"Was it a dream I had/ When did it turn bad?" Ash lead singer Tim Wheeler sings yearningly on the soaring power-pop by way of Tin Pan Alley ballad "Someday." It's the bittersweet centerpiece of Free All Angels, a long-playing paean to the passing of summer love, its remembered glories, and, most significantly, the ability of the three-minute song to soothe the pain. "Someday" suggests Judy Garland fronting The Ramones; along with all but two or three of the remaining tracks, it's the logical consolidation of the gravel-and-gloss promise the Irish group first showed on its 1996 major-label debut, 1977, and nearly lost in the beautiful wreckage of 1998's Nu-Clear Sounds.
The obvious emotional reference point is Brian Wilson, but the Beach Boys never got off on sheer momentum the way Ash insist upon doing. These lads (and lass) have both punk and pop hearts, the kind that never let a great melody get in the way of a grinding minor chord, or a nasty riff overwhelm a huge chorus. If nothing else, this is a killer collection of UK hits and potential hits.
1997 was loaded with hooky guitar rock, the brainchild of a trio of wonderfully snotty teenagers, Wheeler (guitars, vocals), childhood friend Mark Hamilton (bass) and Rick "Rock" McMurray (drums). It rubbed lacerating power chords up against rapid-fire drumming, and contained at least three certified alternative-pop classics: "Oh Yeah," "Kung Fu," and "Girl From Mars." There was something endearing about Wheeler's thin voice battling the loud guitars for space in the mix; even if the record could have benefited from some judicious editing, it suggested great things were ahead.
When Charlotte Hatherley (guitar, vocals) joined the group in 1997 she added some much-needed female energy (the live gigs definitely improved) and served to thicken Wheeler's vocals and buff up the harmonies. To poor commercial ends, though Nu-Clear Sounds, for all its compelling post-grunge squalor, did a nosedive from the charts and left the band pondering bankruptcy.
The only natural reaction to such career turmoil? Head to the beach, fall in and out of love, have mad sex in the sand and watch it all fall apart again. Then, turn the amps to 11, dash off a dozen and one songs, and debut at #1 on the UK charts.
See? This rock 'n' roll thing is only as complicated as you choose to make it.
Opener "Walking Barefoot" is a lovely guitar-driven scene-setter with a graceful tune that holds nothing in greater esteem than holding hands and lamenting a summer still in high season. "There's a Star" (more epic strings), the explosive "Burn Baby Burn" (full throttle rock 'n' roll) and "Candy" (a ballad with odd, anomalous keyboards and samples) map similarly sincere lyrical terrain. Actually, two of Wheeler's great qualities as a lyricist are his sappiness and romanticism. He gets away with spouting crap like "You are a shining light/ You light up my life" because of Ash's captivating melodies and propulsive rhythms (big shout-out here to McMurray, whose rock-solid drumming grounds everything and pushes several tracks into that other side Ash is proving capable of reaching.)
Not everything works. Forced artiness and a periodic tendency toward the generic undermine several cuts. In "Submission," the least of the many sex songs here, an unerotic Wheeler vocal loop ("You turn me on") repeats itself until the entire house, as Polly Jean Harvey might put it, is left dry. And for all their vigor, the tracks "Shark" and "Nicole" are simply not distinctive enough to keep company with the remainder of the album. Still, this is real indication that 1977 wasn't a mirage and this band will be around for years to come. Nobody in Ash is older than mid-20s, and it seems likely that Free All Angels (a 2001 UK release; currently only available in the U.S. as an import) will eventually be seen as a stop along the way to something more powerful. For now, it's a great place to stand.