With their third album — 1999’s critical and commercial stiff Nu-Clear Sounds — this jangly Irish buzz-pop band seemed on track to burn out and fade away. The group were sweet pop-punk teenagers when guitarist and singer Tim Wheeler wrote several of the songs for their first two albums, Trailer (1995) and 1977 (1996); after that they turned to grungy guitars and Butch Vig to modernize their sound and instead ended up with something awkward and generic. But with Free All Angels (released a year ago in Britain), Wheeler, guitarist Charlotte Hatherly, bassist Mark Hamilton, and drummer Rick McMurray have risen to the challenge of reinventing Ash yet again, this time with the success of their first recordings in mind.
Always 10 times better at gloss than at grunge, Ash here snap with sharp hooks and buzzing melodies. "Walking Barefoot," "Burn Baby Burn," and "Pacific Palisades" bring on waves of the soaring melodic choruses that made early Ash classics like "Girl from Mars" and "Goldfinger." Serrated guitars propel "Sometimes," a wistful ode to loves lost, and "Nicole," a love song and murder ballad all in one. Beneath the pop sheen, Ash are still a shambolic bundle of nerves, but Free All Angels is sincere, composed, and infectious enough to overcome Wheeler’s neuroses.
(Ash play the Tweeter Center as part of the Area:2 festival next Saturday, August 3. Call 508-339-2331.)