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Oasis – Don’t Believe the Truth – Classic Music Review

Originally published May 2013, rewritten February 2016.

When Don’t Believe the Truth hit the shelves, I had pretty much given up on Oasis, mourning the loss of unrealized potential. The trajectory of the band seemed to be that of a plummeting roller coaster with lousy brakes. They had burst through the confusion of an aimless music scene of the time with Definitely Maybe, a ringing statement of the value of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll and one of the great debuts in music history. What’s the Story Morning Glory became a classic as well, containing many of their most memorable and lasting songs. The cocaine and the crap caught up with them on the forgettable Be Here Now, though the negative impact was blunted by the subsequent release of The Masterplan, demonstrating the strength of their back catalog. The next two albums were clear disappointments, and only the most optimistic believed a revival was possible.

So, when Don’t Believe the Truth was released, I wasn’t exactly standing in line before the music store opened to snag a copy.

When I finally caved in and bought the damn thing, I listened skeptically to the first two songs and had what I would describe as a mildly positive but reserved reaction. One key moment in “Lyla” blasted any doubts I had to smithereens. I knew they were really serious when Liam climbed up the scale and snagged that high note on the line, “The world around us makes me FEEL so small,” a tiny moment that caused chills to shoot up and down my spine and send an electric charge to my sweet spot. “Fuck, yeah!” I screamed to the empty room. I stopped the playback immediately, returned to the beginning and listened to the entire album three times in a row. The next day I put it on first thing in the morning after my coffee and cigarette and it was only then I allowed myself to define exactly what I was hearing in Don’t Believe the Truth.

The long-awaited masterpiece.

Several things contributed to the vast and stunning improvement over Heathen Chemistry. First, the bullshit tension between the brothers took a back seat to the desire to make some great music. Gem Arthur and Andy Bell played stronger roles, giving the Gallagher boys some musicians who could not only play but write and make valuable contributions. Liam continued to grow as a songwriter, differentiating himself from his brother with his natural affinity for melodic flow. Finally, hiring Zak Starkey to pound the drums was a masterstroke, as the weakest part of the Oasis sound until that time had been the drumming. Don’t Believe the Truth was the first time Oasis had recorded an album where the drums really mattered.

The album opens with Andy Bell’s “Turn Up the Sun,” with its magical guitar arrangement building to a fabulous climax and setting the stage for Liam to deliver one hell of an opening line:

I carry a madness everywhere I go

When I saw them do it live (in Everett fucking Washington, of all places), I closed my eyes for the intro and waited with nervous anticipation for Liam to sing that opening line with the confidence and command he showed on the record. Holy fuck, did he ever! He nailed it, bringing moisture to my eyes and clitoris. The song is power surrounded by magic, with take-no-prisoners power chords, full and satisfying bass and knock-you-on-your ass drum support. Some have commented that the song’s repeated message of “love one another” is so-1960’s, but I would respond, “Since when is the power of love limited to a decade?” “Turn Up the Sun” is a great song, as strong an opening track as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.”

Noel follows with “Mucky Fingers,” and it must be said up front that Don’t Believe the Truth contains Noel’s best vocal performances, and the songs where he takes control of the mikes are among his strongest creations. “Mucky Fingers” is a song about having to deal with bullshit people in the bullshit, competitive atmosphere of the modern city, an Noel exposes the superficial, unthinking, sound-byte culture for what it is:

You found your God in a paperback
You get your history from the Union Jack
And all your brothers and sisters have gone
And they won’t come back

I’m fed up with life in the city
All the phonies have blown my mind

“Lyla” follows, a song that is surprising on many levels, but the greatest surprise connected with “Lyla” is that Noel considered leaving it off the album! It wasn’t until he felt the reaction of a live audience to the song that he knew he had something. As I’ve mentioned before, the great Oasis songs command the listener to sing along, and the “Hey, Lyla” refrain is as good as it gets for sing-a-long purposes.

The arrangement is carefully constructed for maximum effect. The reverberating acoustic guitar that opens the song and fills the headphones establishes both the dominance of the root note (B), the core driving rhythm and the syncopated four-beat pattern that will reappear at crucial throughout the song. Zak Starkey joins in to reinforce the beat, then Liam enters in clear, confident command:

Calling all the stars to fall
And catch the silver sunlight in your hands
Call for me to set me free
Lift me up and take me where I stand

The bass doesn’t enter until the fifth line of the verse, ratcheting up the tension another notch. After Liam sings the closing lines of the second verse, “I waited for a thousand years for you to come and blow me out of my mind second verse,” Zak Starkey ramps it up with cymbal crash while the band remains absolutely fixated on keeping the core rhythm intact. The magic of “Lyla” is fueled by that insistent beat, and except for the four-beat vamp and a relatively brief passage containing the guitar solo, the core beat and the B-note drone never die. The discipline displayed in “Lyla” is a long way from the sassy, relaxed sloppiness of Definitely Maybe, but the outcome is still the same: great fucking rock ‘n’ roll.

Tip: If you’re trying to mimic the arrangement of “Lyla” and all you have is your acoustic guitar, always play the chords with an open B-string. Your version may lack the bottom of the original, but the open B maintains the drone and provides the drunks at the party enough of a hint so that they stay relatively on-key during the sing-along.

Liam developed a fascination with the Julie Christie of the 1960’s and enlisted Gem Archer’s assistance in creating an ode to her stunning beauty, “Love Like a Bomb.” Sung over a simple arrangement of flashing acoustic guitar and percussion, the melody floats along effortlessly, reflecting the dreamy fascination of a teenage crush. Liam’s vocal is unusually—dare I say—submissive, expressing the joy of discovering the magic of female beauty. Up to Don’t Believe the Truth, Liam’s songs were generally tunes with a pleasant juvenile quality but not much depth or imagination. That all changes from this point forward, as he proves elsewhere on the album and with his amazing contribution to Dig Out Your Soul, “I’m Outta Time.”

Meanwhile, big brother’s got more to say, and man, does he say it in “The Importance of Being Idle,” a song Noel proudly defined as a classic in the accompanying DVD. In this case, the egoism is entirely justified. With a “Sunny Afternoon” feel but with more oomph, this is Noel Gallagher at his songwriting best. The intimate nature of the song becomes clear in the final verses, as he speaks to the cocaine-driven excess of the early years:

I begged by doctor for one more line,
He said, “Son, words fail me.”
It ain’t no place to be killing time
I guess I’m just lazy.

I also love the way the lead guitar solo echoes the sound of the guitar in “Turn Up the Sun.” There are many of these connections throughout the album, in both the lyrics and the music, giving Don’t Believe the Truth a wholeness often missing in other Oasis albums.

“Meaning of Soul” provides a quick burst of rock energy driven by Zak Starkey smashing away at a cornflakes box attached to the snare (they were looking for a very specific sound and found it in the cereal cupboard). The song serves as a brief intermission and effective to the contrasting sounds and beautifully-woven melody of “Guess God Thinks I’m Abel.” Once again we hear Liam’s incredible gift for melodic flow, this time in a more complex number with slightly shifting rhythms between verse, chorus and bridge. In this case, the simplicity of the lyrics communicate wonder rather than childishness:

You could be my best friend
Stay up all night long
You could be my railroad
We’d go on and on
Let’s get along—there’s nothing here to do
Let’s go find a rainbow.

Noel comes back with a different take on the weirdness of modern city life in the more intense “Part of the Queue.” When he sings, “I’m having trouble just finding some soul in this town,” my snarky response is, “Yeah, good luck with that.” As a committed city girl, I find cities endlessly energizing, but ever since the technology boom turned most of my generation into money-obsessed losers, cities are becoming places for the wealthy, where the pursuit of riches and status has dampened the dynamism and sanded down too many of the delightfully rough edges that make a city come alive. I’ve seen it happening in San Francisco, in London, in New York and in Paris, and I appreciate Noel’s expression of feeling like a fish out of water in a place that still looks the same on the surface but has lost the soul that made it special. The arrangement is fascinating—almost a duet featuring Noel and Zak Starkey, who pounds the living crap out of those drums.

An even more powerful but more personal song of isolation in the modern world comes next in the form of Andy Bell’s “Keep the Dream Alive,” a majestic ode to the differentiation between the world truths and personal truths. The message in the lyrics is that the tension between the desire to manifest self and the difficulty of doing so within the endless limitations presented “the real world” can only be resolved through a commitment to those personal truths and belief in one’s imagination:

I’m no stranger to this place
Where real life and dreams collide
And even though I fall from grace
I will keep the dream alive

Opening with complementary acoustic guitar parts and Liam singing the simple melodic line, the song becomes both more powerful and compelling after Zak Starkey’s explosive entrance. You simply can’t underestimate the value of Zak’s contribution to this album.

Obviously Zak’s daddy paid close attention to what his offspring was up to, and Ringo was particularly proud of his son’s contribution to “A Bell Will Ring.” When you tune out the rest and pay close attention to the drums, it’s almost like son is paying tribute to father because the patterns echo two of Ringo’s signature contributions: “Ticket to Ride” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” This is Gem Archer’s songwriting contribution to the album and it is one hell of a contribution, an intensely satisfying beat-driven rocker enhanced by an edgy vocal from Liam.

Although far too soon for my tastes, Don’t Believe the Truth comes to an end with Noel’s “Let There Be Love,” which closes this masterwork by connecting to the theme established at the start of the album (love) as well as the imagery (sun and sky). Either symbolically or ironically, the vocal is a dual vocal with Liam taking the verses and chorus and Noel handling the bridge. In addition to being one of the cleanest vocal performances Oasis has ever recorded, the message of love is given credibility by the juxtaposition of real world human pain and suffering:

Who kicked a hole in the sky so the heavens would cry over me?
Who stole the soul from the sun in the world come undone at the dreams?
Let there be love, let there be love.

“Let There Be Love” is a beautiful ending to a beautiful album, the album that would prove to be Oasis’ masterpiece.

 

Oasis – Dig Out Your Soul – Classic Music Review

Oasis-Dig_Out_Your_Soul-Frontal

The best decision Oasis made in approaching Dig Out Your Soul is to not try to re-create Don’t Believe the Truth.

The best advice any artist can receive is, “When you’ve done your best work to date, forget about it and try something different.” There’s always a strong pull to stay with the patterns that generated both excitement and artistic satisfaction, but a creative moment is just that: a moment in time governed by variables unique to that time. It’s best to move on and explore new possibilities.

Oasis figured that out, creating a heavier and darker soundscape in Dig Out Your Soul in contrast to the more melodic, free-flowing and upbeat feel of Don’t Believe the Truth. The result is a work where they sound both confident and curious, exploring new directions while remaining strongly attached to their core rock foundation and the ever-present influence of The Beatles. The only regret I have about this album is that it turned out to be their last, because it made you look forward to what they might come up with next.

I was in the crowd at the WaMu Theater in Seattle where they began their world tour promoting Dig Out Your Soul. Unfortunately, in an all-too common example of the disorganization that too often characterized their promotional efforts, the album hadn’t come out yet! I suppose that was the reason why they pretty much stuck to Oasis classics and tracks from Don’t Believe the Truth. That was unfortunate, for Dig Out Your Soul may not be the masterpiece that Don’t Believe the Truth turned out to be, but it still one of their better albums. I wish I’d seen a concert driven by the mood of Dig Out Your Soul, which is almost the evil twin of its predecessor.

The album opens with the crunchy chords and throbbing toms of “Bag It Up,” establishing one pattern that would set a good part of the feel of the music on Dig Out Your Soul: half-step movements. Here there’s a descending triple half-step movement on the last line of each verse, moving from F to E7 to E-flat 7 to D. The bluishness of the movement is accentuated by the use of the seventh chords, which always convey tension. This kind of movement (which we’ll also see in  “Shock of the Lightning”) gives the album a darker, grittier feel compared to the more optimistic scales used on Don’t Believe the Truth.

We also hear a single half-step descending movement at the start of the chorus on the minor-seventh dominated “The Turning,” reinforcing the comparative eeriness of the album. A second motif is established here: the rapture. Remember when a bunch of dumb ass Christians were getting ready to bash their heads into ceilings all over the world because they believed some nut who told them God was calling them home? Steve Miller would have been more bloody likely. Apparently, Noel Gallagher was fascinated by the concept (or the insanity of it all), for we have the line “When the rapture takes me, be the fallen angel by my side” in this song, and the next song is, voilà, “Waiting for the Rapture.” Also in a minor key, with another half-step move up in the chorus, this is a boozier song with more energy, some good old-fashioned Oasis kick-ass guitar licks and a delightfully energetic vocal from Noel. The song ends with the ever-present nod to The Beatles in the form of a “Dear Prudence”-like fade.

All the opening tracks are strong, but “Shock of the Lightning” is on another plane entirely. Dominated by oscillating half-step movement (B to B-flat and back), this is not only one of Oasis’ best rockers since their early heyday, it’s one of my favorite rockers of all time. The backing instrumentation is full, solid and consistently on edge, providing a perfect sonic stage for Liam Gallagher to deliver one of his greatest vocal performances. This is not the Liam of Definitely Maybe, whose natural timbre and cheekiness made up for a leisurely approach to pitch. This is an exceptionally disciplined lead singer in total command of his voice. The power that has always characterized his vocals is still omnipresent, but this is power with clear intent . . . and it’s fucking powerful. The very last line of the song, where he uses that command to capture the song’s oscillation pattern and stretches the word “time” into “ti-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay ay-ay-ay-ime,” gets my thighs grinding every time I hear it. Now that’s rapture!

In another great example of “stick to the simple,” I love how Noel’s lead solo tracks the melody instead of taking off in a different direction. Coming after the quieter passage and the lead in from Zak Starkey’s gloriously riotous drumming, the restraint he employs is very sexy indeed. I love a disciplined lover.

Whew! Cigarette!

Liam isn’t done yet, folks. Continuing to develop as a songwriter, he gives us the album’s most beautiful composition, “I’m Outta Time.” Showing once again a natural feel for melodic flow, he delivers a vocal as sensitive and nuanced as he ever has. It’s also a very refreshing change from the heavier numbers that made up the first four tracks. The piano touches from “A Day in the Life” and the excerpt from a John Lennon interview once again pay homage to the masters of melodic rock ‘n’ roll.

I suppose that given Noel’s vision of this album as one he wanted to “completely throw the kitchen sink at it,” there had to be at least one track that should have been left in the can, so “Get Off Your (High Horse Lady)” should not come as a surprise. With a pattern very reminiscent of the horrid “Wild Honey Pie” from the White Album, the song has a grating sonic quality that is most irritating. Noel gets his head screwed back on with “Falling Down,” borrowing the drum passage and some of the soundscape from “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Much more melodic and dynamic than the preceding track, this would prove to be Oasis’ last single.

 

Much of the album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, which may explain why Dig Out Your Soul is their most Beatle-influenced album. This is further confirmed by another drone song, Gem Archer’s “To Be Where There’s Life,” where the drone comes not from a real sitar but a cheap plastic toy sitar that sounds ab fab. Oasis can’t help but put rock energy into such a song, and the result is a swaying, unified track heightened by an energetic vocal from Liam. It’s followed by “Ain’t Got Nothin’,” where Noel’s kitchen sink mentality leads to a muddled mess reminiscent of Be Here Now. This is followed by Andy Bell’s “The Nature of Reality,” a track with sort of a mystical bluesy feel that works well in the overall context.

Oasis’ final album closes with “Soldier On,” another excellent Liam Gallagher contribution and one of the few songs I know where the vocal delay patch actually works. The strength of the song cannot be found in the lyrics, which consist of short monosyllabic phrases, but in the thumping groove, insistent drone and clean arrangement. Another song in a minor key, it puts the finishing touches on the dark unity that pervades the album.

No one in the world was surprised that Oasis called it quits. The Gallagher brothers were always calling it quits in one form or another throughout their run; this just proved to be the real deal. Liam moved on with Gem and Andy to form Beady Eye, whose debut album was a delight; Noel gathered his High Flying Birds and produced a debut album that was only so-so. There’s no question that they’re better together, as were Lennon and McCartney, but sometimes you have to move on. I was getting rather bored with their public sniping at each other, so I think I was ready for them to go, too.

Unfortunately, they’re still sniping at each other to this day, so now we have the noise without the beauty of the music to compensate for it.

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