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What a Brute

By David King

Art Brut

Bang Bang Rock & Roll (Downtown)

‘If I went around punching every-one who didn’t like my band, I’d be a very tired man,” said Art Brut singer Eddie Argos. In actuality, the result of everyone who doesn’t like Art Brut punching Argos would likely be a bit more drastic: He’d probably be dead.

You see, Argos’ dry wit and sarcastic saunter don’t win him a lot of friends. People seem to have a hard time relating to love ballads about a shade of blue on a work of modern art. “I just can’t help myself! Modern art makes me want to rock out!”

Argos’ Johnny Rotten-meets-Jarvis Cocker spoken-word singing leaves a lot of listeners questioning not only his sincerity, but also his talent. It probably irks them more that Argos takes time to address it in his band’s new album, Bang Bang Rock & Roll. “And, yes, this is my singing voice. It’s not irony, it’s not rock & roll. We’re just talking to the kids,” Argos sarcastically states fairly early on in the album opener, “Formed a Band.”

It doesn’t help that Argos’ band swing between semi-serious art-rock noise to straightforward, repetitive, poppy punk hooks delivered in a lazy, if not uninterested, fashion. That is not to say Bang Bang Rock & Roll is a bad album. In fact, it is one of the most exciting, entertaining pieces of pure pop rock I’ve heard in years.

The album’s strength comes largely because of its greatest failure: Argos’ struggle to define his band while swimming in a sea of irony and sarcasm, filtered through the drain of pop music.

Argos’s manic, tandem self-love and self-doubt collide on “Formed a Band”: “Honey Pie, stop buying records at the supermarket! They only sell records that have charted, and Art Brut, well, we’ve only just started!” followed by “We are gonna be the band that writes the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along!”

Argos’ conflict with definition might actually be the theme of Bang Bang Rock & Roll. He rejects all he shouldn’t like, while simultaneously rejecting all that he should. On the title track, Argos announces in a punk sneer, “I can’t stand the sound of the Velvet Underground. I can’t stand that sound the second time around!” while his bandmates chant “White Light! White Heat!” Later in the song, he laments, “I don’t want any more songs about sex, drugs and rock & roll. They are boooring.” And in “Bad Weekend” (not to be mistaken for “Really Bad Weekend”), Argos lays his torment bare for world to see: “I haven’t read the NME in so long don’t know what genre we belong! Popular culture no longer applies to me.”

The Charlatans UK

Simpatico. (Creole/Sanctuary)

The Charlatans UK are still around? It’s been, like, 15 years since they got any airplay in the United States. Their new (and ninth!) studio album isn’t too far removed from the danceable drone that made them semi-superstars in the Madchester heyday. And for the first 4:19—the length of album opener “Blackened Blue Eyes”—Simpatico. has bite, promise even. A rolling, two-note piano riff intersects with a choppy, reverb-drenched guitar lick, and singer Tim Burgess sounds like a less-clenched Liam Gallagher as he sings “There won’t be a dry eye in the house tonight.”

They’re not crying tears of joy.

“Blackened” benefits from having a decent hook (they knew enough to place it first); most others do not. Burgess has reportedly been up to his hips in a reggae fixation in recent years, and his band attempt a middling Rockers rhythm on several songs. “For Your Entertainment” and “City of the Dead” are weak, but passable; “Road to Paradise” starts strong, goes nowhere. “Glory Glory” is a stiff country plunker that bites (by the band’s own admission) Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding.”

A few songs rise above the muck. “Muddy Ground” has one of those aforementioned hooks, albeit a tried one; “When the Lights Go Out in London” sounds like a Hard-Fi B-side. The album’s best track, the reggae-infused “The Architect,” features the clever line “Last night . . . an architect saved my life” against moody backing chorus and theremin. It plays like the closing credits from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet: Remember how that Radiohead song almost made it seem like the preceding film wasn’t a total waste? But it was, and the Charlatans’ decision to include fundamentally shaky songs like “NYC” and “Dead Man’s Eye” on Simpatico. suggests a band near the end of their days—although they were basically a singles act to begin with, and they’ve at least got one of those here.

—John Brodeur


Garden Ruin (Quarter Stick)

On Garden Ruin (Calexico’s seventh album), mainstays Joey Burns and John Convertino drop the soundtrack-to-a- Southwestern-noir-film style that previously has been their reason for being, and go full-out L.A. singer-songwriter, circa 1976. The band negate a possible lapse into soft-rock pap by coming up with some of the strongest songs of their storied career. Tunes like “Bisbee Blue” and “Lucky Dime” find middle ground between crunchy granola and the Beatles, mandolins and banjos rubbing up against cheery cello and horn parts. “Yours and Mine” is the album’s best ballad, similar in feel to the stripped-down but lush romanticism of M. Ward (the two acts have toured together), while “Panic Open String” seems directly inspired by Calexico’s recent collaboration with Iron and Wine. The sultry “Roka” is a welcome return to the band’s Latin roots, with Spanish chanteuse Amparo Sanchez and mariachi horns giving the song an added stamp of authenticity.

Lyrically, there is a world-weariness and sense of disappointment that makes the album feel bracingly contemporary—on opening song “Cruel,” “Birds refuse to fly/No longer trust the sky” while the closing (and best song) “All Systems Red” tells of fortitude in the face of those who would rather just abandon what they see as a hopeless situation. As the song builds to a swaying ship of guitar feedback over Convertino’s martial beat, Burns finally lets the passion rip through his voice: “When the dread is flowing down my veins/I want to tear it all down and build it up again.” With smart musicianship and winning melodies, on Garden Ruin Calexico have come up with a fine salve for healing the wounded.

—Mike Hotter

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