Album: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, "Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds" (Sour Mash)
He always was the "smart" one of the Gallagher boys, even judging merely by his brother Liam's propensity for drunken slag-talking and profoundly impromptu Nigel Tufnel moments ("standing on the shoulder of giants," anybody?), and Noel apparently still carries the intellectual weight in the family, given the way the British press is falling over themselves for him right now for this lightweight truffle of a rock-and-roll record.
It's not an unpleasant listen -- Noel Gallagher retains much of the gift for grand, sweeping pop gestures that made Oasis album releases genuine pop culture events in the mid-'90s -- but one can't help feel that the two brothers should bury the hatchet and get back to the business of scuffling with each other in the recording studio instead of via the tabloids.
"High Flying Birds" assembles a crack crew of anonymous hired guns to surround its autocratic dictator (including a few Manchester session musicians and a "freelance percussionist" from Los Angeles named "Lenny"), who no longer even has to pretend to deal with other human beings and their theoretical wants or needs, and especially not sloppy ones who share your last name. The songs roll out with that same movie soundtrack sense of fading ballroom grandeur that Oasis simply owned, in a generic sense, but with little of the edge provided by Liam's thin-edge-of-sanity vocals; Noel sang lead on most Oasis albums about as often as Dave Davies sang on Kinks records, and for about the same reason: there's a milquetoast quality to Noel Gallagher's voice on even its best days that makes you think the real singer is out having a smoke.
The Oasis-by-numbers opener, "Everybody's on the Run," starts off sweet but goes on too long, Noel's lack of drive doing nothing to urge the song toward any sort of conclusion, so it sort of just sits there until the wheels fall off. "Dream On" is more in Gallagher's zone, a pleasant piece of pseudo doo-wop that recalls early Frank Black solo efforts. It's also exactly the sort of setpiece/tempo changer that was notably absent on Liam's own Beady Eye flopathon from earlier this year. Like most tunes on this disc however, it goes on for about a minute too long.
Gallagher continues to stall for time on the "Champagne Supernova" wannabe "If I Had a Gun" and the skiffle-inspired "The Death of You and Me," which further exposes Noel's Kinks obsession, something that frequently got lost in the shadows of Liam's much more desperate Beatles psychosis (he seemed to believe that the Fab Four were actual modern contemporaries that Oasis were competing with on an album-to-album basis, for instance; it's not easy being Liam Gallagher much of the time.)
There's nothing particularly groundbreaking going on here in Noel Gallagher's songcraft (although the lyrically intriguing "Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks" sits somewhere between The Box Tops and Blood, Sweat and Tears, sonically, which is much more appealing than it sounds like it should be), but he does all the things on this solo debut that he should be expected to do well. The songwriting is top-notch, the musicianship is of a uniformly professional level, and the production (by Gallagher and "super-producer" Dave Sardy) is tight and professional: if all that sounds like somewhat faint praise, there's a good chance you missed a few of Oasis' albums from the last decade. Infighting probably destroyed any chance that band had of achieving the sort of rock legend stratification reserved for the U2s and Radioheads of this (British) world, but it also provided the group with higher highs to match its deep, sulking lows.
Whereas Noel's High Flying Birds are merely competent and reliable. There's a moment on "Stop the Clocks," the album's final tune and one obviously reserved for big curtain-dropper status, where the guitars and swirling synths and echo effects drop out and everything gets quiet, and the singer comes on and starts to belt out "Stop the clocks and turn everything around!" In the movie, the guitarist waves his estranged singer out onstage to finish the song with a heroic flourish; they hug and take a bow and the crowd goes wild and there's some crying and some sort of Coldplay song as the credits roll. (In "This is Spinal Tap," it's the singer waving the guitarist onstage for a spontaneous reunion.)
For Noel Gallagher, there's only Noel Gallagher to finish the song. It's good, but it's not enough. Many people will be surprised to discover that they really did need a little more Liam Gallagher in their lives, and Noel is probably one of those people.