Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hyperbole, Eccentricity and Rapture

2006's first releases offer rich pickings and opportunities for debunking media myths.

We're only a few weeks into the year, but already there's plenty to get through. Given that many commentators have decided the album of the year already, we might as well start with what may be the most hyped album released during my lifetime. The mainstream media (especially the broadsheet newspapers, who are for once as guilty as the NME) have outdone themselves by constructing an exquisite paradox around The Arctic Monkeys. The critical orthodoxy states that here is a band who made it big purely via the internet, almost in spite of the media's existence as a form of control over who makes it big and who languishes at the bottom of the pile. By suddenly latching on to this new 'trend' in the music industry, the papers can now claim to be hitting the mark with their ludicrous claims that the monkeys are the finest British band since The Smiths (or even since The Beatles in some cases). Barely two days old, 'Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not' (what a horribly cumbersome attempt at a Morrissey-esque title) was last week proclaimed the fifth best British album ever made by the NME and promptly sold 300,000 over the counter copies (nearer 400,000 if online sales join the equation) to become the fastest selling British debut album ever.

What absolute piffle! First, the idea that internet networking is about to undermine the machinations of the industry is more than a little fanciful. Successful bands have always worked from a 'bottom-up' approach anyway - what reputable record label is going to sign a band before they can demonstrate a substantial grassroots following. This is how it has been with Arctic Monkeys - they secured a deal with independent Domino (on the back of Franz Ferdinand, a label truly skilled in marketing new acts) because their strong local fanbase was beginning to go national, with people downloading tracks from their website and My Space profile. The internet has facilitated the ease with which bands can promote themselves, hence the meteoric speed of this band's rise, but it has not dramatically altered the process, or given power to fledgling bands over and above the marketing might of the industry.

Critics are right to identify potential here, particularly in the band's taut, crisp playing and instinctive knack for a catchy riff. Alex Turner's talents as a lyricist have been much remarked upon, and his thick Sheffield dialect is pleasingly refreshing, although those reviewers portraying him as the first charismatic singer/lyricist to come from the city must have short term memories - Jarvis Cocker or Phil Oakey anyone? There's impressive phrasing and quality narratives here, most notably in 'Riot Van' and its tale of excessive arrest, set to a surprisingly sensitive arrangement. Latest number one 'When The Sun Goes Down' also deals with prostitution and the gritty realities of urban life with some deft wordplay. Turner is even better when he's at his most straightforward, such as on 'Mardy Bum' ('you're argumentative, and you've got the face on').

However, anyone who thinks this album is among the top ten British albums of all time must have a truly miserable record collection. Turner's lyrics may be intelligent, but they are part of a long tradition of observational songwriting in this country, dating back at least as far as Ray Davies and more recently espoused by the likes of Morrissey, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and, when he can be bothered, Pete Doherty. There's nothing particularly novel and certainly nothing revolutionary about this approach. Whilst Turner's lyrics obviously speak directly to much of the music buying demographic (disaffected teenagers and twentysomethings), they are steadfastly parochial, and show little interest in a world beyond underage drinking and aggressive nightclub bouncers. As Bruce Springsteen once wisely observed, bands need to grow up with their audience, and it will be the ultimate challenge of this band's longevity as to whether or not they have the ability and commitment to do that.

Musically, this is also a collection of borrowings not from original sources, but from recent modish and mostly derivitive acts - the effective duelling guitars of The Libertines and the heavy distortion and relentless chugging of The Strokes stand out as the most obvious influences. It's not offensive, and given some chance at development it might yet even be fleetingly thrilling - but surely some of our young bands must have more ideas than this? This is very much a case of Whatever People Say I Should Adore, That's What I Resist.

Another hyped band actually going some way towards delivering on their promise are those highly eccentric residents of Eel Pie Island, Mystery Jets. Their debut album, 'Making Dens', due out in early March, is substantially better than the Arctic Monkeys' effort. It has all the predictable elements of a classic British indie gem - spiky, angular riffs sit happily alongside jangly arpeggios. Yet there's so much more that is distinctive and intriguing about this band, not least the fact that one member's father is also part of the band and the massive full throttle assault of their thunderous drums.

Like the Monkeys, there's plenty of lyrical wit and wisdom on display, and a predeliction for the narrative approach. 'Alas Agnes' tells the somewhat tragic story of a boy who falls for a transvestite, going to the extreme lenghts of having a 'backstreet operation' only to find that he has been dumped for a 'prettier muse'. Musically, it rollicks along with a quasi-military beat most closely resembling the stylings of The Decemberists. It's brilliantly entertaining.

There's also a real variety of sounds and styles informing the music here. The lengthy 'Horse Drawn Cart' begins by drawing from the well of 60s folk and psychedelia, particularly Syd Barrett or early Pink Floyd. It ends with a layered wall of vocal melodies in an almost funereal epic rock trudge. 'Soluble In Air' is more strummy, but with an impressive lightness of touch and a peculiar drum sound not far from the plank-of-wood approach Blur famously deployed on 'Tender'. 'You Can't Fool Me Dennis' and 'The Boy Who Ran Away' are superbly quirky pop songs, the former zipping along on a series of taut riffs and intricate percussion. Both make successful use of the band's penchant for exhuberant vocal harmonies.

Their extraordinary debut download-only single 'Zoo Time' mercifully also features here, and it sits surprisingly comfortably with the rest of the material. It's a brisk and totally unhinged mesh of clattering drums, staccato guitar and atmospheric synths. The insistent rhythmic chanting ('Zoo Time! Zoo Time! Zoo Time!) is completely irresistible though, and helps the track in its bid to merge the avant garde and the truly accessible.

'Making Dens' succceeds in moving forwards by looking back, and its off-kilter dynamics and unrestrained enthusiasm are infectious. For this band, there really is no idea dismissed as too daft - you wouldn't be surprised if even the kitchen sink had been thrown into this intoxicating mix.

Sometimes a record comes along that makes any kind of objectivity remarkably difficult. Such is the way with 'The Greatest', the brand new album from Cat Power, recorded in Memphis with the backing band once famously employed by Hi Records, home of the legendary Al Green and Ann Peebles. This is a similar indulgence to that arranged by Frank Black for his 'Honeycomb' album last year. Whilst that album saw Black produce the best material he had mustered for some time, it didn't reach the rapturous heights Chan Marshall scales here. She has not tempered her inherent vulnerability for this release, and wisely plays to her strengths with a series of deeply melancholic, slow-paced songs dominated by her deceptively simple piano lines. Marshall and the band share their different ideas effortlessly, and the band (particularly the legendary Mabon and Leroy Hodges on guitar and bass respectively) back Marshall's sensual, elusive melodies with instinctive subtlety.

The first six tracks here are quite wonderful, and some of the most delicate and beautiful music I have heard in some time soon. The opening title track is languid and tinged with brittle defeat. Marshall's phrasing is drawn out and expressive. It is immediately spellbinding. 'Living Proof', like many of the tracks here builds on a repeated piano hook, eventually adding brass and rolling along on the lightest of rhythms. 'Lived In Bars' is one of those comfortingly familiar songs that sounds as old as the hills yet also invigoratingly fresh. It has a genuinely timeless quality. 'Could We' is seductive and slinky, whilst 'Empty Shell' is mournful and full of sadness. On 'Wille', it sounds like Marshall really has developed an understanding for a form of American folk music - and here she has a direct link back to classic blues and spiritual music.

Marshall's strength here is not to shy away from simplicity. There is no attempt whatsoever to blind the listener with science. Instead, Marshall distills the very essence of the emotions she is trying to capture. So even when that is a remarkably obvious sentiment, such as on 'Could We' ('could we take a walk/could we have a talk in the afternoon), she imbues the song with a longing and lush romanticism that is proudly unfashionable. So, even though she is delving deep into musical history here, Marhsall still occupies her own enchanting musical space. It's hard to think of another modern songwriter who could produce something as strikingly beautiful as 'Islands' or as haunting as the title track.

It's possible that the uniform pace and lingering melancholy cause the album to drag a little in its final third. I certainly feel less compelled to return to the concluding two or three tracks, which seem to lack the unique charm of the best tracks here. 'After It All' again displays Marshall's love of the blues, but it basically lingers around one chord and never really pulls away from safe territory. Some variety is built into the album due to the greater prominence of the guitar on 'Hate' and 'Love and Communication' , but they seem more stark and less graceful, perhaps better located on a different album. Still, these are minor criticisims, and 'The Greatest' is a profoundly affecting and haunting work that lingers long in the memory.

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