THE UNDERTONES

OVERVIEW:

A fun pop-punk band. The first two albums are easily the best and also the most energetic – the second two are a bit more “serious” and experimental. Those latter two records have their moments, but focus on the first two for the goofy vibes, the excellent hook writing, and Feagal Shakey’s unique vocals.

THE ALBUMS:

The Undertones *
Hypnotized *
Positive Touch
The Sin Of Pride

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THE UNDERTONES   (1979)

B+

The humble beginnings of these fun-loving Irish punk rockers. Before rapidly evolving into a less easily definable pop band, they knocked out this very stripped down and punky album full of short, energetic, catchy songs. Many consider it their best album – I can see why – though there is great stuff on the subsequent albums as well. This is a quality punk record, with an emphasis on pop melody, and it’s made very special by Feargal Sharkey’s vocals. He sounds like a less professional Noddy Holder (from SLADE), and lends the tracks a real Glam-Rock vibe at times. The enthusiasm is palpable here – more than anything else, this is a FUN record, and the band sounds like they’re having a ball. The songs themselves are a bit uneven, but they’re so short it hardly matters. “Teenage Kicks” is everybody’s favorite – and it does stand out as a glam-punk show-stopper – but I personally love opener “Family Entertainment” the best. That song has a KILLER guitar hook, and a charming catchy vocal melody. Talking about individual songs is a bit meaningless with a record like this – they all have hooks and energy, and mostly sound the same. It’s very much a late 70s punk record, so it’s got the chugging abrasive guitars and sloppiness galore. But it has the boon of actual pop hooks and a very unique vocalist – lifting it away from generic punk and rendering it an essential listen for fans of this era and this style.

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HYPNOTIZED   (1980)

A-

The second album – and the band is suddenly way tighter and more musical. There’s still a serious punk edge to a lot of this, but it’s even poppier, with a lot of nods to 60s Mod records. The humor has been ramped up a bit too – and you basically end up with an incredibly fun and hook-filled power pop record. The winners on this are truly awesome pop songs – “My Perfect Cousin,” “There Goes Norman,” “What’s With Terry,” “Hypnotised,” “See That Girls” “The Way Girls Talk”…this is all simple, silly, and just GREAT guitar-pop. The playing is more controlled, and there is a lot more focus on actual melodic guitar hooks (as opposed to Johnny Ramone style punk-chord-chunking the whole time). Additionally, we get the beautiful and gentler “Wednesday Week,” which is a better 60s pastiche than anything on the subsequent record. I’m happy calling this the band’s definitive record – it mixes the energy and punk edge of the debut with the more polished and melodic styles of the next two records. The album isn’t that even in quality, the one big sore spot being the “Under The Boardwalk” cover. It’s not a bad idea –  repositioning that song in a punk-rock context – but this version just falls flat. Overall, though, the record is a winner.

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POSITIVE TOUCH   (1981)

B-

OOH. A serious shift in intention, sound, production, and writing – from energetic punk-pop rave-ups to somber and moody 60s garage-psych. I love the idea, and the band suddenly has the chops to pull off the intricacies of such a 60s-inspired production. But I have two major issues with this record. Firstly, and this is less the fault of the band and more my own personal issue….I prefer this band’s earlier vibe. Feargal Sharkey’s voice sounds AWESOME singing goofy punk songs —  he’s such a unique vocalist in that context. In THIS context, however, his warble sounds downright corny at times. Secondly, and WAY more importantly…the melodies on this album suck. Everything is too simple and garage-y in the melodic department to make a big impression – it renders the record disappointingly more “The Doors” than “The Zombies.” The material just isn’t very memorable – it’s all pulled off with grace, and there are some excellent MOMENTS…but not ONE of these songs hits me the way great pop songs should. And lacking classic melodies, the 60s-isms can sound pretty lame. Take, for example, “You’re Welcome.” This sounds to me like the kind of song you’d get from a first-time songwriter who has just discovered psych-pop. It’s VERY boring and 60s-by-numbers. There are some ugly melodic ideas on here too – “His Good Looking Girlfriend” has a terrible chorus, “Life’s Too Easy” alternates between a generic garage rock chorus and an annoying “psychedelic” verse melody. “Julie Ocean” has the atmosphere right, but the melody is just too simplistic. The last three songs on the album are completely forgettable. Not all is lost, however. The single “It’s Going To Happen” is BY FAR the best tune on the record – and also probably the most upbeat! The title track is also really grooving and fun – but again, one of the less “conceptual” sounding ones. I don’t mind “When Saturday Comes,” and it’s probably the most successful attempt at re-writing a 60s single. I love this kind of music, and I really like the first two Undertones records,  so I was expecting this to be a lost classic. But alas — 60s pop lives and dies by it’s melodies for me, and this one doesn’t cut the mustard.

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THE SIN OF PRIDE  (1983)

B

This is a step up to my ears, though this album seemingly gets no love. It seems fans were VERY unhappy with the totally polished 80s production on this record. But really – besides some dated drum sounds and occasional back-up singers and horns – this just sounds like a more confident and energetic version of the previous album. It also seems to be the band’s “Get Happy,” with it’s punk-soul vibe, though it’s not nearly as good as Costello’s classic. Highlights include the awesome garage-psych tune “Luxury,” the very odd but super catchy “Untouchable,” the funky “Conscious,” the weirdo monotone choruses of “Valentine’s Treatment,” the endearing and 60s-ish “Bye Bye Baby Blue.” There’s also the really great title track. It’s not a totally consistent album though – “Love Before Romance” is a 5 minute dirge that nearly grinds the album to an early halt. It’s got some cool ideas, and tries very hard to create a gothic-romantic atmosphere…but it falls flat. There are some other less memorable tunes as well, but on the whole this is QUITE enjoyable and a worthy conclusion to the band’s career (not including a couple reunion records recorded way later without Feargal on vocals).

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