It’s more than a little reductive, but the easiest way to describe the Beatnik Filmstars is that they’re the British Guided By Voices (except, ya know, not defunct). At first blush, they may not seem to be much more than that, but they do a fine job of carving out their own identity on their first record in eight (!) years, In Great Shape. Ya gotta admit, though, by checking in with 23 songs bearing decidedly Robert Pollardian songs titles (“Supremer Queener”, “The Radness of King Anders”, “The Greatest of Minds”) and owning an unerring knack for turning in fuzzy lo-fi pop gems, the Films stars are begging for comparisons to GBV.
Still, our Brits in question actually boast a higher hit-to-miss ratio than a typical GBV release, and the songs, all written by frontman Andrew Jarrett, contain a cohesion and logic that often escapes Pollard. Eight years is a long time to be out of the game (for what it’s worth Pollard has probably released 50 records in that time span), but the Filmstars, to their credit, don’t try to do too much to make up for lost time.
Over the course of eight albums, the Filmstars have mastered the whole lo-fi indie rock thing, like GBV and Pavement before them (I’ll stop mentioning GBV soon. I promise.) Gems like the stomping “It’s Not What You Know”, “I Eat Healthy Food” and the jangle pop near-masterpiece “Ocean Breeze” manage to feel simultaneously like complete thoughts and off-the-cuff throwaways. But unlike a lot of those shambling lo-fi bands that toss out non sequiturs like confetti, the Filmstars have a coherent worldview (even if it is a little predictable): We’re all slaves to consumerism, or as the opener “Really Quite Bizarre” puts it, “I’m just sleeping through a pre-packaged nightmare.” Between that sentiment and ones like “I Eat Healthy Food”‘s decrying of “plastic-faced ‘celebrities’” and “Sha La La La La La La (No Rok)“‘s assertion that “Warhol’s theory has become a reality” (itself a lyric whose 15 minutes are up), thank you, Beatnik Filmstars, for the heads-up that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. At least they offer one solution: “It’s too late to say ‘I love you’ when you’re dead,” beats the heart of “When You’re Dead”. Go out and do something about it, people!
Alright, so you’ve heard the worldview before, and the riffs are the stuff of top-notch indie rock—what makes In Great Shape so well-fit? I give them the tip of the cap for fusing a hip-hop sensibility to their indie foundation. The album is peppered with scratches, loops and programmed beats—something these lo-fi ears don’t hear every day. “Cut ‘Em Up (Stitch ‘Em Up)” is built around a video game-y sound loop; the urgent “Go Home! Life Is Killing You” marries a dire guitar riff to a looped beat. Meanwhile, the loops on “Sub D-d-d-d-d-disco” ride a fat bass groove and closer “Worldwide Fashion Crisis 1998” latch onto Tom Adams’ drumkit. The press kit says to think De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, but really, the closest analogy is probably Beck.
Socially conscious without being boorish, noisy and lo-fi without being inaccessible, hip-hop influenced without the bling, the Beatnik Filmstars are unassuming and confident enough to take an eight-year hiatus and return with a satisfying album with some new elements in their repertoire that delivers the goods without calling unwanted attention to itself. All returns after long absences should sound this good.