Review Summary: It's a bit like Bang Bang Rock & Roll, except harder, better, faster, stronger.
Quite how Art Brut scored themselves the Pitchfork #3 album of the year back in 2005 with Bang Bang Rock & Roll
, I'll never quite know. Sure, it was a fun, funny album that hit the post-punk zeitgeist head-on without feeling like part of the scene, but Art Brut were a one-trick pony
. That was crucial to know - on that album, every Art Brut song was essentially the same, with only "Bad Weekend" offering up a moment where the band overshadowed the singer. Vaguely Fall-esque music, with Eddie Argos spewing witticisms over the top - that was it. Sure, it had some undeniably awesome songs - "Formed A Band", the Doherty-baiting "My Little Brother", "Bad Weekend", "Emily Kane" - but it's also hard to deny that the lyrics and the idiosyncratic half-spoken vocals kept it aloft. The reason it worked so well was that they sounded so different from everybody else. Even Pitchfork, though, acknowledge the second album conundrum in their review of this album - they can't remake Bang Bang Rock & Roll
, simply because it won't be unique any more. It won't work.
Well, let's be happy - changes have been made. Eddie Argos is, generally speaking, a more measured, tender presence here, as the album stand-outs "People In Love" and "Pump Up The Volume" (not a M/A/R/R/S cover) attest. "Jealous Guy" (not a John Lennon cover) explores similar emotional territory to "Rusted Guns of Milan", Bang Bang Rock & Roll
's most honest moment, but rather than being coy about it ('Can I get you a cup of coffee?'), here he's exploring feelings and stuff, without sacrificing his wit, or way with a one-liner. Rather than wondering what to do with obsolete Italian money or advising siblings to the dangers of crack cocaine, here we're in more well-trodden territory - kissing, boring relationships, dancing, listening to pop songs. Luckily, Argos is still enough of a comedian to keep all this sounding like it's worth writing about.
Speaking of wit, comedy, and one-liners, Argos is sharper than ever here. His dalliances with the female of the species on "Pump Up The Volume" have him exclaiming 'Found my hand in a place/I can't tell if she minds'. "Direct Hit"'s bridge is announced with 'Here comes the really good bit'. "St. Pauli"'s chorus - 'Punk rock ist nicht tot' (that's 'punk's not dead' to you and me) - has him later apologizing by explaining in the bridge 'Sorry if my accent's flawed/I learnt my German from a 7-inch record'. And then there's the disarming opening line 'People in love lie around and get fat'. Morrissey wishes he wrote that. He probably also wishes that he wrote 'What becomes of the broken hearted? They're drunk for a few weeks, then they're back where they started...'
But the major change here - and the real reason that this album is so clearly superior to Bang Bang Rock & Roll
- is the band. Yes, those anonymous intsrument weilders that stood behind Eddie Argos minding their own business two years ago have seriously stepped up their game, to the point where they're actually more interesting to listen to at times. "Direct Hit" sports a brilliant classic rock riff, with backing vocals in the chorus, and a Smashing Pumpkins-esque harmonic run and whistle-stop bends bookending the chorus - it's like they've got bored and suddenly decided they're going to pull their weight. In all honesty, not enough bands in this subgenre are doing stuff like this. This song alone is enough to prove how stupid everybody was to even consider comparing Art Brut to The Futureheads. "People In Love" sees them going the other way, laying down a backing track that's shockingly pretty; certainly, with anybody else's vocals it's hard to imagine that this wouldn't be a huge hit single. The musical touchstones are still the major post-punk bands (usual suspects like Gang of Four, Wire, The Fall, Magazine, The Buzzcocks and whoever else), but they've got flair now, and it makes a real difference. It's hard to imagine any of the similarly arty British neo-post-punk bands that surround them - close friends Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, The Young Knives, et cetera - coming up with a guitar line quite like the one on "Post Soothing Out", for instance, and the guitar solo on "Blame It On The Trains" is not something you'd expect to hear in this setting, either. In fact, the seemingly-random insertion of classic rock moves occasionally suggest that, much like another intelligent post-punk-influenced British outfit, these guys secretly wish they were Guns n Roses. But then, they slap a horn section in "Late Sunday Evening". All bets are off by this point. They've developed an emotional range that even extends to 'cute', as the riff on "Jealous Guy" attests. At times, it feels like this band has finally arrived. It's an exciting feeling.
In truth, if you hated the first Art Brut album, this might not do an awful lot to change your mind about them. Eddie Argos' voice is still front and center, and it's him that the listener is invited to focus on. As much better as the band have got, if he was a sticking point before, he'll still be one now. But for the fans, this is basically everything we wanted. It's like the debut, but slightly different, definitely better. And Art Brut remain as refreshing as they were on impact because, contrary to the album's titles, they're so refreshingly uncomplicated. Sophomore slump? PAH!