Vinyl Frontier: Retro Reviews - Supergrass Road to Rouen
Supergrass - Road to Rouen
By David Andrew James
2005 was a decent year for rock’n’roll and the release of the fifth studio album from one time Brit Pop darlings Supergrass turned out to be one of the most neglected pieces of the time.
Let’s set the record straight. Supergrass should have been huge. Instead they turned out to be one of those bands who rock fans name as their second favourites. Like a ‘Madness’ for modern times.
It was probably this album, given that British guitar music was back en vogue, when Supergrass should have enjoyed a second coming. Instead they fluffed their lines by producing an album different and experimental in style to their previous work so that, although critically admired, it slipped quietly into the background as revivals from the likes of Oasis stormed the charts.
Supergrass were and will always be a frustrating band. Somewhere on their second album ‘In it for the Money’ they demonstrated what would be a career long flaw. These boys were very gifted, knew how to knock out a tune but were hamstrung by the inability to seal the deal. They always seem to have been that one track away from greatness.
Was it their early commercial success with ‘Alright’ that made them shy away and prefer to show a darker sometimes more melancholic side? Nevermind, now they are no more, it’s worth noting that, of the six albums they released over 13 years, none of them ever descend into mediocrity or are forgettable.
‘Road to Rouen’ is a stand out album because it is the one that deviates from their standard formula. Notably shorter than the norm, conversely it manages to be more expansive and that is manifest on opener ‘Tales of Endurance Parts 4,5 & 6‘. In context, the band were in sombre mood when this was being recorded and that is obvious in the mood and lyrical content of this track but, rather brilliantly, it is a tremendous moment for the boys who show a mature and measured approach.
‘St Petersburg’ is simply brilliant. Moody and atmospheric, we are in a different zone for the group who released ’Richard III’ and ‘Pumping on the Stereo’. ‘Sad Girl’ is a mellow foray into a Beatles-esque landscape. Luckily Supergrass have always been adept at this stuff without seeming like Oasis who border on cheap imitation occasionally.
‘Roxy’ picks up the pace but is a little self indulgent without beating down any doors on the innovative front. ‘Coffee in the Pot’ is typical of the band; kooky and cheeky, it’s a lovely instrumental and a big wink on an otherwise rather serious album. ‘Road to Rouen’ has a wonderful bouncy riff and bass that wash over you like cold lemonade on a hangover morning. But once the sirens start, the alarm bells are ringing. The road is reaching a dead end for this runs out of ideas fairly fast and becomes embroiled in repetition.
‘Kick in the Teeth’ gets us back to more familiar territory, sounding the most like it might have been on previous albums. It has a stomping verse and occasionally threatens to really kick off but ultimately they have been set to factory mode. ‘Low C’ is a tenderly luscious number, reflective and heart rending as the deceptively jaunty chorus bursts into life. Gaz delivering the lines ‘we were younger, oh the way you turned my head’ isn’t Proust but this is a band who were always more about the music.
‘Fin’ is a shimmering little ballad but it lacks dexterity and depth. It doesn’t take a Phd in French Language to realise that’s all folks. It’s probably a relief that this was not their last album before splitting up. It would have been a meek wave goodbye instead of the infinitely brighter swansong that was ‘Diamond Hoo Ha’.
This one however leaves you frustrated. There are regular glimpses at what they could be and many times they flirt with a darker side but neither are explored properly. Instead they get caught in a schizophrenic mood, not sure where the heck the good ship Supergrass is heading. When it gets into the choppy waters (Tales of Endurance 4, 5 & 6) or is beset with Pirates (Coffee Pot) things are great but too often the ship heads back to Port and looks like it might run aground.