The Charlatans: Who We Touch

Photo: Jenny Hardcore

After 20 years and 11 albums, the Charlatans remain a strangely appealing proposition. Who knew it would take space rock to prove it?

The Charlatans

Who We Touch

Label: Cooking Vinyl
US Release Date: 2010-09-14
UK Release Date: 2010-09-06

Who suspected the Charlatans would be the one "Madchester" band that would last for 20 years? Their resilience has gained them no small amount of respect. What's often overlooked, though, is that their music has maintained a remarkably consistent level of quality. Some of their albums have been better than others, but only one, Simpatico!, was a genuine dud. Plus, their run of singles would stand up to that of any other British band of the era. For some reason, though, the Charlatans have never really been considered one of the "major" British rock bands. They don't write straight-up love songs and they're not pretentious. Maybe that has something to do with it. Anyhow, the Charlatans have reached the point where they can release whatever they please. At the very least, the fan base will buy it, and the critics and the public will say something about longevity, then brush it aside.

Now, though, it's becoming apparent that the Charlatans once again demand something more than the usual treatment. No one loves a comeback more than the British music press, and the Charlatans may be due. 2008's You Cross My Path was an unexpected career high point. And, while it's not as immediately appealing, Who We Touch marks another bold, confident move, one which pays off much more often than you might expect.

Band leader Tim Burgess has always been a genuine music enthusiast. One has to look only as far as the myriad styles and sounds the Charlatans have tried out throughout their career. You Cross My Path went heavy on 1980s post-punk, and from the Joy Division riff on the hard-charging opener "Love Is Ending", you might think the band was maintaining that focus on Who We Touch. But the best term with which to describe Who We Touch is "sprawling". Burgess has been into fringe-dwellers of the last few decades, bands such as space-rockers Hawkwind, krautrockers Can, punk extremists Crass, and techno-industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle. Thus, Tony Rogers' Hammond organ sounds more spooky than groovy on the tense "Sincerity", which alternates a droning rhythm with group shouting and a chilling, zombie-like chorus. On "Oh!", a lilting verse, featuring Burgess' most beautiful, delicate vocal to date, gives way to an ominous chorus. Then, the whole song breaks for a waltz-time, kalliope-type interlude, with Burgess yelling, "We live in fear, oh boy we live in fear". So far, so Syd Barrett.

With the album's last couple tracks, though, the Charlatans' tether to the corporeal world becomes ever so thin. The gauzy, rhythmless "You Can Swim" has been compared to Brian Eno, but a more accurate reference point seems to be the Brian Wilson of "'Til I Die". Then, on hidden track "I Sing the Body Electric", former Crass member Penny Rimbaud shows up to do some spoken word in a melodramatic Vincent Price-style, saying things like, "In space, we want to know not where we are". Burgess recently described this collaboration as a career high, so it must not be a parody. But you could be forgiven for thinking so.

What's impressive about Who We Touch is how in light of all this the Charlatans haven't lost their characteristic swagger or their way with a tune. The soulful "My Foolish Pride" is the band's most irresistible, triumphant pop moment since "North Country Boy" 15 years ago, even if its bridge is more than a little similar to the Human League's "Open Your Heart". "Your Pure Soul" mixes the right amounts of introspection and tension, and it's lush and gorgeous. "When I Wonder" is power pop that twists and turns without losing your interest. In perhaps the album's real strangest moment, the Charlatans deliver in "Trust in Desire" a straight-up arena-sized anthem. Apparently, you can add U2 and Doves to that list of influences.

Yes, at times the songwriting flags a bit, as on a couple occasions when repeating the song title takes the place of an actual chorus. Burgess' lyrics have always been opaque, and this batch is a characteristically mixed bag. Has it really taken him 11 albums to come up with the line "Make love / Not war"? Musically, however, the band is as powerful as ever. The prog-rock focus and spaced-out arrangements give the formidable rhythm section a welcome chance to flex its muscle. Producer Youth, the Killing Joke bassist, has helmed experimental-type albums from Crowded House and Paul McCartney. Here, he adds strings and keyboards for a "big" feel, then tempers it with a rattling low end that really does sound like something from vintage prog.

The Charlatans have never been afraid to fail, which makes it all the more pleasant when they succeed. Who We Touch isn't exactly an easy album to sink into, but it gets less weedy with each listen. You'll be surprised by how many of these songs get stuck in your head. Longevity gets you to the Greatest Hits Tour. Inspiration gets you farther, and the Charlatans still have it.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.