Issue #5: Expecting To Fly by The Bluetones
February 29, 2016
Released On February 12, 1996
Released By Superior Quality & A&M Records
Growing up in mid-90s Britain in retrospect was a pretty fantastic time to become a music fan and to discover alternative bands. Between Oasis, Blur, and Pulp, we had three of the best bands these islands had given the world in almost twenty years, and they spoke to the mainstream music buying public. Everything that wanted to be cool jumped on the band wagon from sports to politics and “Cool Britannia” was in full swing. A by product of their success and the swell that Britpop created was a swarm of bands that invaded the mainstream music from the indie persuasion.
My early childhood, I had been subjected to my mum’s passion for mid-70’s pop rockers like The Bay City Rollers and Top Of The Pops (a British based TV chart show) was an institution in my household. In between having the run of the mill boy bands, girl groups, or flavour of the month acts, odd gems broke into my consciousness from bands like Ash, Cast, Ocean Colour Scene, and Suede exciting me in the same way as Oasis, Blur, and Pulp. From all of those, the single that I loved the most though was “Slight Return” by The Bluetones. It was the first point in my life where the substance of the music actually resonated beyond the three minutes and twenty-one seconds that the song lasted. The first three lines of the chorus echoing around my head in early adolescence “You don’t have to have the solution / You’ve got to invest in the problem / And don’t go hoping for a miracle” weirdly became a staple of my teenage life.
It took me until my mid-to-late teens to fully digest and really appreciate the whole of Expecting To Fly, mainly because whilst it is fully entrenched in what is considered Britpop, it doesn’t have the brashness of many of its contemporaries. Preferring to take an easily recognizable influence from The Stone Roses, the opening track “Talking To Clarry” may have easily graced one of their albums. With the second track “Bluetonic” though, The Bluetones find their feet with a toe-tapping charm that drifts through the whole album encapsulated in heavier tracks yet still in the slower numbers too.
“Cut Some Rug” feels weighty in their lyricism — they talk in a simple form, but with an eloquence that is almost from left field with poetry casting visions that couldn’t be more different. “Of blitzkrieg and the doodlebug” to “Salt upon a bubbling slug.” In equal measure though, the acoustic nuance of “The Fountainhead” flits back and forth between an everyday simplicity and a heightened sense of imagination. “God knows I’ve tried / God knows I try / To be something more than I am / Hell could feasibly freeze / But in your eyes I’ll always be / The fountainhead, the boy whose thoughts keep running away.”
Twenty years on from hearing “Slight Return” for the first time, I can still go back to Expecting To Fly and it’s like seeing an old school friend. It was there in the good times, the bad times, and whilst you might not see them all the time, it’s a reminder of great times all the same
Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia
Leather jacket? Check. Half-smoked cigarette? Check. Endearing look of resented superiority? Check. Must be a ’90s band.
The sound of a jet cues a pretty masterful intro into a treatise on tasteful guitar. For an album released in the thick of the 90s alternative wave, it actually seems more firmly rooted in a 70s attitude along the lines of Big Star and Thin Lizzy. It’s got the big power pop moments and searing riffs along with quieter, tender passages. We get a bit of sultry swagger on “Carnt Be Trusted.” The dynamic push and pull of “Putting Out Fires” is a wonderfully swirly sonic journey. I’m even picking up some shades of early UK indie pop and Sarah Records. Although there are many nice production flourishes, they are deftly subtle, like the tiny bit of marimba that surfaces as “Vampire” fades out. The majority of the songs cut right to the chase with the guitars taking center stage. And they do shine. Everything is balanced. They are pretty when they need to be pretty and growl when they need to growl. The mix is pristine. All in all, Expecting To Fly is exemplary of a no-frills rock album that never gets fussy or postured. This one should stand the test of time.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
I want to spend this week talking about one song in particular. It’s the second to last song on the album and it’s called “A Parting Gesture.” This song was a revelation to me when I was listening through the album for the first time. And then I came back to it again. And again. And again. There’s something about it that keeps drawing me in. The whole song has so much space in it. My heart fell each time that it sounded like it was ending and then it would come lazily back in with a harmonica or a guitar or that amazing hook (or is it a chorus) “I’m not the same person I was a year ago / You cut me deeply and the scars still show.” This song makes me want to think of an excuse to make a mixtape for someone just so I can put it on as the last track. Which brings me to my one gripe with the album: why on earth is this song, called “A Parting Gesture,” not the closing track on the album? It would make sense not only thematically (the last song is the parting gesture of the album), but also sonically. It sounds the last track of an album and I’m afraid I will never give the actual last track on the album, “Time & Again,” a fair shake because it will always feel like a pretender to the throne.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
The first thing I thought of when playing the Bluetones Expecting to Fly was that any of these songs could be playing in one of those high school coming-of-age movies from the mid-90s. (I had watched “American Pie,” “Angus,” and “Empire Records” prior to listening to this record, so that might have had something to do with it.) Expecting To Fly was released in 1996 – the prime time for awesome 90s music – and managed to knock Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? off the Number 1 spot in the UK album charts. This record is an excellent collection of simple guitar songs that are the very essence of English alt-pop. It’s angsty. It’s depressing yet uplifting and I expect all my problems to be solved (or at least feel okay about them) by the end of the record. I’m going to go back and watch more 90s movies on mute and play this album.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
Much like with Standard Fare a few weeks back, The Bluetones are a surprising new English indie rock discovery. This time around, we descend towards the late 90s when the battle for reigning champion of the genre was between Oasis and Blur. For a debut, The Bluetones bring all of their quirks and talents to the game with Expecting To Fly, a release that actually unseated Oasis for a few moments on the charts until (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? retook its position on the top. If Oasis were the brash example and Blur were the artsier example, The Bluetones provided an introspective air and fragility to their music. Expecting To Fly is full of moments that display this charmingly. “Carnt Be Trusted” elevates immediately with its jangly guitar lines and unique swagger. Surprisingly, this was a song that the band would suggest be released as a single from Expecting To Fly with their label turning down the request. In its place, the band would put out “Bluetonic” and “Slight Return,” both of which represent interesting sides of the band. “Bluetonic” feels a bit more like it could have been inspired by the approaches that groups like Oasis were taking at the time. If “Bluetonic” was the song to introduce the band to the world, “Slight Return” was the song to make sure everyone stuck around at the party. One of the secret gems on Expecting To Fly is “The Fountainhead,” a nice, subtle confessional indie pop track that displays the multiple facets of the group. After giving the record a few solid listens, a few similarities popped in my head. Immediately, the melody choices of vocalist Mark Morriss seem like a definite influence for bands like The Decemberists. The parallels between Morriss and Colin Meloy seem apparent and showcase the lasting influence of The Bluetones from their inception back in 1993.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Fun video, but the only real reason to watch is to see Mark Morriss dance the whitest white-boy dance of all time.
I will get it out of the way now: Britpop, at least the way it existed in the 90s, is one of my least favorite genres. Too much snotty male attitude, affected accents, and annoying guitar riffs. However, with projects like this, I do think there is a chance to hear something in a different way. I framed it as such: one of my colleagues loves this record as much as I love Standard Fare’s The Noyelle Beat (the first issue of OYR). Since Matt is one of the contributors I do not know IRL (he lives in England), what can I pull out of this record to talk to him about when I meet him for the first time? What is our common ground? I would probably start by telling him, “It took a few listens, but I was able to really enjoy the toe-tappiness of Expecting To Fly.” And then we’d discuss the fact that there are all the elements in place for a ginormously popular record — catchy hooks, the aforementioned toe-tappiness, the Oasis-adjacent sound — and I’d wonder why The Bluetones didn’t hit it big in America. Finally, in the most important part of our conversation, we would talk about the harmonica in “A Parting Gesture.” “Neil Young is my favorite musician of all time; why don’t more people take a tip from Neil and add random harmonica tracks to their songs? It can only make them better,” I’d say, pointing out that I didn’t get on board with Expecting To Fly until I heard the harmonica, which caused me to listen again from the beginning. I’d casually mention that the album itself is named after a Buffalo Springfield song (thanks, Doug!) and connect that to the harmonica solo. Then we would cheers our pints and make fun of Oasis.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
If you’ve been reading OYR for more than a week, you would know that last week we reviewed Kid Kilowatt, another 90s rock album (albeit a bit more punk) that allows The Bluetones’s Expecting To Fly to be even more appreciated. Both of these albums came about (or were made) in the latter half of the 90s, and after being exposed to that time period with Kid Kilowatt, I was better able to appreciate what The Bluetones had done. Expecting To Fly is a wonderful, bluesy selection of tracks that take subtle influences from The Who, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and all others of that era along with influences of their own generation: most notably the slight nod of a head in the direction of prog acts that existed during the latter half of the 90s. Expecting To Fly is a deliciously groovy splatter of blues rock. Beginning with the sounding of a jet passing overhead, the opening track “Talking To Clarry” soon moves to a short instrumental, leading later to an oscillation between chorused guitars, tight gain, and vocal interludes that lasts the entirety of the remaining time. Other standout tracks include “The Fountainhead,” a looser, more relaxed cut featuring light acoustic guitar under clean electric and off beat rhythms; “Putting Out Fires,” a classic song with Zeppelin-infused vocals and spiraling blues solos; and “Time & Again,” the closing track that builds very deliberately into a burst of drowned out vocals, quick paced rhythms, and winding guitar. Expecting To Fly is a traditional blues rock album done in a not-so-blues rock way; it’s perfect for what it is.
Tyler Sirovy (@tswarovy)
Budding Appraiser Of Sonic Complexities
I had never listened to The Bluetones before this week; I actually forgot that the moment that I began listening to Expecting To Fly. Listening to this album felt like hitting up a time machine. It brought me to a very specific version of the mid-90s, one that I didn’t experience firsthand and one that’s been cobbled together like so many pop culture references. It sounds like Jeep rides. It sounds like hanging at the mall. It sounds like drinking a damn Fruitopia. Having this soundtrack, a weekend of binge-watching Friends for the first time just felt right. This sensation all coalesced on my favorite track, “Things Change.” On first listen, it felt like the last twenty years remembering this song that I’ve never actually heard. While typing this, the tracks’ warm guitars began giving me a montage flashback. Time to go see if the landline is free so I can call my friends and tell them they need to head down to Tower Records ASAP.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
“How will you ever learn / When your hands are tied and your bridges burned?”
After I started playing “Talking To Clarry” for the first time earlier this week, I went to the Wikipedia page for Expecting To Fly and saw that this was the album that — albeit temporarily — surpassed (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? to become the UK’s #1 album. That bit of trivia has stuck with me throughout the time I’ve spent getting to know The Bluetones’ debut, and I think it’s because there are links between the albums beyond their passing on the charts. Certain sonic signatures — guitar sounds, especially — feel very mid-90s. The jaunty strumming in the chorus of “Slight Return” fits that time so well it feels representative, like the decade’s relative innocence and eventual economic upswinging were squeezed into the chords played then. Like flowers pressed between yearbook pages. I was 13 when Expecting To Fly came out — catching in little league, going to middle school, Bill Clinton starting his second term — and as hard as it is to look back through the cloud of anxiety I felt at the time, it really was a period worthy of optimism. It makes me wonder how we’ll look back at the middle of this decade. What are we wasting our time worrying about now? What don’t we know now that will make us see this era as innocent? “Slight Return” says “All this will fade away” — and of course it will. But it’s hard to know what “this” is until it’s gone.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
As a teenager, I would save up my chore money to buy a new cassette or CD. The first listen was always reserved for headphones without distractions. The second listen was usually with headphones, but with the lyric sheet and artwork. One album at a time, I built a collection of music that I knew backwards and forwards. As I got a job and more money, I bought more and more music. By the time I landed my dream position at the local record store, I no longer had enough time to spend hours with each album. Fast Forward to iPods and now streaming music…we digest so much so quickly that it has been really nice to slow it down for Off Your Radar. My first impressions of many of the picks so far were more judgmental, but as the weeks go by, I’ve been better about trying to reserve judgement until carefully listening. I listen to as many of the future picks as I can while I drive or work, but as we get closer to the deadline I find time to listen with headphones. All of that being said Expecting To Fly is not my jam, and that is okay! I can appreciate its relevance to 90s Britpop fans and would totally recommend The Bluetones to anyone if I still worked in a record store.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
I was too young in the 90s to really appreciate the Britpop movement in the UK. By the time I was old enough to truly appreciate Oasis, Blur, and Pulp, British music had long since moved into a more pop-centric movement. But whilst most guitar-based radio stations in the UK will still play those Britpop goliaths, The Bluetones seem to be long forgotten by the mainstream public. Expecting To Fly actually spent one week at number one in the UK album charts, knocking Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? off the top spot, yet it has fallen by the wayside in the conversation of great Britpop albums. This record though truly is a gem. Full of well-crafted hooks and melodies, The Bluetones have created an infectious, upbeat album. Slight Return, arguably their most well-known track, is by far the standout of the record. It’s a slice of wonderful guitar-pop that will stay in your head long after Expecting To Fly ends. Bluetonic and Things Change are also excellent tracks with great riffs. The Bluetones ultimately seem to be a victim of their time. They didn’t have the ego of Oasis, the popularity of Blur, or the quirkiness of Pulp. They were a great band surrounded by excellent bands. Overall, Expecting To Fly is a classic slice of 90s Britpop that won’t disappoint.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
This is the exactly the type of record I crave from clever 25-year-olds: a subtle middle finger to the establishment that also exposes the cracks in their meticulous bravado. Let’s tackle the middle finger first because there’s swagger abound here that goes hand in hand with trolling their detractors a full decade before such a thing was even celebrated. They named their album Expecting To Fly, people. Yes, it’s named after Buffalo Springfield song, but at face value, their ego was on full display before fans even had a chance to peel back that annoying film over the jewel case. To them, it was inevitable they would fly and, as many have covered here today, they did so even in the face of Oasis’ monumental year. Moving on, there are antagonizing references galore across the record to England’s legendary acts. Let’s hone in on the fact that they named “Slight Return” after a song sonically antithetical: Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Twenty years later, I can still feel rock purists seething over that one. Jeez, the balls on this band, something that was actually noticeable from the very first song on their record too. Their debut record I might add. Released in the height of the British album wars, it opens with a seven minute meandering song that shows off no discernible musical strengths except their ability to be as subtly charming as possible. That affable charm, and their ability to mask it, was always The Bluetones’s greatest strength and their peers were often too preoccupied to even attempt it. Oasis and Blur were too busy one-upping the other while Pulp had their hands full trying to channel the genius of Jarvis Cocker. And here were The Bluetones — outwardly portraying rock stars while humbling reducing Britpop to a relatable existence for all fans. From record one, The Bluetones knew the score and they only got better from here, even as the commercial appeal of Britpop faded.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Alas by Idaho
Chosen By Matt Klimas