There are two immediate yet contradictory impressions of Teenage Fanclub’s debut album A Catholic Education. The first is that it doesn’t really sound quite like the band they would later become (and at the same time, not quite like the album it’s often painted as). The second is that after the opening instrumental track Heavy Metal you are launched right into one of their defining moments: Everything Flows.
In its album incarnation Everything Flows is a touch over five minutes, but if you’ve heard it live, or are familiar with the superb session version recorded for BBC Radio 1, you’ll know it as a longer and more expansive track. On A Catholic Education it sounds weighed down, seems slower, almost trudges where it should be sprinting, as it does on those other versions, separated from the rest of the album.
Here on A Catholic Education it is given the same production sheen as the tracks that surround it. That is to say: no production sheen at all. There’s a roughness to this album that veers from charming to frustrating. If Critical Mass had been recorded five years later, it could have slotted perfectly onto Grand Prix, but here it is all shaky harmonies and Pavement guitars.
The ramshackleness and slacker cool works better on A Catholic Education’s more stoner-sounding cuts: Heavy Metal II is one part can-barely-be-arsed instrumental jam to two parts audition piece for future lengthy instrumental workouts. If you ear-squint hard enough during Don’t Need a Drum you can make out a future Fanclub sound that’s a little bit Grand Prix, a little bit Howdy!, and maybe, just maybe a touch Bandwagonesque.
The two tracks that share the album’s title, Catholic Education and Catholic Education 2 are atypically strident with their lyrical attack on the church (“You want to turn your back on everything”) but you could be forgiven for not being stopped in your tracks by the sentiment, landing as it does in the midst amiable grungey meanderings, and some delicate baa-baa harmonies. You might also be distracted by how the introduction to Catholic Education 2 reminds you of the lengthier fade-in to Star Sign from Bandwagonesque.
Listening to Every Picture I Paint it starts to become clearer where the Dinosaur Jr comparisons tend to come from. It turns out that with a bit of extra urgency, but with some part of the guitar palette absent you get a sound somewhere between J Mascis and and Sonic Youth. But it’s unfair, really, to compare A Catholic Education to Dinosaur Jr, mostly because it’s usually done with the understanding that this is the weak copy, and that Mascis is the real deal. While in a sense it’s a compliment to be compared to someone who can wring such startling beauty from an electrical guitar, Raymond McGinley isn’t Mascis, Mascis isn’t McGinley. What they do share, however, is a skill in pulling out just the right solo at the right time, and while Mascis might make his sing with impressive range, McGinley knows the power and beauty of the right words, softly spoken. On A Catholic Education he isn’t quite there yet, but there are glimpses of the near future, notably on Don’t Need a Drum and Everything Flows.
A Catholic Education is a better album than many people give it credit for - often dismissed as a feeling-their-way album chiefly of interest for one towering song. As magnificent an early statement of intent as Everything Flows is, it’s worth delving into the rest of this album: there are other highlights to be found, and if nothing else it’s a revealing insight into the development of the first Teenage Fanclub masterpiece, Bandwagonesque.