The members of Supergrass are used to swallowing a little humble pie. Their emergence from the Britpop scene never led to the huge fame that many predicted. Radiohead has trumped them to the “Oxford’s favorite sons” tag. Last summer they found themselves supporting a newer, younger, more vibrant version of themselves when they opened for the Arctic Monkeys. Even drummer Danny Goffey’s dalliances with the British tabloids have a tawdry, z-grade feel to them.
So where to go, some 13 years after the youthful zing of I Should Coco? The acoustic sound of previous album, Road to Rouen, has thankfully been dispensed. And it sounds like producer Nick Launay, who has enjoyed a long association with Nick Cave, has picked them up by the lapels and asked the band members to remember what they’re good at.
The album begins with “Diamond Hoo Ha Man,” a song that more than lives up to their “cheeky chappie” reputation by lifting half of Jimmy Page’s riff from “Moby Dick.” Second track “Bad Blood” is similarly frenetic, and it actually sounds like the band are enjoying playing music again. Personal tragedies, such as the death of Gaz and Rob Coombes’ mother and bassist Mick Quinn’s horrific back injury, appear to be behind them, and they’ve rediscovered the sunny disposition that so endeared them to people in the first place.
Occasionally the album mashes into a formulaic whole, with Gaz cranking up his distorted guitar and Goffey pattering out a jaunty beat on one too many occasions. Tracks such as “When I Needed You” and “Rough Knuckles” are unlikely to be remembered when the Supergrass story is told. But they create a welcome diversion by indulging their fondness for ‘60s psychedelia, on “Whiskey & Green Tea,” which is filled with odd Sgt. Pepper-ish moments and great squalls of saxophone from guest player Pete Wareham.
This isn’t the album to take Supergrass beyond the middle ground they’ve been treading for so long. In many ways it’s a step back for the band, albeit one they needed to make. Some bands work well by taking risks and overhauling their sound every couple of years, but Supergrass come from a lineage of British groups (see also: Slade, Oasis, Status Quo) that can only function by consistently mining the same patch of tiny territory. Diamond Hoo Ha is by no means a return to the band’s glory days, but it at least offers a simple reminder of their talent for writing energetic, hook-laden pop songs.