Friday, May 09, 2008

In Praise of Overstatement

The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age Of Understatement

Regular readers might be shocked to realise that I’m beginning to wonder if my indifference to the Arctic Monkeys might have been a trifle unfair. It’s been a conjecture of mine that if that group are the most original and inventive prospect British music has to offer, modern British music must be in a very big rut. But listening to ‘The Age of Understatement’, a collaboration between the Monkeys’ Alex Turner and Miles Kane of The Rascals (an even less interesting Britrock group), I begin to see some of the much lauded sophistication in Turner’s writing. The wiry surf guitars and bravado drumming that characterise the Monkeys are nowhere to be found here though. Instead we have a highly polished and also no doubt very sincere homage to the lavish orchestrations of 1960s pop music – particularly referencing the early albums of Scott Walker. The nimble and light marching drumming is provided, somewhat surprisingly, by James Ford, producer of Klaxons and one half of Simian Mobile Disco. The superb arrangements, less surprisingly, come from the quill of the increasingly ubiquitous Owen Pallett.

Whilst this is ostensibly a collaborative project, it’s difficult not to see Turner as the dominant creative force, even if that might be doing Kane something of a disservice. The pair frequently sing in unison, and whilst Kane’s voice sometimes distinguishes itself through a more pronounced rasp, the phrasing and language are characteristic of Turner’s wit and wisdom. It is also his exaggerated Sheffield snarl that rings through much more memorably. These songs contain familiar dissections of the malevolence of various femmes fatales, all set to an appropriately cinematic musical backdrop.

Some of the tracks are taken at a rollicking gallop. The title track and ‘Only The Truth’ are impassioned and enervating blasts of thickly arranged drama. There’s also genuine guile and candour in these songs as well, so much so that they don’t sound out of place next to the more reflective moments such as ‘The Chamber’ and ‘My Mistakes Were Made For You’. The latter may well be the best piece of music Turner has yet been involved with, a real kitchen sink epic of tremendous charm. This is not least down to its central lyric – ‘innocence and arrogance entwined….in the filthiest of minds’, a quite superb juxtaposition of words. Similarly, the brilliant ‘Calm Like You’ rides in on the most compelling of opening lines: ‘I can remember when your city still smelt exciting/Burglary and fireworks, the skies were all alight.’ This sounds more interesting to my ears than the Monkeys’ tendency to imbue the mundane with poetry.

Whilst Walker’s interpretations of Jacques Brel might be the clearest reference point, there are also hints of the endearing combination of grandiosity and vulnerability found in the work of Bill Fay. Of contemporary acts, this most closely resembles the best work of Mick and John Head with Shack and The Strands.

Kane and Turner seem completely unafraid of extravagant gestures here. Perhaps the novelty value therefore comes from hearing Turner attempt something approaching camp. Perhaps one of the limiting factors in the appeal of the Arctic Monkeys for me is that they play everything so completely straight in all senses, and there’s rarely any concession to playfulness in spite of their obvious insight and humour. A lot of the material here will challenge the more boorish element of the Monkeys fanbase. The theatricality of these more translucent but no less incisive lyrics set against the spaghetti western twang of the music is exciting in itself.

If The Last Shadow Puppets serve as a gateway for young audiences to investigate some of their reference points in more detail – Scott Walker, early David Bowie, the work of David Axelrod both with the Electric Prunes and as a composer in his own right, this can only be a good thing. Yet there’s plenty of intrinsic value to be found within the record itself – Turner perhaps blunting his razor sharp observational wit with something warm and endearing.

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