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Thursday, May 12, 2005
Can Coldplay steal Oasis's crown?
Britain's top two rock bands are releasing albums within a week of each other. Neil McCormick has heard them both
Oasis and Coldplay, arguably the most popular and significant rock bands in the UK, are set to release new albums which should reveal a great deal about the healthy state of British pop music.
Oasis: 'There's this thing about passing the torch,' says Noel. 'But the torch is never passed, it's taken'
This is no bitter Blur vs Oasis rivalry. They may seem worlds apart in terms of background and sensibility - the hedonistic, defiantly working-class Manchester lads and the polite public school students from the south - but there is surprising respect between both camps.
Oasis's band leader Noel Gallagher describes Coldplay as a "top band. They blew me away." Coldplay singer and songwriter Chris Martin says that Oasis songs were pivotal in his own development. "They're lad anthems," he says, "but you don't have to be a lad to like them. They're for everyone. When Noel cares and he's got something to say about his life, then he's untouchable."
Which is not to say that Coldplay don't have ambitions to reach the same dizzy heights as Oasis. At the root of both bands is an overarching optimism, fierce ambition and respect for the power of song as a vehicle for human dreams. "I don't see it as competing against any other person," Martin has said. "I just see it as pushing what we can do as far as we can. What matters is trying to write the best tunes in the world."
Following the worldwide success of 2001's A Rush of Blood to the Head there is a sense that Coldplay are poised on the brink of all-conquering global household name status. Noel Gallagher, however, is not going to surrender the mantle of Britain's Greatest Living Band easily. "There is always this thing about passing the torch," according to Noel. "But the torch is never passed, it's taken away. We took it off the Stone Roses. Chris Martin has to take it off us."
Oasis are up first. Their single Lyla is released on Monday, followed by their sixth studio album, Don't Believe the Truth. Coldplay release a single, Speed of Sound, on May 23, followed by their third album X&Y. Both albums took more than a year to record amid aborted sessions, changes of producer, much rethinking and rewriting.
Despite this, Don't Believe the Truth is the kind of pithy, lively little rock and roll album that sounds as if it might have been recorded in a week in a sweaty basement. (Early experimental sessions with psychedelic dance-rock producers Death in Vegas were quickly scrapped by Noel.) The elder Gallagher doesn't so much wear his influences on his sleeve as parade them like a robber baron showing off his swag.
Mucky Fingers has the chunky rhythm of the Velvet Underground's Waiting for the Man, Lyla purloins a melody from the Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man, The Importance of Being Idle may be the greatest Kinks song Ray Davies never wrote, and the epic ballad Let There Be Love rises from a Lennon-esque electric piano sequence (the closest thing to a genuine singalong classic on the album). And then there are the usual shades of the Beatles, T-Rex and Led Zeppelin.
After the morbid introspection that had infected recent offerings, Noel's songs display the kind of belligerent optimism that characterised Oasis at their height. It is part of the paradoxical charm of this band that they can combine a kind of brutal hard-rock aesthetic with a sunny, singalong optimism. Liam Gallagher can turn blandishments such as "Let love be your guide" into a threat, singing with a sneer that makes you think it's a choice between love or a broken nose.
There is an edge to Coldplay, a kind of stuttering, indie grit that counteracts its sweetness
The odd chord shifts and sweet melodies of Liam's own three compositions confirm his growing abilities as a songwriter (albeit with an overriding Lennon obsession), while bassist Andy Bell and guitarist Gem Archer fill the album out with uplifting melodic rockers.
What is missing are the kind of generation-defining songs that made Oasis the essential band of their era. With its freshness and spirit, Don't Believe the Truth may be hailed as a return to form, but it does not reclaim the zeitgeist. It's a collection of songs that sound as if you've heard them before (and in some cases you probably have).
Coldplay have their eyes set higher. X&Y is an album that aches with its own significance. It opens with an atmospheric wash of synths and weird guitar treatments as portentous as anything in the Pink Floyd canon, over which Martin's voice floats, singing, "You're in control, is there anywhere you wanna go?"
It's a promise that he is going to take the listener on a journey. And when the full force of the band kicks in, the thrill of anticipation is high.
This is a lush, layered work, but at the core of the luxurious soundscapes are songs that get under the skin. If Oasis remain in thrall to the sonic thrust of hard rock, Coldplay are the undisputed kings of a new, softer form.
On tremulous, touching ballads such as What If and Fix You there is melodic sweetness, epigrammatic positivity and high, ""ooh ooo" harmonies oddly reminiscent of Wings. But if, in the Beatles template that also underpins Oasis, Martin's writing owes more to McCartney than Lennon, he has some of the questioning spirit, angry idealism and seriousness of purpose of the latter.
There is an edge to Coldplay, a kind of stuttering, indie grit that counteracts its sweetness. This is an album that asks questions about the state of the world and concludes not with blandishments about love but with the angry snarl of Twisted Logic, urging listeners to stand up for what they believe in.
Martin is not always the most eloquent songwriter. His rhyming can be trite (I suspect even Noel at his most throwaway would have baulked at Swallowed By the Sea's opening rhymes of "tree", "me" and "see"), his metaphors repetitive (there is a lot about the sea and outer space) and his melodies sometimes have a nursery-rhyme quality, but the emotional commitment of the performance, the modernity of his band's sound and the inventiveness of the constantly shifting arrangements (his songs are as immediate as Noel's without being quite so obvious) lend X&Y a sense of substance.
While the new Oasis album almost revels in its lack of pretension, X&Y is greater than the sum of its parts. I hate to break it to Noel, but I suspect that while Oasis have already staked their place in history, Coldplay are about to.
'Don't Believe the Truth' is released on May 30 on Big Brother records. '
X&Y' (Parlophone) is out on June 6.
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