Certain musicians change their sound to capitalize on trends and curry mainstream favor. How else to explain Ethel Merman's 1979 disco album, which featured the senior citizen hustle-fying standards such as "There's No Business Like Show Business"? Or what about the Psychedelic Furs' post-"Pretty in Pink" foray into pseudo-tough-guy feathered hair and slick synth pop on 1987's Midnight to Midnight?
On the other hand, there are arena-sized bands -- R.E.M. and U2 are two -- whose experimentation led directly to commercial success (though neither of those groups compromised its sound). Consider the lovable lads in Snow Patrol firmly embedded in the latter category, three albums into their career and earning overdue critical and commercial acclaim with their latest, The Final Straw.
"To be on Top of the Pops," guitarist Mark McClelland begins in his light Irish brogue. "To be on the Saturday-morning kids' TV shows where you've always just shouted at the TV over the past couple of years, 'What is this rubbish that they're forcing down people's throats?' And finally, for us not to have changed our game in any way, not to have tried to write a commercial album, but for it to be a commercial success with us still doing what we were trying to do from the outset -- we never thought it was going to happen. Something must have changed in the UK's water supply."
Snow Patrol appears with Eisley
Meridian, 1503 Chartres
Tuesday, October 12; for more information, call 713-225-1717
McClelland is being typically modest. Snow Patrol did make some changes when recording Straw. Besides signing to a major label, the quartet added a second guitarist (ex-HMV minion Nathan Connolly), worked with producer Garret Lee and brought noted mixing guru Chris Lord-Alge aboard to spit-shine its tunes. The resulting disc streamlines the muscular twee of the band's previous albums without losing its shambling indie charms and penchant for joyful noise.
Tar-sticky hooks on the vaguely new-wave "Spitting Games" whirl like a merry-go-round as the song details the paralysis of unrequited love ("I'm far too shy to speak to you at school / You leave me numb, and I'm not sure why"), and "Run" is the type of epic, weepy ballad that sends concertgoers scrambling for their lighters.
Elsewhere, the turbulent string and guitar somersaults of "Ways and Means" crackle with the claustrophobia of being trapped in a relationship ("If I put my back into it / I can leave you if I wanted / But there's nowhere else that I can go"). The band's grimy, distorted riffs and vocalist Gary Lightbody's Lou Barlowesque earnestness on cuts such as "Tiny Little Fractures" and "Wow" ensure that the band lives up to the nickname bestowed upon them in the UK: Snowbadoh.
"We were just delighted to make another record," McClelland says. "We really wanted to make a record that people were going to listen to for a long time, for many years, and also for it to be the sort of music that we like to listen to and nobody else was making. God -- when we were making the record, we just wanted to make the best record we could possibly make something to be remembered by, really."
Before Straw, the band was well on its way to being doomed to the type of indie obscurity reserved for critical darlings who barely sell enough discs to buy ramen. McClelland and Lightbody met at Dundee University in Scotland in 1994. Along with drummer Johnny Quinn, they released their debut, Songs for Polar Bears, in 1998. When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up followed three years later -- after which the band split from its label, Jeepster. Demos of Straw led to a major-label deal and, finally, mainstream notoriety.
More surprising than UK fame, though, is that "Spitting Games" and "Run" have found popularity in the United States, a country recently liberated from nü-metal's clutches and open again to sensitive types, despite a historical reluctance to roll out the welcome wagon for new UK acts. McClelland appreciates the challenge America represents.
"There's an element of proving ourselves over again, but we actually like that," he says. "It's nice to get up on stage and know that if you don't play well, it's not automatically going to go well. You have to get up and fight for your dignity under these crowds that have never seen you before. Generally, the first couple of songs there was a mild interest -- growing to definite interest and smiling, clapping, dancing about, jumping up and down by the end of it."
This assessment nails why Snow Patrol is finally resonating with a larger audience. Although many Straw songs are soaked in melancholy and weighed down by hopeless love and failing relationships, underneath the layers of darkness is a persistent optimism that refuses to die. Still, McClelland is wary of questioning what people find magical about Straw.
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"It's something I don't really want to understand, in case we become conceited and try and work to formula and anything like that," he says. "We really try and keep our heads out of the way as much as possible when we're recording and writing music, not think about what we're doing or how it fits into the overall picture. Just to see if it makes our heart skip or not.
"We've tried not to learn any of the rules of music. None of us are even in any way trained. We're all self-taught. We actually try and close our ears whenever anyone explains stuff to us. 'Well, it's in the chord of G, that song.' Is it? I didn't want to know that," He laughs. "I know I play G sometimes, and that makes sense, but I don't understand why."
Nor does he need to, given Snow Patrol's ascent.
"I suppose we should feel vindicated in a way, because we've been going for so long with so little interest with only critical acclaim," McClelland says. "But we always really believed in it, and we were pigheaded and stubborn about it and kept going and didn't listen to any of the bad stuff people said about us. It's nice to not have to justify yourself anymore. Everything's been pretty crazy, the way it's taken off. We're just struggling to hold on, really. The bus has left, and thankfully, we're on it."