Heathen Chemistry (Epic Records)
By: Stan Hall
It's painful, a real martyr's job, to dredge the fifth Oasis studio album, "Heathen Chemistry," so you won't have to endure it yourself. Here are some observations from this latest visit with the Gallagher brothers and company:
1. Disclaimer: I didn't come into this process with the intention of slagging Oasis. I like, or more accurately, have liked Oasis. I was living in Britain in '94 when "Definitely Maybe," their debut, was released amid much hype and, ultimately, well-earned acclaim. The British public went mad for them back then, and it's never really stopped; even now the vast majority of Brit listeners stubbornly hold on to the notion that Oasis is a great, vital band. I would have loved for "Heathen Chemistry" to reach the debut's heights, or even match "Morning Glory's" flawed but still considerable impact. It most certainly does not; I'll get to that shortly.
2. "Definitely Maybe," for all its influence pilfering, nevertheless has an original sound, for the Gallagher brothers once had the ability to take every great aspect of British rock since the Beatles, add a massive helping of Neil Young guitar leads, blend them perfectly and infuse them with so much energy, drive and Neanderthal swagger that only a churlish snob could hate them.
3. Unfortunately, once the public essentially said, "Yes, yes, Brothers Gallagher, you are as great as you say you are; you are the second coming of the Beatles," the bruddas, who function as a sort of moron version of Ray and Dave Davies, took the accolades as a sign that they could do no wrong, ever. And when the money started pouring in, they lived it up. Thus, their third album, 1997's "Be Here Now," also known as The White Line Album. A slightly chastened Oasis, sporting an almost entirely brand new rhythm section, returned in 2000 with "Standing on the Shoulder of Giants," an utter piece of cack that only proved that "Be Here Now" was no anomaly. The magic was irrefutably gone.
4. And on "Heathen Chemistry," it's still gone, despite Noel Gallagher's desperate attempt to democratize his band. Everyone except the drummer writes at least one song. Why would Noel allow this to happen? Band unity? Songwriting royalties for everyone? His writer's block? In any case, it doesn't make for any more pleasurable a listening experience. Time for Plan C.
5. Unfortunately, in order to maintain his profile, Noel has decided instead to sing more: the leaden glam-rock stomper "Force of Nature," the heart-on-the-sleeve anthem "Little by Little" (the spiritually questing tune: "My god woke up on the wrong side of his bed, and it just don't matter." Deep.) and the cloying, excruciating "She's Electric" re-write "She is Love." Hey Noel: you have a functional voice, but you don't have a ROCK voice. You sound like you're singing karaoke. Pass the mic to your brother. Please.
6. Oasis is infamous for writing some of the most gloriously stupid lyrics in all of rock. When they work, it's because they just sound good sung that way. When they don't work, they're unintentionally funny. Champion bad lyric on "Heathen Chemistry": a couplet rhyming "ma-ana" with "banana." No joke.
7. Amazingly, the above lyric was not written by one of the Gallaghers, but comes from "Hung in a Bad Place," the track contributed by rhythm guitarist Gem Archer. It's actually one of the better songs on the album, infused with at least a modicum of enthusiasm, even if you can't remember the melody two minutes after you heard it.
8. Another of the non-Gallagher tracks, "A Quick Peep," is written by bassist Andy Bell (who appears in the CD booklet in dire need of a shave). My interest was piqued when I saw this in the credits, because a decade or so back Andy Bell was a singer, songwriter and guitarist in one of the great "shoegazing" groups, Ride, and capable of writing some pretty excellent tunes. Upon unwrapping the CD, I went straight to that track and was dismayed to find nothing more than a noodling, hippified jam instrumental that lasts a little over a minute. Boo! Hiss!
9. The best song, shockingly, is written by Liam. Granted, this doesn't mean much when it's the best of a sorry bunch, but I'm not totally sure this guy can even write his name (Liam's sort of the George W. Bush of rock), so I'm pretty impressed he was able to put some chords and rhymes together in somewhat coherent fashion. "Songbird," an expression of humility (from a Gallagher!) and devotion written for Liam's wife and/or child, is a charming little folk tune with a pretty piano part, and it actually evokes sweetness and real, human feelings. The bad part is that this is the best track on the whole disc, despite clocking in at barely two minutes and lacking a chorus or a bridge.
10. The other recommended track on "Heathen Chemistry" is the hidden "bonus track," a moody, drony instrumental that could almost pass for something on Thrill Jockey Records. Pity, then, that you have to fast-forward almost through 30 minutes of silence at the end of track 11 to get to it.
11. Liam's John Lennon fetish reaches what has to be an apotheosis on his song "Born on a Different Cloud." The song sounds like a reject from the session of Lennon's 1974 "Walls and Bridges" album, and Liam has trained his voice to sound as much like his idol as humanly possible; here, it's eerie and pathetic at the same time. You'd think the guy would like to blaze his own trail at some point, instead of just aping his heroes.
12. Every Oasis album has songs that sound like other people's hits, and it's no different here. "The Hindu Times" sounds like a slowed-down version of U2's "Even Better than the Real Thing." "(Probably) All in the Mind" more than just evokes the Beatles' "Rain." And Liam's choogling blues rocker "Better Man" is redolent of the Stone Roses' "Love Spreads," a track from the band's much-maligned swan song, "Second Coming." Compared to "Heathen Chemistry," "Second Coming" is a masterpiece.
13. The U.S. single, "Stop Crying Your Heart Out," is the most calculated radio-friendly ballad I've heard in a long while. Did Diane Warren help write it or what? And why must Noel echo every damn line in the verse by shouting a portion of it through a megaphone-like effect? He's practically slobbering all over the song.
14. The most depressing realization: Oasis will be around forever, because Noel and Liam can't do anything else. Even if they hate each other, the brothers will always play music together. We, the listeners, hoping that they'll somehow get a clue and again produce a work brimming with justified confidence and great hooks, will likely waste our time and money, over and over, perpetuating this sad cycle.
Grade: C-minus (hey, the production is petty good)