Monkeys' EP disappoints, but not without some promise
One thing is clear with Arctic Monkeys: their desire to grow artistically and unashamedly respect their roots in English popular music is well-understood by their countrymen. It is not, however, on this side of the pond (excepting a few followers of Mojo magazine and the Monkeys’ imaginative producer, Josh Homme). Their latest album, Humbug, is nothing short of astonishing in its intent, even if occasionally flawed in its delivery. In the world of emo latchkey-kid self-absorption, there is the voice of Alex Turner, who turns phrases the way most of us turn a screw. He has a hyperactive and observational imagination that’s nearly unique in pop music today. On the album this reaches its peak with “Cornerstone”, a song which in another less atavistic, jaded age would see immediate comparisons to the best of Ray Davies.
“Propeller” is the opening track on the album as well as the EP, and introduces the minor key song structure which dominates throughout. Producer Homme was able to channel the best of Turner’s tutleage gained with his side project the Last Shadow Puppets. It’s drenched in reverberation, sinewy, clean guitar lines, and eerie Hammond or Vox Continental in the back. The subject matter is nothing short of creepy. We are not in the bedroom where “wham bam thank you ma’am” is the rule. Instead, we hear the seductive coaxing to his lover to “have a spin”. The Transylvanian atmosphere is shattered in the reprise of the song’s introduction and the coda’s plea: “My propeller won’t spin and I can’t get it started on my own / When are you arriving?”
It is unfair to declare that the rest of the EP is something of a disappointment. First, it has not been since those halcyon days of the Beatles et al. that every track on an EP would be strong. North Americans never experienced the EP properly. The last 30 years of EPs have been the off-scourings from album sessions. I suspect that it is no different here. It is not that the songs are particularly poor. One hears immediately, however, why they did not make the cut.
“Joining the Dots” like the other two tracks left in the sidings, is more spare on production, save for the celeste/glockenspiel adornments throughout. “The Afternoon’s Hat” is peculiar for its solo section, which sounds ill-considered. It suggests that the song was recorded and not revisited by Mr. Homme’s producing skills. The strongest of the set (apart from “Propeller”) is “Don’t Forget Whose Legs You’re On”. The piano-driven exploration of Turner’s lyrical acrobatics, downright obtuse though they are, give an indication that Arctic Monkeys’ musical imagination is only beginning to blossom.
What shines through, even in this lacklustre EP, is Alex Turner’s stunning skill as a lyricist. Imagery and wordplay are his forte, leaving pretty much all of his peers in the dust. If anything, the musical anemia underscores the fact that Turner clearly writes his lyrics before the music, bringing an internal rhythm to the songs which the music must obey. That it works as often as it does for Turner and his mates is a testament to his prowess. With maturity and yet more considered direction, he is likely to become one the great songwriters in pop music history.
The great unsung hero of AM, however, is drummer Matt Helders, who is clearly never satisfied with anything short of the perfect percussive support for every song. His work is always a joy, even on the weaker tracks.
Whether or not North America every understands Arctic Monkeys matters little. They are the gold of Britpop at present. If these tracks fail to satisfy, then consider them the dross burned away in the crucible to purify them for the next outing.
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// Notes from the Road
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