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by Sarah Clark
Born in the baggy boom of the late 1980s, The Charlatans remain one of the UK's best-kept secrets despite sell-out tours and three No. 1 albums. They have rightly earned their label as baggy survivors. A nervous breakdown, jail sentence, alcoholism and a fatal car crash might have suggested that fate was against them and that giving up might have been the best option. But an option it never became. Here they are, in their tenth year and with their seventh album, hailed as the best thing they've ever written, showing that their capabilities for knocking out top tunes are still intact.
The new album "Us And Us Only" finds The Charlatans a long way from their debut "Some Friendly", in fact you could even say it finds them a long way from their last album, "Tellin' Stories", released in 1997. All seven LPs have their own distinctive groove, each defining an era in the history of the band. Is it this ever-changing sound that keeps every Charlatans fan coming back for more, and keeps earning them a few more on the way?
Ask any of the fans and you'd probably hear them say they'd prefer the Charlatans to remain a well-kept secret, just for us and us only in the UK. So far the band have always remained loyal to their ever-faithful fans. Events such as the Daytripper weekend in 1993, a shared gig with Ride in the two seaside towns of Brighton and Blackpool, saw fans travelling from all over the country to see the band, at the time being knocked down by the media for an apparently not-so-classic second album.
1994 brought the legendary Trentham Gardens gig. Tim, Superman T-shirt and all, still claims it is the best gig they've ever done. One-offs like that bring the fans together and give them a feeling that they really are "part of something more". In 1997 the arena tour including sell-out gigs at Manchester's Nynex and London's Docklands, showed that they could play bigger, and even better gigs. It seemed like the recognition they deserved was finally here.
But since the high that surrounded the "Tellin' Stories" album in 1997, public attention and chart positions have dropped. The music press rave about the new album and the band themselves think it is the most complete LP they have ever written, but some fear that the new direction may have turned just one too many corners.
Lead singer Tim Burgess, once Jaggeresque in his stage presence has chilled out a bit recently, in tune to the music. Produced in the new Big Mushroom studios that The Charlatans built themselves in their home county of Cheshire, "Us and Us Only" has been described by the band as an LP without "clutter". You won't find any of the strings samples that litter indie albums of late, it's stripped down, simple and easy-going.
Bob Dylan, their often-hailed number one influence, has had a distinct effect - the waltzes, the harmonica - even the vocals sound as though Tim has been gargling with Jack Daniels. Tim claims that the likeness to Dylan was not intentional, more that the Dylan style was just the way the Charlatans were heading. He says he's grown up now, and lost the indie swagger; it's not about posing anymore, it's just about the songs.
Critics' reviews stated that the current change in style might be a result of the band's renewed enthusiasm to break America. Unable to do so back in 1991, even after a change of name to The Charlatans UK (at the request of a psychedelic 1960's band with the same name) the band feel the time has now come to try again. Tim Burgess wants the Charlatans to go down in Rock 'n' Roll history, and, sad as it seems, they probably won't get their name in the history books unless they are able to crack America. Fingers are crossed and hopes are pinned on this LP being the one that will do it for them.
To appreciate the new album is to accept its simplicity and individuality. The Charlatans have never claimed to conform to a scene, more that coincidentally they usually seem to fit into the sound of the time. As chance would have it, this time they have not, you won't find much else like it in the chart of today. But as Tim would say, times are changing, and isn't it about time we had something a bit different to listen to?
The new single, "My Beautiful Friend" is on sale now.