Hard to believe it's been a decade since Teenage Fanclub first graced the world with its shimmer-pop, son-of-Big-Star opus, Bandwagonesque, when the band held the distinction of being the "hip" Geffen band between Sonic Youth and Nirvana. While the days of major label conquest may be over for these melodious Scotsmen, you gotta at least give 'em credit for doing the whole indie rock rags-to-riches story backwards: These guys had already come off the major label horse before most alt-rock entities were makin' the hefty climb into the saddle and -- almost as if to confound conventional wisdom -- they've had a fledgling career in the shadows ever since.
On Howdy, its fifth album and first for Thirsty Ear, the group still revolves around the lush pastoral melodies of its principal songwriters, Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley, who continue to write the kind of glistening pop constructions that make it easy for rock critics to play "spot the influence." The opening track, "I Need Direction," is one of the best songs they've ever done, a gangbusting opus with "Chestnut Mare"-like introspection, the Beatles' "bah bah bah" harmonies, and even some Dylan organ. "Near You" is very good as well -- these guys are capable of piloting those high-flying Byrds harmonics with almost aerodynamic precision. "Dumb Dumb Dumb," on the other hand, rings with clarity as it stomps through a mid-tempo heartland riff that wouldn't necessarily sound out of place on a John Mellencamp album. Similarly, "The Sun Shines From You," isn't far from the laid-back breeziness of any "jam" band you could name. Familiar sounds, sure, but it's just that familiarity that has made Teenage Fanclub such a benign institution.