Now that the '90s are over, what does the so-called band of the '90s have to say to us? It's a time of uncertainty for Oasis. Two founding members -- bassist Paul McGuigan and guitarist Paul Arthurs -- left the band last year. Their replacements do not appear on this album. Singer Liam Gallagher and guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher, the brothers whose performances (musical and otherwise) have always defined the group, are both now fathers. Perhaps more significant, these fabled booze-and-dope hounds have sworn off the funny stuff, at least most of the time.
So, on paper at least, this is an Oasis that fans of their riff-rocking 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, would hardly recognize. While Standing on the Shoulder of Giants was in the making, there was a lot of talk from Noel about Oasis' assimilating more of the British dance-club culture and its sounds. The choice of Massive Attack producer Mark "Spike" Stent to helm the album seemed to confirm that Oasis was moving into dancier territory. For a loud guitar band, it seemed as if a radical break was coming.
So was it? Well, there's a hard drive's worth of synthetic beats on the new record, and the whole affair is a little slower than we're used to. But thank heaven the Gallaghers still write songs. Standing on the Shoulder of Giants opens with "Fuckin' in the Bushes," a caustic instrumental track overlaid with amusing samples. It's a roaring, entertaining opener and one of the most radical things the band has ever done.
The next tune, "Go Let It Out," sports a towering, psychedelic bass line from Noel that transforms the band's visceral impact into something more measured but just as powerful. Sitars and tablas kick off "Who Feels Love," a squishy-hearted prayer of thanks "for the sun, the one that shines on everyone." Like a lot of Oasis stuff, it's totally goofy but still pretty appealing.
The Lennonesque ballad "Little James" is the much-ballyhooed songwriting debut of Liam Gallagher, dedicated to young James, the son of Liam's wife, Patsy Kensit. Nobody ever mistook the younger Gallagher brother for Leonard Cohen, and the lyrics are somewhat less than cerebral. But for once Liam's simplemindedness has some charm; this song manages to be childlike rather than childish.
Not surprisingly, many of the reviews of this album have trotted out the T-word: "transitional." Add this review to the list. McGuigan and Arthurs are gone, and the new guys -- bassist Andy Bell (ex-Ride) and guitarist Gem Archer (ex-Heavy Stereo) -- haven't arrived yet, on record anyway. It's worth noting that both Bell and Archer were accomplished songwriters with their previous bands. It'll be interesting to see what an Oasis record with four songwriters will sound like.
For now, though, here's what we've got: There are some good and a couple of great songs on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, and any Oasis fan will find much to enjoy. But it's not quite what the faithful have been holding their breath for; it's too inconsistent, too unfocused and, well, a little too slow. Many people have been waiting to see whether Oasis has another masterpiece in them. The waiting will continue.