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'TONE LOCO

The Bluetones: Expecting To Fly (Superior Quality/All formats)

...And sure enough, the first sound you hear, before the songs of bitter love, the bold statements of identity, and the sound of a group searching for something entirely new; before the journey really starts at all, is the sound of an aeroplane passing over The Bluetone's Hounslow home. Oh, they know where they came from, alright. And they know where they belong.

This is the story of "Expecting To Fly": the tale of quiet resolve winning out against the clatter of instant acclaim, of the redeeming power of single-mindedness against compromise; the joy in winning the battle bloodlessly, by force of personality alone. Not that the 'Tones themselves would use such a bold set of terms, but it is a strange debut album: a quiet fanfare; a manifesto written in a small typeface, that you have to look at again and again.

Then when you do, you find the workings not of a tossed-together band scrambling towards the spotlight, but the methodical sound of the assembled group. Who, we are left in no doubt, have taken pains to show us who they are, what they are about, and give us an inkling of where they're going to next. "Expecting To Fly" isn't just the sound of a group who have made preparations, it's of a group still preparing for something different, for when they go on to still greater things.

They have, after all, stated their intentions boldly elsewhere, and marked out that which is theirs: their debut single asked "Are You Blue Or Are You Blind?". They have their own bizarre concept of time (The Bluetones' day begins late and ends very late); they have their own vocabulary (a b-side called "Nae Hair On't"? Of course!); their own spelling ("Carnt Be Trusted"); their singer's own peculiar dances (indie-George Formby at a push), and their own colour. The point is, though, that Blue clearly isn't so much a colour, more a state of mind: you join the group on their search for that which is Bluetonic, that which carries with it the Essence of Bluetone. The search is necessarily accomplished with a little charm, and a lot of style.

So the album we listen to, almost by virtue of having it's own anthem "Bluetonic" alone, bears about it the hallmark of its makers: the understated charm of an acoustic song like "The Fountainhead" is a guarantee of quality on its own. It entertains notions as fanciful as being "the boy whose thoughts keep running through his head", and speaks quietly about how The Bluetones succeed. It's in the casual flick of the wrist, a rethink about what's cool, and an elegant flirtation with possible embarassment.

Throughout we are, basically, round their house. Just as the album starts with the sound of a 'plane overhead, there is, even if you have a CD copy, a crackle of antiquated static between 'sides' one and two. The only way to listen to pop music is, evidently, on vinyl, and this mood of the contemporary meeting the antiquated runs through the whole LP: it's in Mark Morriss describing women having qualities like "virtue" while Adam Devlin's guitar reverberates with the sound of epic Johnny Marr, and the way a baggy shuffle like "Cut Some Rug" mentions "the blitzkrieg and the doodlebug". The Bluetones have a refined gathering where Sir John Betjeman takes tea with Ian Brown, while the hosts themselves are eloquent men in excellent trainers.

Understandably, then, "Expecting To Fly" is a record that conducts itself with all moves between a deceptively casual shuffle and an occasionally rightful preen, with all moods between the celebration of the closing "Time And Again" and the bitterly lovelorn "Slight Return". It's where any direction that presents itself - sat the country-blues of "A Parting Gesture" where harp is blown, and guitar is slid - is seen to be less a hopeful juggler of genre than part of a larger set of schemes that the strictly pop likes of "Slight Return" had only hinted at.

Hear the English beat group dabble with both clarinet and xylophone! Hear the many configurations of guitarist Adam Devlin: the straight-backed tunesmith of "Time And Again", and the baggy behemoth of "Carnt Be Trusted"! Then take the example of the six-minute opening track, "Talking To Clarry" where the crash of virtuoso guitar gives way eventually to a brief twist of folk. It could be the drugs that did it of course, but more likely than that, it sounds like a statement of intent: if they are of a mind to begin their album with a wobbling and slightly flapping epic, then a wobbling and slightly flapping epic shall indeed provide its commencement. The skill of The Bluetones is to stand on the precipice completely indifferent to whether anyone applauds or watches them fall. It doesn't seem to bother them at all. They'd still do it anyway.

What pushes The Bluetones forward is their way of approaching the most hackneyed situations with just this attitude. "Putting Out Fires", probably the best new song on here, approaches the stale relationship with an incredible naivety. There's the slink of guitar, but it's Mark Morriss whose "Heart beats quicker, faster" because of "skin as pale as an alabaster", and runs the risk of "losing a lover/ And gaining a friend". Not to mention the risk of being branded, albeit romantically, as a right wuss. But still he keeps on. In "Talking To Clarry", in a fruitless relationship, he asks "Do you the answers to all of my questions?". "Maybe not," he says, "but I'd love to hear your suggestions." And this is the mood of "Expecting To Fly", a leap into the uncharted, taking in quizzical notions, curious diversions, and being mindless of the consequences. By the time it finishes, a sense of continuity takes over: that it is better to have leapt in anticipation and, say, made an hour-long occasionally confused album than not to have leapt at all. That, after all, is The Way Of The Blue.

We leave Mark Morriss in his garden. He is looking, inevitably, for "a brand new colour". (8)

John Robinson


Extracted from nme, 10th February 1996