Often, power-pop fans are hilarious. Only a confirmed Pollyanna or an extremely sloppy thinker would have imagined Teenage Fanclub taking over college radio, much less the world, when they began putting their classicist, Four B’s (Beach Boys–Beatles–Big Star–Byrds) pop-rock on record a decade and a half ago. Their new Man-Made (Merge) might be the first album they’ve made in five years (not counting 2002’s Words of Wisdom and Hope, on which the co-credited band backed Half Japanese’s Jad Fair), but it will be lucky if it is remembered by anyone not already immersed in their catalog. Still, even a skeptic like me can hear how strong Man-Made is. If the world isn’t exactly short of chiming guitars, geek-boy harmonies, gleeful hooks, and romanticism of the sardonic variety, it doesn’t mean we can’t use them when they’re done this well. And despite the kindly intended warnings of my best power-pop fan friend—”It’ll be really boring,” she told me more than once after ascertaining her place as the plus-one of my guest-list spot—something told me that any band able to put that much oomph into an eighth album, at the point when most other bands would have merely coasted, might offer something similar onstage.
At Neumo’s on Wednesday, Aug. 3, guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, bassist Gerard Love (all of whom write and sing the band’s songs), and drummer Francis McDonald, plus an occasional keyboardist/utility man whose name I didn’t catch, made it evident that their name was fast becoming the most age-inappropriate in rock this side of Sonic Youth or Neil Young (whose midtempo stomp-and-blare they’ve adopted as much as the work of any of the Four B’s; Teenage Fanclub even titled a song “Neil Jung”). But it was nevertheless apt that the second song they played, from Man-Made, was called “Time Stops.” Sure, 15 years in an unforgiving business will weather you, and the band members looked their age. But they seemed as transported by what they could do as anyone in the crowd, especially the perpetually smiling, stage-center Blake.
Midway through, a woman behind me screamed, “I need direction!” To the lay ear, that sounds like a general plea for deliverance; for the diehards, it was a specific one. And as it turned out, the band was about to play “I Need Direction” (from 2000’s Howdy!) anyway. She got her wish, and we got ours—the song sounded great, but midway through it lifted, thanks to a keyboard solo that rubbed invitingly against the band’s pulse-stomp. Teenage Fanclub have long trafficked in the musical in-jokiness of lifelong geeks: Another of the show’s Man-Made highlights was “Slow Fade,” which comes to a complete stop (of course). But when they do it right, even the punch lines feel like a kiss.