The music industry is an ideal setting for testing Darwin’s theories of natural selection. To survive, you have to be strong (U2) and you absolutely must be able to adapt (Madonna). Some beasts are strong for a while but are unable to adjust to changing climes (Soundgarden), and are soon chosen for extinction. It’s actually a beautiful thing to witness if you can maintain objectivity. Nature (the buying public) takes the reins from Man (the music industry) from time to time and corrects man’s mistakes.
The English lads in Gene, however, don’t fit in with any of these groups. Olympian, the band’s debut album, surfaced in 1995 during England’s Britpop heyday. They were lumped in with the Britpop bands, even though they belonged more with the jangle pop bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s like the Ocean Blue and Trash Can Sinatras. They were so late for the jangle party that the parents, Mother Morrissey and Father Marr, had already come home and called the police. By the late ‘90s, British rock was all but banned from US radio. Darwin’s death knell for Gene seemed loud and clear.
Against all odds, however, Gene has found a way to survive. Their presence on the singles charts was never massive, yet like their beloved idols the Smiths, they have built a fiercely loyal following. Libertine, their new album, won’t make anyone throw away their copies of Parklife, The Queen Is Dead or What’s the Story (Morning Glory), but it is considerably better than one would expect. It lacks the guitar punch of their earlier work like “Fighting Fit”, but that’s almost beside the point. They’re not the same band they were back then, which is all for the better.
“Let Me Move On” - a recently recorded bonus track, no less - starts things off, and it instantly recalls the other band with a hairdresser name: Travis (We will not count hairdresser forefathers James, as their status is in serious question with the recent departure of singer Tim Booth.). It’s a perfectly fine mid-tempo number surrounded by, yes, jangly guitars and Martin Rossiter’s Mozz-o-rama vocal trill, but nothing particularly special. They saved that, apparently, for song two.
“Does He Have a Name?” just might be their best work yet. It begins as modest chamber pop but slowly evolves into a brooding epic with a heavenly string-driven finale. Some bands learn economics over the course of their existence. The lesson Gene seems to have learned is trust. “Does He Have a Name?” and “Yours for the Taking” take their time to blossom - the shorter of the two is six and a half minutes - but these aren’t Dave Matthews-type noodle jobs. The band has a purpose; they’re simply not in a hurry.
“Is It Over” is a surefire candidate for breakup song of the year. “Do you want another lover / Do you tire of me”, Rossiter moans. Drawing the word “over” out over about six syllables shows is perhaps slightly over-emoted, though it could be argued that with love songs, it’s impossible to over-emote. In either case, Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) must be proud.
In fact, Cocker, along with his mates in Pulp, appears to be a sly influence here and there. “A Simple Request” feeds Rossiter’s shaky tenor through what will now be known as the Bono Box (that processor U2 used on Achtung Baby and Zooropa) and suddenly what used to be Mini-Morrissey is now Could-Be-Cocker. The music also slinks along like those truculent cads that Cocker commonly sings about as well (Think “I Spy”). Since Pulp’s career post-Different Class has been remarkably spotty at best, it’s almost better to get Pulp songs from Gene than from Pulp themselves.
“We’ll Get What We Deserve” answers that long unasked question: What would it sound like if you took a reggae beat, accompanied it with a Marley-esque organ, and filled in the rest with dirty blues guitar? Atypical Gene, to be sure, and something that probably shouldn’t be pursued on the next record. Thankfully, the next song, “Walking in the Shallows”, will erase “Deserve” from memory banks in a nanosecond. Impeccably crafted, filled with hand claps and woo hoo hoo backing vocals - surely, the Lightning Seeds are seething with envy - “Shallows” is sparkling British pop of the highest order.
While fans may dispute it, there is a reason why Gene never vaulted to the big leagues of Blur-Oasis-Smiths-Stone Roses-Radiohead status. They’re a good band, but they’re not a great band. But better to be a good band that doesn’t reach superstar status than a lucky band with no chops that by sheer cosmic fluke scores a hit single. Libertine is proof that, as the saying goes, living can be the best revenge. I wonder what Darwin would say about them.