Unlucky in love, not lyrics

Times Staff Writer

You can call Snow Patrol a lot of things -- this year's Coldplay, the hottest rock act out of Belfast, Northern Ireland since Van Morrison four decades ago -- but "anti-women" isn't one of them.

"The woman never comes out worse in my songs," says the quartet's lead singer and songwriter, Gary Lightbody. Any problem in a relationship, he confesses apologetically, "is always my fault."

But as Lightbody and his bandmates have discovered lately, a problem in one aspect of life can be good in another -- in this case, Lightbody's misfortunes in love have helped Snow Patrol's fortunes in music.

The group's songs, he explains, "are not about one girl, but generally just about me being terrible in relationships," he says. "Nobody will ever accuse us of being misogynist."

Snow Patrol's third album, "Final Straw," which chronicles relationships in various states of disrepair, has sold about 800,000 copies in the United Kingdom, according to the band's manager. It also has cracked the 100,000 sales mark in the U.S. since its release here in March -- a feat that's proven rare for U.K. bands no matter how popular they are at home.

But Lightbody's laconic yet sincere Irish tenor and heart-on-sleeve lyrical emotionalism, combined with wistful harmonies and a touch of U2-ish pop grandeur and rock drive, has helped Snow Patrol become an exception to the rule.

With its anthem-like single "Run" ever-present on alt-rock and pop radio stations over much of the summer, the Glasgow, Scotland-based group is receiving "arrival of the year" treatment from U.S. audiences. Few fans are aware of the group's two previous albums as Snow Patrol -- "Songs for Polar Bears" in 1998 and "When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up" (2001).

"We see ['Final Straw'] as a continuation of what we did on the first two albums, but most people probably think it's our first record," says Lightbody, flanked at a West Hollywood restaurant earlier this week by bassist Mark McClelland, guitarist Nathan Connolly, drummer Johnny Quinn and touring keyboardist Tom Simpson.

"The fact that it works well on its own means that it does stand alone as a work," he says.

Lightbody and McClelland hail from Belfast, but they met while in school north of Glasgow at the University of Dundee. They started Snow Patrol with Quinn in 1994 as a hobby, while Lightbody pursued studies in English and philosophy -- "two useless subjects," he quips -- and McClelland focused on economics.

They also were passionate about music and took their band to the burgeoning music scene in Glasgow, which of late has become a hotbed that also has yielded Franz Ferdinand and Keane. All three (along with the more veteran Scottish band Belle & Sebastian) are among the dozen nominees for England's prestigious Mercury Music Prize, awarded to the best British albums of the year.

Earlier this week at Avalon Hollywood, Snow Patrol reaped the fruit of seeds sown from two previous U.S. visits this year, playing to a packed house and hearing the majority singing along with "Run" near the end of a performance more muscular than most might have expected even in the most aggressive moments of "Final Straw."

Alternating between eyes-closed introspection on the ballads and exuberant physicality on upbeat numbers -- leaping up to sing from atop Quinn's bass drum at one point -- Lightbody emerged not as an electrifying front man, but as a solidly engaging and sympathetic rock Everyman.

That the band's drive still surprises listeners who pigeonhole Snow Patrol as a disciple of Coldplay because of "Run" is a source of pride for its members.

Lightbody, like his bandmates, admires Coldplay and thinks "it's great being compared" to such a successful and respected group. "But 'Run' is the only song on the album that bears any relation to Coldplay. We tend to play dirtier rock music."

Snow Patrol originally attracted the attention of Jeepster Records, the home of Belle and Sebastian, and its first two albums gained the band some critical praise and a cult following. But the group lapsed into the career limbo that musicians often face when they don't connect with commercial success quickly.

As a form of self therapy, the band invited friends to record a batch of Lightbody's songs strictly for fun -- then released them on "Y'all Get Scared Now, Ya Hear!" (2001) and "Son of Evil Reindeer" (2002) using the name the Reindeer Section.

The experience rekindled their spirits and inspired them to move ahead as Snow Patrol. With "Final Straw," they landed a contract with an affiliate of the major-label Polydor Records.

Lightbody's been earning plaudits for a forward leap in his songwriting on "Final Straw" in songs that frequently come across as captivating emotional mosaics. Producer Garret Lee, who had previously worked with such dance acts as Basement Jaxx and TLC, also helped push Snow Patrol in new musical and sonic directions this time around.

"We took everything we discovered on those first two records and more and comingled that with the knowledge and efforts of Garret Lee to create obviously a far superior record the third time around," Lightbody says.

"Hopefully we'll do that again next time," he says. "You have to keep making better and better records, or you have to ask yourself why are you doing it."

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