A second instalment of my Popular comments on late 1996, indirectly featuring one of my favourite bands of a few years later, and directly featuring one of my favourite bands of the decade after that.

Deep Blue Something, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, 5 October 1996

UK music buyers do it again: first Stiltskin achieve the grunge number one that should have belonged to any number of better bands and songs, and then these guys do the same for the poppier end of ’90s alt-rock. Some representatives of the latter appeal to me a great deal: Matthew Sweet, Ben Folds, the New Pornographers and Semisonic were at various points in the ’90s and ’00s among my favourite artists, and I still check out their new releases. (I must admit that I still haven’t listened to Dan Wilson’s 2007 album Free Life since I picked it up last year, but I’d go in to bat for Semisonic any day: they were a lot more than the guys who did “Closing Time”, and that was a lot better than the song under consideration.)

So I know the musical language of which we momentarily speak. I can recognize this as a typical example of the use of that vernacular. And I can hear the words recede into the background like chatter in the street, as I forget what any of them were beyond the title. It was apparently chosen because it made for a catchier song title than Roman Holiday, but one unfortunate consequence is that the song brings to mind Mickey Rooney’s performance rather than Gregory Peck’s. (Another, according to the singer, was that they always ended up being asked to appear on breakfast radio.)

I had no memory of the song, but when I watched the video something stirred, so I must have heard it when it was reaching number 3 in Australia in early 1996. But as Texan power-pop alt-rock one hit wonders of the ’90s go, I’ll take Fastball, thanks. (The Houston Press, meanwhile, once called this the second-worst song from Texas of all time, after another old friend).

Unfamiliarity breeds slightly less contempt, so it’s a 4 from me today.

The dissing of Semisonic was soon well and truly underway, so I did as promised above and went into bat for them...

I’ve never personally heard “Closing Time” played to clear people out of a pub, in the UK or anywhere else. I didn’t set foot in many pubs between its release in 1999 and around 2003, when I first started pub quizzing with friends, so I missed its heyday in that role, I suppose. Instead, I first heard it as the opening track on the album I picked up on spec during a visit to San Francisco in 1999. The band felt like a personal discovery rather than something forced on me by pubs or radio, which I’m sure affected how I listened to them. Their first album, which I bought a month later, was similarly unknown to me, and when their third album came out in 2001, I wasn’t really surprised by the indifference it met, even though I thought it was great.

A few things made me feel they were good. I liked Dan Wilson’s voice, and I’m a sucker for backing harmonies in the family tree of Beatles. The band played well, and I’m fond of that particular combination of pop-rock textures. Wilson’s lyrics were mostly teen-angst-free and middle-aged-angst free, the lyrics of a happy man in his thirties, and in hindsight that mattered too: the late nineties (my late twenties/early thirties) were some of the happiest years of my life, so I had less time for downbeat music. (Not no time, as this was also the era of OK Computer and Kid A, but it was about the overall balance.) For me, Semisonic were the soundtrack of the Web boom years, years which shaped everything I do today.

Wilson’s work struck me as being worth mention alongside some of the great practitioners of the power-pop form. He was never my prime example—none of the Semisonic albums matched Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend or (unjustly overlooked) In Reverse for me—but he was a solid one; almost any of his songs work better for me than Deep Blue Something’s brief moment in the something. He’s been more of a songwriter in recent years than a performer in his own right, for acts I haven’t really followed myself, like the Dixie Chicks and Josh Groban, and in that context we’ll get a chance to discuss him again whenever Popular reaches 2011. But for now, he and his band were much more than a convenient PA device for last orders.

(This thread prompted me to go back to Free Life and give it a proper listen at last. I can see why my first play of six months ago left me uninclined to go back; it has the common solo-album problem of being too unplugged and fading into the background unless you listen to it intently. It could have done with being a 45-minute Semisonic album rather than a 55-minute solo album. But the closing track, “Easy Silence”, caught my attention this time, and could end up being my path back into the rest. Turns out he gave that one to the Dixie Chicks first, but I much prefer his version.)

The Chemical Brothers, “Setting Sun”, 12 October 1996

After our discussion of the previous number one I feel my awareness fragmenting, breaking free of the specific moments represented by the time these songs were number one in the UK. We’re now in General-Late-’90s territory, when I heard some songs earlier and some later than they’ll appear here, and it all turned into a mishmash of alt-rock, big beat and electronica. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream...

So it was with the Chemical Brothers. My gateway drug to big beat was the Prodigy, and it was their albums and the Propellerheads’ that defined it for me in the late ’90s. I did pick up the Bros’ Exit Planet Dust in ’98, but it didn’t click for me straight away; it took “Hey Boy Hey Girl” to open the doors of perception, and not until I bought Surrender in 2001, a few months before moving to the UK. From there the rest followed in a glorious rush, peaking with Come With Us, the first of their albums that I personally helped send to number one here. The Chemical Brothers were possibly my favourite band of the 2000s; certainly one of my top three.

Did I hear “Setting Sun” back in the day, and just not have an ear for it yet? I can’t remember. As far as I’m aware, the single didn’t do much on the Australian charts, but I presume it got some Triple J airplay. Certainly I would have recognised it as an homage to “Tomorrow Never Knows” right away, as by then Revolver was firmly my favourite Beatles album.

To quote the deathless lyrics of Mr Noel Gallagher, whatever. The point is that for me this was more or less an album track, from an album somewhat overshadowed in my listening by newer releases, and assessed in that context. And in that context, it wasn’t my favourite; the “Tomorrow Never Knows” influence wasn’t a problem for me, nor were Gallagher’s vocals (even hearing them a few years after all Oasis illusions had been shattered)—I just preferred a few other album tracks to this one. So from an album I’d give an 8, this is pretty much squarely in the middle... which makes it an 8, I guess.

Robson and Jerome, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” / “Saturday Night at the Movies” / “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, 9 November 1996

This was a disturbing listen, not because of the songs, but because at first my reaction was: This isn’t that bad. Could I possibly end up giving higher than 3 to a Robson and Jerome song?

But then I realised that the single had two more A-sides beyond “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?”, and was quickly reassured by YouTube that they were just as horrible as their earlier number ones, so the average comes down to a far more respectable figure.

Their “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” really isn’t that bad; the song itself is a drop-dead Motown classic, and the production and performances here are unobjectionable enough to make it passable radio fare, at least before they go all polyphonic in the last 30 seconds. I’d give Jimmy Ruffin’s original an 8, and Robson and Jerome only destroy about half of that inherent value, so if they’d stopped there they would have scored a four from me. If they hadn’t worn out their welcome with two previous number ones, I might even have stretched to five.

However! “Saturday Night at the Movies” is pointless, and a 2. And “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is positively painful, and a 1. So that’s an average of 2.333, which rounded to the nearest whole number equals 2. That’s more like it.

12 February 2014 · Music