While UK guitar rock continues to grow in popularity, one thing that’s been in short supply as of late has been the kind of charismatic presence that draws us in past the choppy chords and disco beats. We already have a couple of dynamic frontmen in the form of Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Maximo Park’s Paul Smith, but while the rest of the crowd, like the Futureheads, Bloc Party, and Kaiser Chiefs can churn out the post punk as well as anyone, if there’s one flaw, it’s that they all lack personality on record. Where’s the attitude, the overbearing combination of arrogance and heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity that has the guys wanting to be them and the girls wanting to do them? Did Liam Gallagher, Robbie Williams, and Pete Doherty suck all that energy up? Well, there’s no need to worry; as long as there are young Brits with amplified guitars slung around their shoulders, there will always be the odd few who come off as cheeky arseholes. And, bless ‘em, Art Brut are the latest, a welcome change from the rather polite norm of recent years.
The London five-piece have already stolen many a heart with their snarky, boisterous debut Bang Bang Rock and Roll, but in all honesty, many people had Art Brut pegged as a flash in the pan before that album even came out this past May, thanks to their 2004 single “Formed a Band”, one of the most hilarious, ridiculously lunkheaded tunes to emerge from the current UK “art wave” scene. “Look at us, we formed a band!” singer Eddie Argos hollers, completely taking the proverbial piss, but while the band might sound like a bunch of dumb kids having a laugh amongst themselves at first, it soon becomes apparent just how wickedly smart the song is. Constructed around a fabulous punk rock riff by guitarists Chris Chinchilla and Ian Catskilkin, Argos contradicts the pure rock glory of those chords, stating in his spoken voice, “And yes, this is my singing voice/ It’s not irony/ And it’s not rock and roll,” when he knows full well it most definitely is. He goes on to flamboyantly state he’ll be “the man who writes the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along”, compose a tune that will become more ubiquitous than “Happy Birthday”, and that they’ll play it on Top of the Pops eight weeks in a row. A terrific, boisterously overblown statement from an unceasingly optimistic young garage band just starting out, the song seemed too perfect, too simple for the band to flesh the same formula out for an entire album. Right?
Well, any doubt cynics may have had in Art Brut was tossed out the window when the album’s first single, “Emily Kane”, surfaced this past April. A song as cute and charming as “Formed a Band” was audacious, it was written by Argos with the genuine hope that he could win back his girlfriend (yes, named Emily Kane) from 10 years prior. Over a snappy, Kinks-style arrangement, Argos sounds downright wistful as he muses about his 15-year-old crush (“We didn’t understand how to do much more than just hold hands”), the indelible impression she left on him (“Every girl that I’ve seen since/ Looks just like you when I squint”) and his resolve to write the Greatest Love Song Ever, so he could win her back for good (“I hope this song finds you fame/I want schoolkids on buses singing your name”). It’s the kind of guitar pop genius that Stiff Records specialized in a quarter century ago, in the time-honored tradition of Wreckless Eric’s “The Whole Wide World” and The Other Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet”, and ranks as one of the year’s best singles.
As for the rest of the album, it holds up surprisingly well. “Good Weekend” sounds like a mixture of the Buzzcocks and vintage ‘60s soul, as Argos shamelessly flaunts the fact that he’s got a “brand new girlfriend”, hollering at one point, “I’ve seen her naked… twice!” “My Little Brother” heads into more of a harsher, early Clash direction, highlighted by the great line, “All we ever want is our parents to worry about us.” Meanwhile, “Modern Art” dares to attempt the same acid-tongued sarcasm of The Fall, as Argos mercilessly lampoons the London art scene, and the silly “Moving to L.A.”, has a starry-eyed Argos pondering a change in lifestyle, escaping the dreary English weather (“I think I’ve got it sorted/ I’m going to get myself deported”). The combination of Argos’s continued faux-anti rock posing (“I can’t stand the sound of the Velvet Underground”) is wittily juxtaposed with a band performance that’s every bit as ferocious as White Light/White Heat, the joke capped off by the inclusion of a screeching viola near the end.
This kind of meta-rock ‘n’ roll, pop eating itself style of songwriting has been done before (Television Personalities immediately spring to mind), but while Eddie Argos is certainly no Daniel Treacy, as he tends to lazily rely on repeated phrases instead of elaborating more (some songs, including “Bad Weekend” come off as sounding only half-written), Bang Bang Rock and Roll is still the most welcome, here’s-mud-in-yer-eye debut since The Libertines’ Up the Bracket. Hopefully Art Brut will stick around a little longer; as “Emily Kane” and “Good Weekend” prove, they have the potential to become something more than just a bunch of wise-asses singing about how they formed a band.