It is so very refreshing to hear a British indie rock band who isn’t content to be a pale sketch of a dicey photocopy of a blurry snapshot of the Libertines. Yeah, Babyshambles, I’m talkin’ about you! Glasgow trio the Fratellis seemed to have researched the original sources for their sound, looking back to music hall, the British Invasion, glam, ska, and punk. All of the home schooling has paid off with their ridiculously addictive debut, Costello Music. The album’s name was apparently inspired by fictional musician Tony Costello’s telephone greeting from the film Still Crazy, but it would have been fitting if the Fratellis were paying tribute to the greatest living Elvis, a man who has mined similar territories and come up with gold.
I’ve been spinning Costello Music since fall of last year. The cut that made my 2006 comp was the Buzzcocks-meets-early-Beatles “For the Girl”, with its jumpy rhythm, silly volley of “la"s, and one of guitarist-vocalist Jon Fratelli’s (John Wallace’s) many winking takes on the trials of love: “I was into the Stones when she was into the Roses / She was breaking my bones when I was busting their noses.” The fantastic opening cut, “Henrietta”, whips up Madness with the New York Dolls, as upbeat guitar stabs pin down glammy melodies and some nifty rhythm breaks courtesy of bassist Barry Fratelli (his actual former surname, or so he claims) and drummer Mince Fratelli (Gordon McRory).
Meanwhile, Jon tells the tale of wooing a married woman over to the dark side. “Buy us some shoes and maybe take us for cola / We’ll get you there in some filthy big gondola / Clean out the bank and bump off your daddy / You can come live with us amongst the has-beens and the addicts.” They do handclaps, too! “Chelsea Dagger” beats Louis XIV at their own game, with T.Rex chords and sordid sexcapades. When the titular and titillating femme meets our hero, she tells him, “‘Someone said you was asking after me / But I know you best as a blagger’ / I said, ‘Tell me your name. Is it sweet?’ / She said, ‘My boy, it’s Dagger.’ Oh yeah!”
So, yes, you need to be a fan of a certain style of indie rock storytelling currently in vogue in the UK, wherein bad boys act a little naughty and stumble into misadventures, chronicling it all in the lyrics to their songs. The Libertines left track marks on their words, Arctic Monkeys capture the weariness of blokedom, and the Fratellis are here to lampoon the battle of the sexes. Sometimes they do this sweetly, though. “Whistle for the Choir” is a pretty ballad, all strummy acoustic guitar and, true to the title, featuring a very fine job of whistling. Could a guy be more mixed up about love than this: “So if you’re crazy, I don’t care, you amaze me / Oh you’re a stupid girl, oh me, oh my / You talk, I die, you smile, you laugh, I cry”. Pull it together, Jon! Ah, but if he did, then what would he sing about?
I have a quibble with the tracklisting for this US version. The album is identical to its UK counterpart, save for the substitution of one track, a near-throwaway punky b-side called “Gutterati?”, which replaces the excellent and catchy “Cuntry Boys and City Girls”. I can only assume that Cherry Tree’s parent label, Universal, made this decision in order to stay as far away as possible from a certain word, slang for vagina, that is considered more offensive in American than it is in Britain. Wow, what a bunch of pussies.
That aside, Costello Music crackles from top to bottom with nervous energy, confident songwriting, and hopeless confusion over girls, girls, girls. The band build on the current UK indie rock scene, taking its wearying routines to new places and infusing its sounds with much-needed energy. Watch out Franz Ferdinand. Keep up, Belle and Sebastian. Your fellow Glaswegians the Fratellis are here to play.