“Plastic soul, man,” Paul McCartney once giddily scoffed after a take of the Beatles’ disorderly “I’m Down”. That inside, self-deprecating joke would eventually evolve into Rubber Soul‘s very title, itself a wink and a pun towards the R&B sounds the band worked so hard to mimic. The Beatles obviously earned the right to allude to their sources in an irreverent fashion; they played the music too well and would soon transcend any trace of imitation.
The Zutons, who just happen to be fellow Liverpudlians, stretch some serious rubber soul on their major label debut (albeit 40 years later with four decades’ worth of new frames of reference). Who Killed the Zutons? isn’t exactly a pressure cooker of ideas ready to explode or the window ledge over the abyss of musical revolution. It is full of bulbous pseudo-Sly and the Family Stone hallucinations, mathematically arranged on a chalkboard with the paranoid precision of Talking Heads. If bands like Super Furry Animals and Augie March represent ascension from the Beatles’ late period, the Zutons favor the more problematic, transitional “middle years”. If the band isn’t trying to play poker-faced soul music, it’s constantly on the brain: they chase it like animated mannequins fighting their way out of a store’s window display. When they occasionally catch up to their inspirations, the Zutons revert to feigned disinterest.
This is all a lot simpler than it sounds. Who Killed the Zutons? is, on the most innocent of levels, a record of simple pop tunes. It’s like a musical fondue set, with songs dipped into a multitude of reference points: “Confusion” cops the bass line from “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number”; “You Will You Won’t” opens with a facsimile of “Crosstown Traffic”; and “Zuton Fever” inverts Dick Dale-isms into overcast noir oddities. They even have their own Clarence Clemons figure that honks through some rudimentary, oddly endearing, saxophone. Yet as the songs pass through cinematic imagery of turf wars (“Havana Gang Brawl”), culture clashes (“Dirty Dancehall”), and monster movie phantasms (“Nightmare Part II”), the Zutons’ music merely drudges up West Side Story idealizations of menace. There’s the overwhelming feeling of something lost along whatever learning curve the Zutons rode to the songs’ creation.
Sometimes this formula works in spite of itself. “Pressure Point” is insatiable one-chord chunky funk, its expression of breaking points echoed in the big plexiglass chords and kitchen percussion. Guitars chop and dice over the percolating rhythm of “Long Time Coming”, which honors its tension with nice interjections of relief. Both the greased ballad “Not a Lot to Do” and the freewheeling “Remember Me” recall the simple pleasures of a pre-Rubber Soul agenda. The former gets lost waltzing on a rainy Sunday, while the latter hangs on to a fragile friendship. Both simpler ambitions and ultra-normal subjects fit the Zutons better than their more studied, intensive attempts at cross-pollination.
The Zutons may share McCartney’s sense of self-mockery, acknowledging that while they may be part of a shared musical history, they don’t explicitly lay claim to its origins. But too often, the Zutons are like Replicants: they reflect the authentic with a delivery that feels skewed and unsure. They are instruments of splintered plywood rather than fragile flesh, like the vacant look in an android’s otherwise human eyes. While it’s easy to break Who Killed the Zutons? down into a series of emulations, you still end up wishing it wasn’t all so plastic and more… well, lifelike.