Judging by available evidence, there must be something wrong with me, so take the following how you will. But what it boils down to is that—apparently improbably—I simply don’t get the big deal about the Libertines.
In the face of gushing praise and rabid fandom, I’m still baffled about what the big deal is—about the Libertines, their albums, Pete Doherty as tabloid celebrity, Babyshambles—any of it, really. In fact, I’m much more entertained by the idea that Doherty is a mere product of the KLF, whether or not it’s a scam, a meta-scam, or simply a well-played marketing gimmick. It’s not that I find the music awful, but neither do I find it a Godsend or transcendent or any of the number of superlatives heaped on their debut. And this coming from someone who has a musical sweet tooth for products of the British Isles—someone who adores the Kaiser Chiefs, still stands by Coldplay, thinks Franz Ferdinand will prove to be a lasting joy, and finds himself humming Keane’s “Everything’s Changing” unconsciously, and all this in recent years only adding to a long history of loving British phenomena (Blur beats Oasis, Carter USM is brilliant, Pop Will Eat Itself equally so, and so on). So it’s not my USA-ian status, that’s for sure.
Of course, looking at that list, it’s certain a pop-heavy one, and I can accept that maybe I’m not “rock and roll” enough to really “get” the Libertines, but there you go. Like I said, there’s probably something wrong with me.
I drop this over-indulgent caveat lector because I suspect that I don’t get Cherubs for the same reasons that I don’t get the Libertines. Certainly, the European press tells me I’m wrong about this 2005 album, with NME dropping the casual “brilliant” and Drowned in Sound claiming that Uncovered by Heartbeat is “life-affirming.” And to continue the association, the Norwegian-born, London-based band has prominently shared the stage with the Libertines on tour, though plenty of acts are guilty of the same. But much of the references to Cherubs closely highlight this association, and one to the greater London garage rock scene in general.
Whatever the case, the US release of this disc isn’t causing me to fall all over myself with glee. It’s not bad, but it’s not astonishing either. What Cherubs offer is a slightly gritty mix of dirty neo-garage rock and ubiquitous post-punk, nothing that you haven’t heard before, and played in a deliberately herky-jerky, slightly-sloppy fashion that’s sometimes fun, sometimes annoying, and never magical.
The whole issue of Cherubs can be wrapped up in the first track on the disc, the incongruous “Telepathy”. Vocalist Staale Bruland starts off with a broken pattern of listed items—“Chemicals or spirits / Science or religion”—before dropping into a strolling pace, laughing good-naturedly through the lines and developing the song into a pleasant poppy chorus. But the whole time the accompaniment is fractured, half-played guitar chords that build annoyance rather than tension. And just as the chorus breaks, the guitars slowly build up into a grinding wall of sound, finally finding some voice, but pulling the song into a dark, frantically-paced paranoia that is completely at odds with the opening verse-chorus… which never resolves. If transition alone were enough to sell a song, Cherubs would be happy to supply an album of codas, but this just seems like two halves of two different tracks unhappily married together.
Then you turn around and get “The Kiss All Morning”, which unfortunately plays out as Interpol-by-numbers, resting on the weak refrain of “You’re my medicine.” Cherubs are much more effective when being brash and snotty on tracks like “9 [Stars] Out of Ten”, which channels punk speed and energy and attitude to great effect, or “Botox Bop”, which skewers the youth industry with post-punk verve. And if there’s one place where Cherubs seem to shine, it’s in the nervous David Byrne-isms of “Hey Bunny” and its Pulp Fiction overtones.
But overall, tracks like “You Stay I Leave”, the chugging “Adult Video/Chinese Food”, and “This Awful Morning” feel too familiar and formulaic to really stand out at all. By the time you get to the final tracks, you’re not really sure who Cherubs are, and you’re not sure if it matters. Thankfully, the highlights of Uncovered by Heartbeat are scattered throughout the disc, or there’d be no reason to keep listening. The hints of cleverness, such as the first half of “Telepathy” or the lyrical barbs of “Botox Bop”, aren’t enough to salvage this from being anything other than yet another entry in the Now That’s What I Call Yesterday’s Music series.
So if you want to wrap yourself up in a blanket woven of post-punk and a garage-sleazy streetwise edge, Cherubs will be good company. Until next week’s release of the same, at least.
But don’t listen to me. Like I already said, I just don’t get it.