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The Natural History

Beat Beat Heartbeat

(StarTime International; US: 6 May 2003)

One of the best things about reviewing this record by New York’s the Natural History is a refreshing lack of complication on all levels. No convoluted band genealogy. A trio that includes two brothers. A simple, memorable name and stark, clean cover art. Nothing cryptic. Unmistakable musical debts. No need to waste words on back story.


Well, okay, except to mention that the brothers are Julian (bass guitar) and Max (guitar and vocals) Tepper, and that Derek Vockins (drums) completes the lineup.


Which leaves lots of space to talk about the music. Um, which would be great if it weren’t for the fact that there isn’t much to say about that, either. And I mean that in a sincerely good way, not merely that it clocks in at well under 30 minutes. This soulful pop rock winks knowingly at obvious, mostly British, influences such as the Kinks, Elvis Costello and XTC while whistling its own maddeningly quirky tune with unadorned panache. It may take two, or three, or four spins (whatever), but of a sudden, the cumulative effect of these eleven exuberant, sprightly beer-and-candy songs (with definite emphasis on the word “songs”) overwhelms your heart and your feet. Beat Beat Heartbeat indeed.


It’s a very clean record. Not in some antiseptic un-rock ‘n’ roll sense, but in its lack of ostentation and pretension. And if the songs themselves speak of 21st Century dirt, pain and confusion, they are couched in breezy enough song structures to easily avoid wallowing in familiar shit. If anything, they illuminate it. All the busy disaffections and angular assaults of urban life are presented here, but you get the feeling the Natural History see a kind of beauty in them; the golden evening sun highlighting (for an exquisite and heartbreakingly short moment) part of a peeling graffiti-ed warehouse or rusted iron bridge, for instance. With little patience for elaboration, such tender moments are nonetheless briefly noted, before we are whisked on our way again. In this, Max Tepper’s smoky, catchy voice helps immeasurably. Part early-Costello yelp, part soulful Weller bark, it manages to sew engaging melodic and colloquial snippets to the punchy bounce of the spiky neo-Clash-isms exhibited by the otherwise workmanlike guitar-bass-drum format.


Not one of these songs overstays its welcome (11 of them in 27 minutes equals an average length well below three minutes). The feeling of jittery propulsive movement aided by strong riffage, hooks, and tight-as-a-Wire (heh) production pervades them all, creating no real obvious standout. Forced to pick, I’d have to highlight “Beat Beat” for its prettily hopeful/desperate vibe and the timeless “Run De Run” with its streetwise singalong chorus and urgent, elevated pulse rate. But, honestly, it would make just as much sense to select the pensive and melodically compelling “Do What You Should” or the edgy bluebeat of “Broken Language”. Or the Elvis-meets-Summers-and-Copeland of opener “Facts Are”. Ultimately, hearing these dual-tone anxious-caustic lovesongs intact and pretty much in order is essential.


What is it with these New York bands, anyway? With Interpol also tilling the rich atmospheric soil of British post-punk, grafting Joy Division onto the Smiths (among others), the Natural History have not forgotten there was a pre-punk England, too, and have consequently dropped the Beatles and the Kinks into their more street-involved version of this engaging stew. But even that doesn’t do this album justice: it is simply there, not over-thought or preciously derivative in any way, even if it appears so at first blush. A certain endearing sincerity in Max Tepper’s voice and phrasing precludes any au courant affected indie nonchalance, ensuring these likeable down-to-earth sounds and propulsive rhythms will probably be heard and felt as keenly in parts of Brixton as they will in Brooklyn.

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