[28 April 2008]
What makes a musician “good”? Is it the assiduous mastery of his or her instrument (thus explaining the otherwise bewildering popularity of Van Halen), or is it something more, something a little less calculated and concrete, like the ability to raise up the back of the neck’s hairs with sheer emotional weight? Is it a studied textbook knowledge of time signatures and tempos, cadenzas and codas, or is it the ambition to create great art coupled with the capacity to pull it off? There are, it seems, a lot of people who think the former, given the rise and rise of Newton Faulkner, a young English singer-songwriter about whom the most interesting thing than can be said is that he has pretty impressive hair. (Even then, it says a lot about the stylistic inclinations and appeal of Faulkner’s music that his label, Sony BMG, deliberately refrained from including any pictures of the guitarist, ginger dreadlocks and all, on his debut album’s release for fear of scaring off the target audience.) For Faulkner might reasonably be termed a guitar virtuoso; his handling of his six-stringer is undeniably impressive, cluttered as it is with finger-picking, tapping and percussive hand slaps. Unfortunately, his songs are utter dross, the kind of flimsy, dishwater-dull, middle-of-the-road blantitudes that even Staind had the sense to instil with the odd catchy chorus.
Those looking for a quick clue as to the sound of Hand Built By Robots need look no further than his recent support slots below the Fray, Paolo Nutini, and James Morrison. Though Faulkner is generally more technically impressive than the above, it’s the same sort of inoffensive stuff peddled by them that makes up his debut. Indeed, the chorus of recent single “Dream Catch Me” ain’t a million miles away from that of the Fray’s biggest hit “How To Save A Life” (and no, this is not a good thing). Yet while the terminally straight-faced Fray base their war of attrition with the listener’s patience on their tedious melancholy, Faulkner’s finds root in an altogether more upbeat attitude, something that manages to be just as irritating. There’s a sort of self-conscious wackiness pervading over much of Hand Built, stretching from his lyrical subject matter to his vocal delivery. Newton, you see (or so says the press release), likes his songs to “carry a message” rather than just lamenting failed relationships or trials of depression. And what might that astute message be? “The perils of growing old with superpowers”. Insightful.
But none of this matters a great deal, for Hand Built was essentially doomed from the moment Faulkner first opens his mouth. It’s not that he’s a bad singer. By all accounts, he’s got a decent, smooth-sounding set of lungs. But it’s how they’re employed that’s the problem, for the remarkably coiffured one has two vocal modes, each as unconvincing as each other. First, there’s the throaty croon, long the staple of drearily voiced singers the world over: think Creed, think 3 Doors Down, think Chad Kroeger. But even worse are the verses of “To The Light” and “Gone In The Morning”, conducted in a sort of horrendous, cringeworthy rap so ill-advised that it’s a wonder even Faulkner’s own mother didn’t take him aside and tell him “Newton, you sound like an idiot”.
Elsewhere, we have “Sitar-y Thing”, a minute or so of inconsequential meanderings with the titular instrument, and which may as well have been called “Look! I can play another instrument too!” We have “U.F.O.”, an oh-so-hilarious narrative of an extraterrestrial encounter (“It’s beginning to take control/So you better watch out for that anal probe”) that develops into an oh-so-perceptive critique of the failings of society (“They come in peace/We stay in war/We like to get drunk/And fight each other in bars”). And such is the banality of the record that it seems strangely inevitable when Faulkner becomes the 104th artist to add a few of his own coins to the Massive Attack “Teardrop” royalty fund by turning the plaintive electronic delicacy of the original into—you guessed it—a gentle, soulless finger-picked ballad. When Jose Gonzales (who, incidentally, also covered “Teardrop” not so long ago) made his name with a rendition of the Knife’s “Heartbeats”, he did so by stripping down and reinventing a boisterous dance-pop number as something few realised could be so affecting. With “Teardrop”, Faulkner essentially achieves the opposite, stripping the original of its obvious beauty to render it unprecedentedly vacuous, Elizabeth Frazer’s buttercup sigh replaced with the redheaded one’s husky croon.
And if the insipidity of Hand Built needed further illustration, it’s to be found in its commendable feat of making soggy piano ballad “Straight Towards The Sun” seem like breath of fresh air. In any other environment, of course, it would be nothing of the sort—play it back-to-back with any Radiohead song, for instance, and it’ll be shown up for the unremarkable plodder that it is—but so persistent is the onslaught of dull acoustic meanderings that any change is a nice one.
Hand Built isn’t, however, a complete loss. “It’s just an observation I can’t ignore/But people should smile more” declares Faulkner before scatting his way through “People Should Smile More”‘s second verse. And you know what? I think I have been smiling more. Ever since Hand Built stopped playing. Funny, that.