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  • John Fleming

Album Review: Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - 'Council Skies'

Any time either Noel Gallagher, via the High Flying Birds, or Liam Gallagher, via his former band Beady Eye or his solo career, release a new album, the inevitable framing of their newest project is in how it compares or contrasts to their work with Oasis.

At this point, it seems silly, because we are now further removed from the release of Oasis’s last album than that album was from Oasis’s first album, but the perpetual Oasis reunion rumor mill has only intensified since their 2009 breakup. Whether it was Liam vowing last month to reunite Oasis if the brothers’ beloved Manchester City Football Club won the UEFA Champions League (they play Inter Milan in the final in eight days), or Noel’s vicious retorts to The 1975’s Matty Healy’s calls for an Oasis reunion. (Healy’s increased public profile due to his alleged relationship with Taylor Swift has made these the most public comments by either Gallagher in years.)

As a result, their respective non-Oasis careers seem to be inevitably neglected.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds have been largely acclaimed since their 2011 self-titled debut, and while Liam has mostly aspired for Oasis-like anthems, Noel seems more comfortable in his elder statesman skin.

While Liam’s songwriting influence often seems to begin and end with John Lennon not a bad choice, granted, but one which limits his range Noel’s songwriting with NGHFB hearkens to his more eclectic influences, from Ray Davies to Burt Bacharach. He isn’t writing a lots of ballads, per se, but his standard songwriting speed has a touch of balladry.

The full Noel Gallagher experience is on display with “Council Skies,” the fourth studio album from his High Flying Birds. It has trademarks of the band’s sound that may sound foreign to anyone who heard Noel’s comments about Healy and is suddenly primed to listen to their first Oasis-descended music in a quarter-century: ample strings (on display from the album’s opening track “I’m Not Giving Up Tonight”), heavy bass guitar (yes, Oasis had a bass guitarist, but particularly at the band’s commercial peak, the part tended to be submerged deep into the audio mix), and an ethereal, pseudo-psychedelic guitar sound squarely outside of his famous bombast.

At times, the reserved nature can get a bit tiresome (the third single, “Dead to the World,” drags on despite a relatively short length), but the album is, if not stadium rock, largely pleasant.

“Largely pleasant” is also an apt descriptor of most of Liam's post-Oasis work, and it’s easy to note ways in which either Gallagher’s work suffers from the absence of the other Liam lacks Noel’s songwriting subtlety, and “Council Skies” is filled with songs that are perfectly nice sung by Noel but would be superior in the voice of Liam. But this isn’t true of every song.

“Open the Door, See What You Find” sounds better out of Noel than it would have from Liam, for instance, but a song like “Pretty Boy,” the album’s first single, feels designed in a lab for an injection of attitude. With Johnny Marr present on guitar, it would have been the perfect track for a brother harmonized chorus.

The vocal dichotomy of the brothers Gallagher has always been difficult to explain, because in a conventional sense, one could easily make the case that Noel is the superior singer. Liam, particularly in his 20s, was often cited as a combination of John Lennon and John Lydon, neither of whom is considered a truly elite vocalist, but Liam did convey an attitude that Noel never could.

The best Oasis vocal songs typically involved Liam as the lead and Noel adding higher notes along the way. But when Noel is the sole vocalist on most of “Council Skies,” he hasn't even audibly tracked his own backing vocals the songs feel a bit incomplete, like glorified demos rather than finished products. “I’m Not Giving Up Tonight,” inexplicably not yet released as a single, is a rare exception and it embodies what Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds could be. The choruses, buoyed by female backing vocalists which allow Noel to take the Liam deeper-voiced role, soar considerably higher than anything with just his voice.

It assuredly irritates Noel that reviewers are obsessed with noting that his new albums aren’t as good as “Definitely Maybe.” At 56-years-old, Noel is as old as Bob Dylan was when he released “Time Out of Mind,” which was largely allowed to exist on its own merits rather than facing a deluge of criticisms that it wasn’t as good as “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blonde on Blonde.” Then again, Dylan also released an album today (“Shadow Kingdom”), and it was the Noel one that caught more attention. Noel Gallagher is still relevant, if not the stadium-ready artist he has been in the past, and while he continues to make solid music, it is his past accomplishments that are giving him the platform he has today.

When most envision an Oasis reunion, the vision is of Liam and Noel playing “Champagne Supernova” as a stadium full of inebriated Gen-Xers sing along with interlocking arms, not of new adventures featuring a pair of 50-something Mancunians. But “Council Skies” demonstrates that new adventures would at least be possible. At this point, Noel has taken back the title of the family’s preeminent songwriter, one that never truly belonged to Liam but arguably existed in a limbo state while Liam, who had a lifetime of songs in his head ready to commit to record, competed against Noel, who had spent his adult life using many of his best ideas. “Council Skies” proves that. But the new album also lacks a punch at times, making it a perfectly listenable offering with a handful of memorable tracks, but also one that, with bolstered personnel, could have reached higher heights. Oasis’s discography proves that.


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