It’s instructive to read the short booklet note penned by Ed Chester before listening to this collection of early Bluetones material. He talks of the intimate surroundings in which these demo recordings were made – a lounge in Middlesex, small recording studios around London. More importantly, his aside that these were paid for “by record company big-wigs ready to nurture (and one day exploit) the burgeoning talents of four fledgling song-makers” speaks volumes.
For while the Bluetones made a great deal from Expecting To Fly – in terms of critical acclaim and record sales, at any rate – the impression rapidly forms that they had to compromise to do this. The Early Garage Years, as you’d expect, strips the sound back, but focuses more on emotion than production.
Take Cut Some Rug, the follow-up single to Slight Return in 1996. Laden with guitars, at the time it seemed to be trying just too hard. Here the approach is far more subtle, and thus far more effective. It’s inevitable from a homemade 4-track recording, but indicates a reluctance on the band to rock out.
In any case, Mark Morriss‘ vocals never were suited to a guitar sound turned up to eleven. His slightly nasal but often charming delivery forms the base of the instantly recognisable sound of the band, and helps the romantic notions of songs such as Bluetonic (known here as no.11) and Carn’t Be Trusted.
Yet, charming as these early recordings are, it’s doubtful they’re worth much to all but hardened Bluetones fans. Those with a passing liking for the band will probably have the best of and Expecting To Fly, but will find here that the re-treading of ground is not always of sufficient interest.
The limited edition version of Slight Return, for instance, features an altered bassline but little else new of note. And while the stripped back sound might do wonders for Cut Some Rug, it makes Are You Blue Or Are You Blind? lacking in depth, or Talking To Clarry somewhat monotoned.
That said, it is interesting to hear the genesis of a band’s career that saw them courted by the major labels back in 1994. One wonders, however, whether the label that courted them most enthusiastically should be taken to task for turning them into more of a mainstream band than perhaps they wanted to be.