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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Verve, "Urban Hymns"

The Verve
"Urban Hymns"
Hut (1997)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

In 1997, a little known British band called The Verve crashed onto American radio waves and lodged itself in American minds with the single "Bitter Sweet Symphony," one of the most memorable tracks of the '90s. What Americans never realized was that that the band had already made waves with two previous albums in England, and that "Urban Hymns," the album featuring "Bitter Sweet Symphony," was a colossal critical success.

You don't need to be told about "Symphony," but it's impossible to ignore because it is truly one of, if not the best, pop song of the '90s. You can point out as many great aspects about the song as you want, but ultimately it comes down to the violin riff sampled from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra's cover of "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones. The riff is beyond simple, but it's propulsive enough to maintain listener interest for six minutes, three minutes longer than a typical pop single. The song is so catchy that it's easy to ignore vocalist Richard Ashcroft's lyrics, which perfectly sum up the title of the song. Keith Richards once said of the legal issues behind the track (see "Interesting Fact"), "If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money." Bad news Keith; "Bitter Sweet Symphony" is a much better song than "The Last Time."

Although "Symphony" is certainly a pop song due to its reliance on a sampled riff, the rest of the album reveals The Verve to alternate rockers. "Urban Hymns" marked the introduction of a second guitarist, but original player Nick McCabe gets the credit for the band's guitar style (The band had broken up following its second album, but Ashcroft convinced McCabe to return for "Urban Hymns." Note that McCabe is looking the opposite direction on the album's cover).

McCabe's tendency towards loopy riffs and playing with FX pedals makes much of the album a trippy experience. "The Rolling People," one of the first three tracks on the album (that all pay tribute to the The Rolling Stones), "People" is musically unlike the Stones thanks to its psychedelic, reverb laden instrumentals. The following of largely acoustic "The Drugs Don't Work" by "Catching the Butterfly," an FX pedal-driven song that is the most trippy song on an album full of trippy songs, is an ironic touch. Ashcroft's voice has extra reverb added for nearly every song, adding to the effect.

The Verve borrow from nearly every generation of British rock. The soft, bluesy riff of "Sonnet" is undeniably reminiscent of the Stones, and every summary of the album I've read compares closer "Come On" to Led Zeppelin (a slight exaggeration). The group is also comparable to British rock revival teammates Oasis, who took a slightly more straightforward rock 'n' roll approach to the revivalist goal. The Verve never released a single nearly as popular as "Symphony" in the States, but this whole album deserves a listen from non-British music fans.

INTERESTING FACT: "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was the source of one of the biggest copyright lawsuits in music history. The Verve had permission to sample the Oldham Orchestra's version of "The Last Time," but the Rolling Stones' legal team felt that the band used too much of the sample, thereby infringing on the Stones' copyright. As a result, all of the royalties The Verve could have earned (read: a lot) from the song now go to The Rolling Stones. Ashcroft doesn't hold it against the Stones. I would have.

Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve on Grooveshark

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