On their second album, London quintet Art Brut play… a weird assortment of covers? No, thankfully. But, looking at the track listing, you might be inclined to think so. On It’s a Bit Complicated, “Pump Up the Volume” is neither a song by M.A.R.R.S. nor a Christian Slater film about pirate radio; “I Will Survive” isn’t Gloria Gaynor’s disco ode to throwin’ out the bad boyfriend; and “Jealous Guy” isn’t a cover of John Lennon’s admission of sin (Bryan Ferry already nailed that baby). These are the song titles Art Brut talk-singer Eddie Argos cheekily borrowed for three of his 11 tales of record collecting and dating.
In 2005, when he and his mates issued their addictive debut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll, both band and album sounded incredibly fresh (here’s Adrien Begrand’s PopMatters review). Even though Art Brut’s style easily fit in with a crowd including Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, and Louis XIV (forgot about those guys already, didn’t you?), they made a distinct impression and stood out from the other art-pop indie rockers. This was thanks almost entirely to Argos, who asserted his individual style right away and never backed down. He joined a weird lineage of lead vocalists who rarely (if ever) “sing” in the traditional way we think of vocalists as singing. Instead, like those who came before him—Mark E. Smith, King Missile’s John S. Hall, and that guy from the Pursuit of Happiness—Eddie Argos makes only minimal conceits to the standard means of delivering his clever and endearing words. Aside from dispatching his lines in time to the beat, he’s basically just reading. What makes his style catchy is that he does so in much the same way you would read a Dr. Seuss book to a child, by alternating the pitch of your voice at the end of each line. “Do you like his spoken vox? / Would you listen with a fox?”
Art Brut haven’t modified their approach at all for their sophomore release. Scrappy rock ‘n’ roll with a trebly buzz and big hooks worked for them the first time around, so why change? Well, seemingly every other band who emerged in 2005 has felt the need to abandon the fun tunes that made them likeable in favor of a darker and more serious sound. (I’ve harped on this already in 2007, and may well continue to do so.) Fortunately, Art Brut didn’t get the memo that the fashion trend had changed. Or maybe Argos used said scrap of paper to scrawl out some lyrics about making out and listening to music. These are the themes of the album, and they pop right up in the opening track, “Pump Up the Volume”. Set to a Pavement-like indie theme with a garagey crunch, Argos wonders, “Is it so wrong / To break from your kiss / To turn up a pop song?” It is this sort of conflict which yields the “a Bit” part of the album’s title; certainly, the battle between heavy petting and deep listening wouldn’t warrant “It’s Extremely Complicated”.
The following track, “Direct Hit”, is the dance-rock song of the summer. The main guitar riff is straight from early ‘80s radio rock (Benatar and Loverboy), propelling the cut deliriously forward. The shout-cheer of backing vocals on the refrain sounds anthemic and huge. And, as Arctic Monkeys proved last year, any song about what happens on a “dancefloor” is way rad. Art Brut toughen up on “St. Pauli”, as Argos barks, “Punk rock is nicht tot!” No, it’s not dead, but Art Brut aren’t the ones keeping it alive. They’re far too cute to be punk. They do appreciate punk’s DIY spirit, though, championing “7-inch record"s and even the technical details involved in the art of the mix tape. As Eddie explains in “Sound of Summer”, you need to hit “Play and record / Held down together / Tabs pushed up / So you can’t tape over it ever.” Actually, two thin strips of adhesive tape will help you replace an ex’s collection of love songs with a dub of that killer new Nirvana album. Wait, it’s not the ‘90s anymore. Does anybody still use cassettes? Ah, well. Another part of Argos’s charm is his nostalgia. After all, it was his fondness for his grade school sweetheart, Emily Kane, that fueled Art Brut’s best-known song from their first album.
It’s a Bit Complicated doesn’t quite live up to the thrill of that debut, but it’s still just as good as its predecessor. Both of their full-lengths start off strong, wavering toward the end. On a few tracks in Complicated‘s second half, the ragged lack of focus from 2005 has been replaced, in 2007, with a little complacency. Still, the new record has plenty of excellent tracks and a likeability that permeates every song; even the so-so numbers are enjoyable. In a year when their peers all sound tired and annoyed, Art Brut bring on the fun for the second time around. It’s a direct hit.