Incredibly now in existence for 28 years, Ash have always given their all when it comes to the precious single format. Calling them a ‘great singles band’ might detract from their excellent albums, but, well…they have always been a great singles band and this compilation is a perfect showcase of the fact, containing 22 songs on the (double) vinyl, 36 across the standard double CD version, and a generous 55 on the triple CD version. Indeed, the band were so committed to the single format that in 2007 they announced that there would be no more Ash albums, only singles – underlining the fact by releasing 26 7” singles in 2009-10. (They later changed their minds, but enough about that…)
Although a three-piece for the longest time, Teenage Wildlife kicks off with one of their ‘four-piece’ period tracks; the stirring ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, title track of a hugely successful 1997 film. Joining the core trio of Tim Wheeler (vocals / guitar), Mark Hamilton (bass) and Rick McMurray (drums) for this spell was the wonderful Charlotte Hatherley also on guitar and vocals – ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ being the first record made with her.
The running order of the album is not chronological, and this makes for a more inventive presentation, old classics like ‘Kung Fu’ and 90s indie disco staple ‘Girl From Mars’ rubbing shoulders with some of the A-Z singles (the aforementioned burst of 26 records in a year) and the splendid new track ‘Darkest Hour Of The Night’, which sees Ash in pop mode, even perhaps a little like Keane, with its piano and a touch of brass over a rolling bass line. And talking of the obligatory extra tracks which tend to accompany most ‘Best Of’ albums, the 2002 single ‘Envy’ is included from that year’s compilation Intergalactic Sonic 7s, a crunchy delight that holds up incredibly well some eighteen years on.
There is so much music on Teenage Wildlife (named for the David Bowie song from the band’s 2012 covers EP Little Infinity) that it’s impossible to mention it all in a review such as this, and so many highlights – ‘Shining Light’ won ‘Best Contemporary Song’ at the 2002 Ivor Novello awards. It still soars, it still sounds huge. ‘Wildsurf’ from 1998’s Nu-clear Sounds is the mid-point between ‘Blue Moon’ and Nirvana while ‘You Can’t Have It All’, lead single from 2007’s Twilight Of The Innocents sounds better than ever it has, the years being kind to it as they are with most (all!) of the material here.
There’s definitely a signature Ash sound, which is hook-laden fuzz-pop with killer tunes – but the band are not at all afraid to stray from the blueprint – ‘Clones’, musically, could be Rage Against The Machine, while ‘True Love 1980’ could be Blancmange. And the band also deliver a mean indie power ballad – ‘Goldfinger’ is almost grungey, loud-quiet-loud, ‘Sometimes’ more reflective and ‘Starcrossed’ a touching mix of the major and minor.
A significant point to make here too is that arguably the best track on the album is ‘Buzzkill’ from most recent album Islands (well, I’m not arguing – I voted it ‘Best Single of 2018’ in the GIITTV writers’ poll) – from its fake quiet intro to its deliciously profane lyrics and priceless backing vocals from the band’s mentors The Undertones, it packs a huge punch and spreads a wide smile across the face every time it arrives. There are so many other hits here: ‘Oh Yeah’ lit up the Britpop summer of 1996, the lively ‘Burn Baby Burn’ opened the band’s most successful record, 2001’s Number One album Free All Angels, and debut single ‘Jack Names The Planets’ is still endearing, even if it really was the sound of a band in development – the melodies and lyrics were notably stronger by the time of debut album proper 1977 in 1994.
Over on the third CD (named Cosmic Debris Volume 2, following the first instalment as a bonus disc for the 2002 singles compilation), there are plenty more treats – notably the band’s version of ‘Teenage Kicks’ featuring The Undertones’ Damian O’Neill (or That Petrol Emotion’s Damian O’Neill if you prefer) and a cover of The Buzzcocks’’Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ featuring an unlikely-but-successful cameo from Chris Martin. There are also some excellent B-sides, like the synth-led melancholy of ‘Saskia’ and the contemplative ‘Seventh Circle’ – these are not throwaway songs not deemed worthy of inclusion on albums, they are right up there with the band’s best material.
Teenage Wildlife can serve as a comprehensive introduction to Ash for the uninitiated, or a welcome chance to revisit an old friend for those already familiar. Either way, it’s an absolute winner.
Teenage Wildlife is released on 14th February 2020 by BMG Records.