It’s the British, so our conventional American wisdom goes, who tend to frantically hype undeserving, inexplicable bands—and then just as frantically unhype them as the next one comes around. Fifteen years ago, it was Texas and the Lightning Seeds. Ten, it was Echobelly and Basement Jaxx. These days, every British band with a knack for making a tuneful rock racket has an Arctic Monkey on its back.
And this time, the trend-spotting scribes from the NME actually have some support from us typically bemused Yanks. Late-to-the-partiers at everything from Rolling Stone to the New York Times have waxed hyperbolic over the Yorkshire-based outfit in recent months, with the latter breathlessly describing it as “a scrappy and brilliant group,” not to mention “one of the most exciting bands on the planet.”
Except not really: Perfectly fine though it is, the Monkeys’ careening, connect-the-influences debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, ain’t, as us Yanks sometimes say, all that. Indeed, the band’s own frontman, Alex Turner, has advised the teenage hordes not to believe the hype—which is annoying not just because that’s what American rock critics are supposed to do. It’s also the kind of self-aware self-mythologizing that makes kids and critics alike believe the hype all the more.
Nine months went by between the buzz-building import and the who-cares? domestic release of the first album by Field Music, so Stateside hype is hardly an issue for the Sunderland trio. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better band than the Monkeys, of course—but it is. And next to Whatever People Say, the group’s self-titled debut long-player is by far the better record. Sure, on such standouts as “If Only the Moon Were Up” and “Like When You Meet Someone Else,” Field Music’s core members—siblings Peter and David Brewis and co-conspirator Andrew Moore—pay Monkeys-like homage to their own five-star record collections. But unlike Whatever People Say, Field Music doesn’t feel rushed and threatened, as if the band can’t wait to get on to the next one for fear you’re getting bored with what’s currently blasting out of your earbuds.
Field Music’s tunes unfold rather than snap shut, with the band making judicious use of brisk acoustic guitars, sparkling piano, and, courtesy a part-time string section, some subtle cello and violins, too. Languid, bittersweet melodies? Sure. Big Star and XTC seem to be significant inspirations here. But there are skittering, skewed rhythms, too, suggesting a record-geeky love for some real postpunk—early Prefab Sprout, perhaps, or, even geekier, early Scritti Politti. “Luck Is a Fine Thing” is as good example as any, with thunk-thunking piano chords, scratchy guitars, and busy cello shifting through an album’s worth of time signatures and styles.
“You Can Decide” is similar but simpler, an almost straight-up pop song with lyrics about making up your mind “Faster/Faster/Faster.” The idea in both, presumably, is that life comes at you, well, faster, faster, faster, whether you like it or not. Given the group’s orchestral ambitions, the disc’s in-the-moment production, by the brothers Brewis themselves, works better in theory than in practice. On “Shorter Shorter” (“No time to spend”), Field Music sounds as if it’s coming to you live from a boom box located at the far end of the brothers’ local tube station. On “Got to Get the Nerve” (“Got to find the time”) the album seems rickety and monochromatic, despite such nice touches as having the backup vox whisper “Gottogetthe/Gottogetthe/Gottogetthe” over and over again.
On Field Music’s best number, though, the lo fidelity just adds another layer of charm. “17” is a swirling pocket symphony whose multitracked harmonies could have conjured bad memories of Queen, but instead suggests an ace Brian Wilson demo—which is really best for all concerned, don’t you think? If, unlike Monkey boy Turner, the Brewises haven’t quite mastered the fine art of rock ’n’ roll self-mythologizing, so be it. Most mythologizing is a lot like hype: Eventually, people forget it.
Art Brut’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll has been bouncing around British record-store racks—and a few top-10 lists—for a while now, too. Like Field Music, it’s just now seeing the light of day on this side of the Atlantic. And like Whatever People Say, it’s gotten rapturous press—and a fair amount of hype, too. So how’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll different? Funnily enough, it’s all in the mythologizing.
Or maybe in the demythologizing. Kickoff cut “Formed a Band” is infectious and hilarious, with spastic frontman Eddie Argos chanting catch-phrase non sequiturs over a muscular Stooges strut. “And yes, this is my singing voice,” he offers, apropos of absolutely nothing. “It’s not irony.” Later, just before the track winds down, Argos waxes mysterious: “Dye your hair black,” he advises. “Never look back/My past is my business.” The chorus—“Formed a band/We formed a band/Look at us/We formed a band!”—is totally smart, totally stoopid, or both.
Elsewhere, on a succession of tracks that are as anthemic as they’re heavily accented, Argos & Co. reveal not only why people make rock ’n’ roll but also why they listen to it at home (according to “My Little Brother”: “He made me a tape of bootlegs and B-sides/And every song/…[S]aid exactly the same thing/Why don’t our parents worry about us?”), why they watch it in clubs (according to “Bad Weekend”: “[T]here’s no reason for staying in/There’s nothing on the television”), and why the genre is completely bankrupt (according to the title track: “I can’t stand the sound of the Velvet Underground/…I can’t stand that sound/The second time around”). All the while, naturally, the band turns in the kind of taut, breathless cacophony that restores your faith in rock ’n’ roll.
Just to prove he thinks about other stuff, too, on “Emily Kane,” a bouncy, jangly number that sits pertly next to the rawer stuff, Argos pens a mash note to the girlfriend he had at 15—and with whom he’s still obsessed. “If memory serves, we’re still on a break,” he points out before crunching the numbers: “I’ve not seen her in 10 years, 9 months, 3 weeks, 4 days, 6 hours, 13 minutes, five seconds.” On “Moving to L.A.,” he conspires to evade rainy English weather by getting himself “deported” to the United States. Jokingly, but still thrillingly, the band indulges in Beach Boys–y harmonies on the chorus.
But it’s on the slurred and Fall-like “Modern Art” that Argos nearly gives the game away, name-dropping the Tate Gallery, the Pompidou Center—“That’s in Paris”—and David Hockney before remembering that he’s supposed to be a primitive (ergo the “Brut”): “I see a piece by Matisse…/I take five steps back/I put my head down and I run at it.” “Modern art,” you see, makes Argos “want to rock out.” In the very next song, Argos gets himself a “brand new girlfriend”—what Jonathan Richman suggested could transform his own sung-spoken experience of looking at modern art back on the Modern Lovers’ first album, an obvious hate rock ’n’ roll/love rock ’n’ roll precursor.
Bang Bang Rock & Roll might not be as good as that record, but it’s still a terrific one. It’s an ingenious one, too, which ultimately may be the band’s undoing. After all, if listeners perceive Argos’ act as schtick—or, worse, as performance art—his rock ’n’ roll cover will be blown to smithereens. Mum’s the word, OK?CP