Plastic Machinery”, that the one minute and forty seconds of “The Setting Sun” do bear the hallmarks of Anton Newcombe at work, although a few people might have preferred that it were longer.  I do know that Paul Weller has a hand in final track “Spinning Out”, which with its laid back pace and mood inducing intro does resemble a Style Council track, like all Weller’s best stuff (and that actually is the Modfather providing a backing vocal), and that none of this info is actually needed to appreciate what is a formidable performance from a band whose new music is at least the equal of the songs that made their name.

I can’t entirely shake the idea that Different Days is a concept album, or the soundtrack to an imaginary film, or an actual as yet unrealised visual project. The idea that there is much more to accompany Different Days – and I won’t speculate on what that could entail – gives the album an added vitality in addition to the collage of talents involved. It makes The Charlatans’ thirteenth album a memorable display from a band we need to acknowledge as true greats and it’s a thrill ride from beginning to end.

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