Photo by Andrew McPhearsonWHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG? WAS THE NEW OASIS album's original title, and they shoulda kept it. It was an especially apt one, because for a while it all went so right: a bedenimed songwriter, Noel Gallagher, with hooks in hand by the seeming dozen; a singer, Liam Gallagher, who knew precisely how good he was (very); a series of A and B sides (“Cigarettes & Alcohol,” “Supersonic,” “Whatever,” “Roll With It”) that were, across 18 fabulous mid-'90s months, pure rock & roll cockiness, melody and muscle, recalling the Kinks, Slade, T. Rex, the Sex Pistols and the Stone Roses as much as the Gallagher brothers' beloved John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Even if you didn't appreciate the music — and American classic-rock fans seem obsessed with dismissing Oasis as mere Rutles imitators — there were the escapades: the onstage fights, the in-flight fisticuffs, the outrageous interviews. There was a drunken Liam dumping cigarette ashes on Mick Jagger's oblivious head at an awards show, and a year later calling out Keith Richards for some mano a granmano. There were the class-conscious Noel's benefit shows for striking dockworkers, and the improbable spectacle of Noel and the wife taking tea with the Blairs at 10 Downing after the Labour Party rode to Britpower on Britpop's Union Jack(et) coattails.

With all that going for this band, how did we arrive where we are today, when Liam's answers in a recent NME interview (“There's no place for baldness in rock & roll. How can I go onstage with a slaphead and get a point across?”) provide more entertainment value than most of the “proper rock” twaddle that makes up Standing on the Shoulder of Giants' 48 minutes? The easy answer is, of course: $ucce$$ — 25 million albums sold worldwide since 1994. The accounts fatten, the belts loosen, the vacations drag, the tempos relax, the studio tinker-time lengthens. Noel mislays the key to the sonic lodge under the cocaine mirror; the triple-platinum dreams of this ex-Inspiral-Carpets-guitar-tech-done-good fade to snow. And thus 1997's Be Here Now fiasco: a career-low .583 batting average in tunes, endless mid-album guitar wankage, Johnny Depp (?!) on slide guitar (!?!) and, fittingly, a ho-humbling critical and commercial response.

Ignoring, perhaps unwisely, the Foghat Principle (“The fourth album should be a double-live”), Oasis opt instead to shake things up for a new studio album: new producer, new musicians, new in-studio sobriety and, yes, new logo. For good measure, Patricia “P.P.” Arnold (the former Ikette who sang on essential cuts by the Small Faces, Humble Pie, Nick Drake, etc.) and the neighborhood multi-instrumentalist get called in. Problem is, Noel forgot to finish actually writing the tunes. So the album opens with a Chemical Brothers simulacrum featuring Isle of Wight voice-overs and some Noel finger doodles. Nice, but not a Song. “Go Let It Out!” is more like it, a Mellotronic, sturdily strummed, steady builder that reaches some sort of police-whistle ear-bleed resolution despite being a bridge short of classic Oasis. With “Who Feels Love?” the boys come on like glazed masters of the tablaverse via reverse-reverbed guitars and half the “psychedelic” tricks in the Book of Rock. It's a beautiful chrysalis of a song, but lacks conviction. “Put Your Money Where â Yer Mouth Is” has a fantastic guitar riff that gives the song a bit of snarl, but leaves your ear hanging for the snaky, clinching hook that marked Oasis' Mach One tunes. The phantom-menacing “Gas Panic!” is reminiscent of one of Morning Glory's slower-burning beauties, but never catches flame — again, one chorus melody shy of making first cut for the canon.

“LITTLE JAMES,” LIAM'S BALLYHOOED songwriting debut, is fine for what it could've been — a lunk-headed but genuine ode from Liam and his guitar to his stepson. Instead, after two verses we're in completely inappropriate “Hey Jude” swing-for-the-terraces territory when the comparative demo-like modesty of, say, Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram would've been just fine. By the seventh track, “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” (the first of a Noel-sung twofer), we have an answer to the song's titular question: When you started recording songs like this — plodding midtempo sourness à la half of Be Here Now, anemic trifles only the Gallaghers' mother could love. The closing “Roll It Over” — a massive, gentle creature of a rock lullaby, featuring Liam's most affecting vocals in some time, in the Spectorsonic tradition of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass — is likewise foiled by bad decisions. Why no bridge? Why all the massed guitars, instead of cascading strings wrapped 'round this beautiful, cloud-scraping vocal? And when you have a singer this good, why on Earth would you limit him to seven songs on your new album?

Which leaves the penultimate track, “I Can See a Liar,” a cut that five years ago would've been a slight C-side, as the record's key song. Here is some of what made Oasis so great in the first place: charming, solid, riffing garage rock, delivered with equal parts vinegar and sugar. Stoopid lyrics (“I can see a liar/sitting by the fire”). Unglossed basics, without a glance at the Beatles Rulebook. There's still hope.


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