Familiar to millions as the band behind “Woke Up This Morning”, the theme song from The Sopranos, A3 returns with a follow-up to 1997’s Exile on Coldharbour Lane. La Peste is another foray into “country house” territory—that’s “country house” in a musical sense, not in the rural residence sense. This time around, however, A3’s Deep- South-by-way-of-South-London routine does begin to wear a little thin.
Certainly, A3 (known back home as Alabama 3) is not the only British band currently exhibiting a fascination with the USA. Among the best UK releases last year was Mojave 3’s Excuses for Travellers. One of the achievements of that album was its accomplished rendering of American folk-country music through the lens of British pop traditions. Sadly, such a degree of craft is rare in British music these days. Rather than working thoughtfully with American influences, many artists resort to a superficial incorporation of signifiers of “America”.
A worst-case scenario is David Holmes’ Let’s Get Killed (1997), on which our intrepid white cultural anthropologist does LSD and heads out slumming it with his DAT machine, recording the rants of native informants on the streets of New York. The resulting samples aren’t so much incorporated into the music in any meaningful way, as simply tacked on to document what a crazy, cool experience the Belfast DJ constructed for himself, as well as to garner some exotic urban cachet.
Granted, the Brixton-based collective A3 isn’t as one-dimensional in its approach as Holmes has been. Musical sources and influences are actually worked into a creative package that is of the band’s own making—not just grafted on as extraneous quotations—and the outcome is undeniably eclectic and eminently danceable. At the same time, however, it has to be said that La Peste derives from a relationship with American pop culture that rarely rises above the level of kitschy gimmick.
The concept showcased on La Peste comprises the following ingredients: a hybrid of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams is raised from the dead and propped up on the contemporary dance floor; tracks blend the sound and imagery of an imagined American South—as well as a smattering of contemporary urban Americana—with a British post-acid house groove; cowboy hats are worn; bibles are thumped satirically; the band members devise aliases only slightly less silly than those of the Lo-Fidelity Allstars (e.g. The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love, Larry Love, The Mountain of Love and Sir Real Congaman Love); vocals are delivered in a throaty pseudo-Southern drawl; and incessant lyrical nods are made to things American via song titles, film references, and name-dropping on a scale that hasn’t been seen since Lloyd Cole: “I got as drunk as Bogart / You were just smokin’ like Bacall”, hmmm. (Add some references to decidedly un-American figures like Yeats and Coleridge—albatross and all—and things begin to err on the side of pretension.)
Whereas all of that might sound innovative and attractive to a non-American audience—particularly so in the context of live performance—to these US-based ears the concept doesn’t translate too well. The modus operandi followed on La Peste is about as compelling as an American band constructing a depthless, postmodern hodge-podge of Britishness would be to a British audience. Just imagine the possibilities: a blend of, say, skiffle and techno, songs sung in fake cockney accents, references to chip shops, cider, haggis, The Wurzels, Carry On films, and a bit of Morris dancing and a male voice choir thrown in for good measure perhaps.
Still, if you’re able to filter out all of the cultural clutter and the problems of translation that undermine La Peste, then you’ll probably enjoy its ecumenical mix of gospel harmonies, country, rock, blues and beats, as well as the common denominator of deep, sandpaper vocals. “Too Sick to Pray”, “Mansion on the Hill”, “2129” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlife”, for example, are undeniably catchy numbers on a par with “Woke Up This Morning”.
At its best, La Peste‘s marriage of beats and traditional rock and blues motifs often recalls Primal Scream’s groundbreaking 1991 album Screamadelica, but it doesn’t display much of a progression from that sound, itself nearly a decade old now. Other comparisons with Primal Scream are inevitable on tracks like “Wade into the Water”, with its swagger and great female backing vocals. Here, A3 retreads the same kind of Stones-y Southern rock that dominated the follow up to Screamadelica, 1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up.
La Peste borrows its title from the 1947 novel by the French writer/philosopher Albert Camus (The Plague being the title of the English translation). While Camus’ plague is a metaphor for the Nazi occupation, Larry Love (a.k.a. Rob Spragg) has described this album as a meditation on numerous types of modern viruses. Diseases appear in various literal and metaphorical guises on La Peste—most prominently perhaps in the shape of drugs and social injustice.
As part of its statement on drug culture, the album includes an ill-advised ragga re-working of the overblown, anti-coke, anti-excess anthem “Hotel California”. A3 does nothing of consequence with the song and leaves listeners wondering what the point of covering it was in the first place. On the other hand, “Cocaine (Killed My Community)”, with its extra-heavy bass—again evoking the house groove of Screamadelica—and the funky gospel number “Too Sick to Pray” offer more convincing variations on the drugs-as-contagion theme.
The blights of inequity and poverty are the focus of “Mansion on the Hill” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlife”, albeit often in terms of a decidedly American vernacular (e.g. “welfare line” and “gasoline”—as if social problems didn’t exist in Britain). But A3 is most credible in political terms when the sound is understated, for example on the downbeat “The Thrills Have Gone”. This dark, bluesy piano piece is interspersed with snatches of monologue by Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six, who spent 16 years in a British prison having been wrongly convicted of the murder of 21 people in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Here, the simplicity of the sparse instrumentation and the vocal rasp are wholly successful.
Although A3 does have a cult following in the United States—one that has little to do with the band’s exposure via The Sopranos or its appearance on the Tonight show—huge popular acclaim probably won’t result from this release. The engaging techno/dance elements of A3’s formula notwithstanding, the group’s re-importing of Americana comes across as an exercise in carrying rather camp coals to Newcastle (New Castle, Alabama, that is).