Review Summary: Often imitated but never equalled, Up The Bracket is the definitive British indie-rock album of the century.
The story of The Libertines is now a well documented episode in rock folklore. London musicians Carl Barat and Pete Doherty form a band that generates a fervent cult following before imploding due to personal problems and Doherty's fondness for narcotics. Both then go on to form similar yet mediocre bands, Barat's Dirty Pretty Things and Doherty's slightly better Babyshambles, the latter Libertine becoming a fixture in the UK tabloids for his drug habit and his relationship with supermodel Kate Moss.
But before all the in-fighting, media circus and the myriad so-called "indie" bands that were to follow and whore themselves to NME, The Libertines made Up The Bracket, indisputably the best indie-rock album from this side of the Atlantic in the 21st century. In a genre that was dominated by Britpop clones such as Travis and Coldplay, The Libertines stripped off the stadium rock characteristics that had been in vogue since Oasis's heydey and made a gritty yet soulful record about drug abuse, riots and sex with groupies.
The first thing you notice about the sound of the album is the fuzzy, trebly guitar that kicks in right from the off in the punchy riff of opening track 'Vertigo'. While it may turn off sticklers for high-end production values, it is perfect for both the style of the music and the atmosphere it creates. You feel like you're in some dingy dive bar in Camden where you can barely see for the clouds of cigarette smoke and you're not quite sure if a stranger is about to hug you or punch you in the face.
Another thing that sets the band apart is the musical relationship between Barat and Doherty. Both co-write, co-sing and share lead guitar duties, and the pair dovetail seamlessly on tracks like 'Death On The Stairs', while Pete's vocal harmony behind Carl's lead on 'Vertigo' and 'Boys In The Band' is irresistible. Both voices bring something different to the table as well; while Carl's is generally a laid-back soulful croon, Pete will go from a tuneful slur to frantic yelps at the drop of a hat, as displayed on 'Horrorshow', an insight into heroin abuse. And while neither of them are quite Joe Satriani, the guitarwork is impressive for the genre, particularly Carl's solo on 'Time For Heroes'.
In terms of the music The Libertines have more in common with The Clash and The Sex Pistols than with Oasis or The Smiths, with a very clear punk influence present on Up The Bracket. Slower songs such as 'Time For Heroes' and 'Tell The King' sit comfortably alongside more upbeat, rockier numbers like 'The Boy Looked At Johnny' and brilliant album closer 'I Get Along' (n.b. my version doesn't have What A Waster).
Much is often made of Doherty as a brilliant lyricist, and it has to be said that such praise is often justified. Up The Bracket has some of the most poetic and witty lyrics seen in this or any other genre, a personal favourite being "There's fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap." Other than rock'n'roll excess, other lyrical themes include being chased by London gangsters ('Up The Bracket') and struggling to shake off one's class background ('Tell The King').
Bad points? As previously stated the sound quality is hardly Rubin-worthy, although I feel it stops short of being a hindrance to the music and in fact helps it, but the guitar tone will irritate some. Track 6, 'Radio America', is also a pretty boring affair, although one might argue it helps the pacing of the record, and anyone who is obsessed with musical technicality or complexity will probably not find a great deal of gratification in a group of competent yet fairly basic musicians.
So forget the hype, the media BS and the awful imitation bands it inspired, Up The Bracket is an exciting, infectious punk-rock'n'roll album that sounds as good and as fresh now as it did upon its release in 2002. Well done boys.