Solid. Reliable. Unspectacular. Has-beens. Ladies and gentleman, I give you… The Charlatans! Rarely has a band been so criminally underrated and taken for granted as Tim Burgess and co. After the apathetic public response to the tepid Simpatico – their most recent, and worst, album – this compilation reeks of contractual obligation. However, it serves an important purpose. People – yes, you! – must now come to realise that The Charlies are one of the greatest singles bands of their generation. It may sound an idle exaggeration, but the proof is here for all to see.
Distilling a seventeen year career into eighteen songs is a tough task, and consequently Forever- The Singles tells only a tiny part of the band’s chequered tale. This is both a strength and weakness. Much flab from the earlier, poorer albums is omitted, but precious space is taken up by disposable releases from the previous two albums. Such gripes are common with singles collections, though, and it seems that the band admirably want to avoid ripping the fans off by lazily re-releasing 1997 compilation Melting Pot in different packaging ,with a couple of extras thrown in.
The beating heart of this collection is the block of four tracks from 1997’s Tellin’ Stories. Released shortly after keyboardist Rob Collins’ death, it showcased a band at the peak of their powers, effortlessly rising into the big league. The immense One To Another transcended Britpop, taking their old baggy sensibilities and smothering them in Chemical Brothers-inspired beats, crunching guitars and sneering vocals. Still their biggest hit, it’s an enduring classic. Sat next to North Country Boy and How High, it defines an era, and proves just how special The Charlatans have been.
The chronological running order is appropriate, as it displays a gradual progression in sound, and a consistent willingness to experiment and try something new. They started off as archetypal Madchester baggy chancers with The Only One I Know, but soon moved on to the dark northern soul of Weirdo, before discovering Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. 1999’s Us And Us Only was a patchy affair, but singles such as hammond-driven behemoth Forever and Impossible, the plaintive paean to frustrating women, redeemed it. Whereas that record was in thrall to mid-sixties Dylan, few could have expected what was to follow with Wonderland. Tim moved to LA, went all Curtis Mayfield, and started singing in falsetto. The results were fabulous. The two singles here don’t really do justice to the quality of that record, but Love Is The Key remains a groove-laden masterpiece.
The extra ‘new’ track, being released as a single to coincide with this compilation, is a perfunctory Youth remix of Wonderland’s You’re So Pretty We’re So Pretty, which attempts to turn the stark, sexy original into a four-to-the-floor dance anthem, and fails. For some reason, they decided to go back to basics post-Wonderland, floundering in a sea of stodge ever since (the less said about the dalliance with reggae on Simpatico, the better). It makes for an underwhelming, untidy end to an otherwise imperious collection.
Limp tail aside, this is a lesson in the art of the single, by a lovable band of the people. There’s much more to them than this, but as contractual obligations go, this is essential stuff.