Up-Tempo From Down-Under
There are two ways to succeed at music: the first of which is to create a new genre. So, if you just happen to be the Beatles, Aphex Twin, the Ramones, Run-DMC, Radiohead (OK, they’re really a subgenre, but who’s counting?) or any other list of revolutionaries, then you’re pretty set in terms of a musical legacy. The other thing is to just do be particularly good at the genre you’re in. Coldplay has never brought anything new to the table, they just happen to write really good songs (well, except for X&Y). 50 Cent isn’t particularly innovative, but he just happens to have a clip of pop-rap classics under his Kevlar.
Usher in the Australian quartet The Handsome Charlies. Their debut LP, Gentlemen Never Tell, is not a “classic debut LP”, they will not pull a Toto and sweep the Grammys—no, they will just have to be content with having created a delicious bite of pop-rock with enough swagger and personality to be worthy of a decent following and a few iPod-worthy tunes you can flip through any time.
Opening with the pop-rock guitar shake of “Mistake”, you learn everything you need to know: the Charlies can write killer hooks and lyrics on par with just about anything you’ll find on your favorite Top 40 station. They deliberately cut-and-paste styles, ready to jump from sounding vaguely Brian Setzer-ish (“Eighty-One”), to trying to sound like a fusion of Coldplay and early Radiohead, only to wind up cranking out a damn good Feeder song (“Friend of Mine”). As admirable as it is for these Australians to try and sound like every rock radio station at the end of the ‘90s (and doing a damn good job at it), such a deliberate sound-alike contest can grow tiresome.
This weakness is never more apparent on the most obvious stumble-block for any rock group: the generic ballad. As sweet as “Queen of Rock and Roll” and “Eyes” try to be, all the immediacy that the band riled you up with earlier seems to just drain out. Along with the lyrics, the vocals are a bit low in the mix—almost as if they fear really letting the lyrics loose. This isn’t a terrible choice—this is a band that will better be known for their musical proficiency rather than vocal pyrotechnics, but by going that route, spending songs devoted to yearning lyrics prove to be more yawn-inducing than tear-duct draining.
It should be noted that this is not an eager-to-please-puppy album—the Handsome Charlies will not roll over, turn tricks, and sound like whatever band is popular at the moment (Australians will no dumb themselves down to Yellowcard semantics). They may fail at the B-52’s-flavored ska style in “Dark Prince”, but they’ll gladly trade that all in for a shiny pop hook on “Coffee” (a fittingly energetic song). You can never shun a band for trying too hard (the heavily Brit-pop styled “Three Months” could easily have been written by Coldplay… or Athlete… or Keane… or Leaves… or the Delays…) but damn they’re still trying.
A young band isn’t ever expected to come fully into its own sound the first time out (which is why if they do, we all take notice [see: the Arcade Fire]). The Handsome Charlies are merely writing songs that sound familiar and imitate their idols. If these so happen to be your idols as well, then you should hold back no longer. They will blow bubbles of pop joy like “Mistakes”, “Coffee”, and “This Life”—and like a child trying to blow them for the first time, they’ll eventually get the hang of it—and when they do, just be ready to look at it in awe.