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For all its pretty parts and cutie-pie players, the best Britpop has always been made by boys for boys. Cock rock it ain’t—but it definitely originates from that curious area south of the belt buckle. It’s frustrating being an English dude, apparently—and of all the social misfits in Britpop, no one has gotten that truth across better than Coldplay’s Chris Martin. He’s scruffy-handsome and confident like Blur’s Damon Albarn, but he’s also introspective and a twee bit math-nerdy like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke; he can hook-out Travis-style, but he can also fly to gauzy and grandiose heights à la Doves. Best of all, he was reportedly a virgin until age 22, and his tortured brand of smarty-pop makes him sound like it.
Martin, in other words, is the ultimate Britpop creation—and if you don’t believe it, you can check the sales figures. Of course, most of those numbers were posted before he knocked up Gwyneth Paltrow. Then he made it worse by marrying her. You can’t be content and be a Britpopper. Angry and heartbroken? Yes. Ga-ga in love? No way. If you’re happy and you know it, stay the hell away.
Case in point: On the tedious new Silence Is Easy, Coldplay wannabe Starsailor sounds downright loopy with happiness. The Wigan, England, quartet even sounds happy when it’s trying to sound sad. This is not a Britpop album made for boys who don’t get laid and cry themselves to sleep because of it. This is a Britpop album made for husbands and wives—and fully sexed ones, at that.
It also doesn’t help that frontman James Walsh and his mates don’t have an original thought in their collective nut. Starsailor’s 2001 debut wasn’t a particularly inspired album, but at least the band had the morose thing down: The record’s title, Love Is Here, was a lie, and the songs mostly shot for depressing. Much of Silence Is Easy, by contrast, is pepped up and dipped in a slick pop goo, and the intentions are painfully obvious: Starsailor craves a worldwide hit—or at least a little more stateside buzz than it’s gotten so far. Too bad the band has neither the talent nor the emotional instability to get what it’s after.
Britpop is a genre awash in dumb lyrics—the penis being mightier than the pen and all—but often the accompanying music is so gorgeous, you can forgive the tortured poetry. Not so with Starsailor. “If life is a carnival…If love is a Ferris wheel,” Walsh ponders on happy-happy-joy-joy opener “Music Was Saved,” a frenetic bit of cardboard rock that shows off his group’s knack for dumb words and ho-hum music. Ditto for the acoustically rendered snoozer “Some of Us” (“Some of us laugh/Some of us cry/Some of us smoke/Some of us lie”) and the unfortunately titled “Shark Food” (“Sunshine in the glory skies/When the broken men open up their eyes”). The best you can say about Walsh is that he kinda sounds like Bono, especially when he unleashes that falsetto. If only his bandmates played with half the edge of U2.
Ever since Phil Spector allegedly gunned down a B-movie starlet in his Hollywood home, Starsailor has tried to play down its relationship with the famed knob-twiddler, who produced two songs on Silence Is Easy. But the truth is, the cuts overseen by the wall-of-sound architect are pretty damn good, and they show what Starsailor could be with a truly tormented guy at the helm. Spector’s songs also show that lame-o lyrics don’t have to derail a tune. The title track has a steady, heavy piano line and some sturdy drum-pounding, and it instantly catches in the Britpop-lover’s heart. Walsh gives a radio-ready reading of the icky “I can still let it go/I can still learn to grow/Into a child again,” and Spector’s thousand parts of bliss—especially a warbly wah-wah made from who knows what—mask the verbal idiocy rather splendidly.
The producer also does wonders for “White Dove,” the best of the disc’s attempts at a lush ballad, threading the song with a pretty string line that provides both sonic depth and an emotional arc. Even when Walsh, in full Bono mode, coos, “The white dove is rising to the sound of your god given grace,” damn if you don’t buy the gush. The questionably coiffed fellow who took Lana Clarkson home a year ago may be a ghost of Spector’s former self, but anybody who can make Walsh & Co. sound this good obviously has at least a little life left.
On his band’s sophomore disc, Cast of Thousands, Elbow’s Guy Garvey sounds as if he’s dealing with a few ghosts of his own. His best songs unspool like slow-burn séances, regret and forgiveness and spite swirling in beautiful spectral clouds. Like Yorke, the Mancunian has a gift for couch-trip poetry and subtle inflection. And best of all, he comes across like a man who hasn’t had a healthy relationship in all his pathetic existence.
Yet despite having the surly-guy goods to give Martin a run for his millions, Garvey often seems to hate himself for being a Britpopper. He’s prone to kill a cool buzz with ugly digital squiggles, screeching blasts of feedback, or even a totally inappropriate backdrop. “Snooks (Progress Report),” for example, sounds like the kind of masturbatory pseudo–Middle Eastern experiment with which Albarn is currently killing Blur. On “I’ve Got Your Number,” Garvey sets a sinister kiss-off to a girl gone bad to a bit of 2 a.m. Blue Note jazz, coldly intoning, “Grow a fucking heart love/I know what you have done.” Right attitude; wrong atmosphere. Britpop is as much about beauty as it is about the treachery of women.
Garvey can also get lost in that tricksy head of his, taking his ruminations well past the numbing point. But he has a delivery that manages to be both shy and biting, sweet and sour, and he is wise enough to know when something’s just too lovely to screw with. Indeed: The shimmering “Fugitive Motel” might just be the most beautiful bit of Britpop since Gomez’s “We Haven’t Turned Around.” The mile-high strings and dark-angelic backing vocals are anchored by a low warbling guitar blob and a lamenting piano line, and Garvey sings as if he’s trying to break free of the ominous beat. The complexities of a dying relationship have him down, and by the time he finishes with “Give me strength/
Give me wings,” you believe—
you know—that he’s not going
Cast of Thousands is a frustratingly unbalanced disc, though, with Garvey’s good instincts winning out a little more than half the time. Still, when he shines, it’s blinding. “Ribcage” starts out as a fuzzy-buzzy little nothing until Garvey lets loose with “And when the sunshine/ Throwin’ me a lifeline/Finds its way into my room/All I need is you.” And for the sprawling “Grace Under Pressure,” which opens with a made-for-the-movies guitar pluck, then reveals a frenetic conga-line beat and some droney keyboards, Garvey and a somber cast of thousands repeat, “Grace under pressure/Cooling palm across my brow/Eyes of an angel/Lay me down.” That same cast of thousands—including Doves’ Jimi Goodwin and what’s listed in the liner notes as “the crowd at Glastonbury 2002”—concludes with “We still believe in love so fuck you.”
Right on. Would-be Britpoppers take heed: If you’re going to believe in love, at least be really, really pissed off about it. CP