If This is the Britpack, Then Who's Sinatra?
When was the last time a British rock band—or any British band—made a lasting impact on the American charts? OK, there’s Coldplay. But their upcoming third studio album is by no means a lock to stick around after the inevitable Top Five debut. U2? They’re Irish, natch. And merely sounding British doesn’t count, so that rules out The Killers.
Why does the current shortage UK-US crossovers matter? After all, the last time the Brits really had a stranglehold on the US charts was the 1980s and pre-grunge 1990s. The difference is, in the past the snooty British music press could take the cultural high road: England was home to musically innovative, culturally significant trends like Madchester/indie dance, Britpop, and the electronica explosion. If those thickheaded Yanks didn’t catch on, well, that was their problem. But now it’s the other way round, culturally, too. For the most part, it’s the British bands who want to sound like the trendy Americans and Canadians, many of whom are, incidentally, influenced by 1980s and ‘90s British indie bands. Got it? Things are so desperate in England that the music press has invented a new “trend” out of thin air and given it a name that shamelessly plays on nostalgic notions of cool on both sides of the Pond: the Britpack.
What does all this have to do with the 22-20’s? Well, they’ve been on the road in their native England as part of none-other-than NME‘s Britpack Tour, which includes fellow Next Big Things like the Zutons, Delays, and Thirteen Senses. Their handful of singles and self-titled debut album have hit the upper half of the UK charts. Frontman Martin Trimble, who like all of the 22-20s is around 21 years old, admits that one of his primary influences is a White Stripes Peel Session tape. As Bryan Ferry once famously said, you can guess the rest.
Wisely, though, the 22-20s’ American label, Astralwerks, has steered away from the Oh My God They’re Coming hype that precedes the US debuts of many UK “sensations”. That puts the focus squarely on the music, and 22-20s is a solid, promising debut that has a handful of great songs and a lot of pretty good ones. The sound is dirty, noisy blues rock—nothing new these days. But Trimble and his bandmates do pay more homage to their swampy blues influences than a lot of their peers (the band is named after an old blues track). Thumping two-step rhythms, two-timin’ women, the Devil: It’s in there.
When it works, it’s on. “Devil in Me” and “Such a Fool” are a great opening salvo, hitting the gut with revved-up guitars, punishing drums, and no more than a couple chords, while Trimble wails like a madcap John Fogerty. “Shoot Your Gun” is nearly as good, with a darker, minor-key Jesus & Mary Chain/Black Rebel Motorcycle Club guitar sound and lyrics like “You cut yourself / So let me see you bleed?” Downtempo number “The Things That Lovers Do” has the kind of gritty, moping guitar and wounded vocal that would make it at home on one of the more recent Pearl Jam albums.
Astralwerks must have realized what a great song “Baby You’re Not in Love”, a b-side of 22-20s’ first single, is. They’ve added it to the US version of the album as a bonus track, and it’s the best thing here. A simple lament for a botched relationship, it finds Trimble in great, plaintive voice, with a timeless country-rock arrangement and melody complete with lap steel and piano. It’s one of those rare contemporary songs that sounds like a time-worn classic and has one looking through the liner notes to find out who it’s a cover of, only to find that it’s an original composition. Imagine a Great Lost Track from Wilco’s Being There and you’re close.
Of course, with the extraordinary you get the perfunctory. “Baby Brings Bad News” is slow-moving and not-so-clever (“I’m getting sick / Of being positive”). “22 Days” takes a swing at industrial-strength groove rock, and misses narrowly. The pretty, folksy “Friends” sounds like Lennon doing Dylan, which is fine, but is again compromised by clichéd lyrics.
Still, 22-20s has a lot more killer than filler when compared to most debut albums by aspiring Brit rock’n'roll heroes. An OC appearance seems imminent.