Music

Art Brut: Top of the Pops

A decade into their career, Art Brut announces their own classic rock status with this two-disc best-of collection. Luckily for the band, the songs back up their bravado.


Art Brut

Top of the Pops

Label: The End
US Release Date: 2013-04-16
UK Release Date: 2013-04-29
Amazon
iTunes

Art Brut’s avowed goal of making it to the Top of the Pops has always been thoroughly tongue-in-cheek (art brut is, after all, French for "outsider art"). It’s not that the group doesn’t have an abiding love for mega-hit bands who captured the public’s ear from the Beatles to Guns N’ Roses, because theirs is a love of "pop music" that reaches to the bone. The thing about Art Brut though is that they’re, if not quite a cult band, certainly a group whose appeal is inherently self-selective.

Art Brut is an inside joke, a shared eye-roll, a knowing wink between people who must suffer through a world filled with benighted fools who just don’t get it. Eddie Argos has created himself a niche portraying a musical incarnation of High Fidelity’s Rob Fleming -- a misanthropic music geek who is stubbornly immature, bums around the city, makes poor life decisions and yet somehow manages to get laid. It would be a bit much to take if he wasn’t sound so goddamn charming about it. Though they might not like to admit it, Art Brut fans would be hard-pressed to deny that there’s a pied-piper quality to the band’s music. Putting on an Art Brut album allows the listener to slip into a happier world where all their bad decisions are justified. In this world having no money and no direction is charming and one needs nothing more than a new significant other or superhero comic to make everything all better. It would all come off as all so much cheap pandering were it not for Argos's conversational delivery which manages to get by on its endearing earnestness. Argos seems to sing with a knowing smile that says "I know this is all a bit ridiculous but aren’t you having fun?"

The first disc of Top of the Pops is the greatest hits portion of the collection and it’s about as good a document of the band’s best moments as you could ask for. With five songs from their debut and four each from the albums that followed, there are certainly arguments to be had over the selection. Many fans will object to the inclusion of four songs from Brilliant! Tragic! (the ugly duckling of the band’s catalog) or the omission of favorites such as "Moving to L.A.", "Rusted Guns" or "Post Soothing Out" (the omission of the last is somewhat ameliorated by the inclusion of two different versions on Disc 2). But starting arguments like these is half the purpose of a best-of album and it’s hard to argue that songs that do make the cut aren’t both excellent and broadly representative of the band’s catalog.

Starting with their euphoric mission statement, "We Formed a Band", all the songs from their debut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll sound just as immediate and arresting now as when they were released. Lines like "we’re just talking to the kids" or "I’ve seen her naked, TWICE" still manage to be hilarious, pointed and impossibly endearing all at the same time. "Emily Kane" retains its lovelorn relatability that should make it the go-to karaoke choice for music nerds worldwide. The songs from the following albums offer no drop in quality with satisfying rockers like "Pump Up The Volume", "DC Comics And Chocolate Milkshakes" and "Art Brut Vs. Satan" whirring past like an intoxicating pop power hour. Top of the Pops even makes a compelling case that Brilliant! Tragic!’s best moments hold their own in the Art Brut pantheon, despite even the begrudging maturity shown in "Lost Weekend" and "Sealand". The two new songs recorded for Top of the Pops are inessential but serve as fun additions for fans buying the record. The apocalyptic Beach Boys riff "Arizona Bay" is fun but far from their best work. "We Make Pop Music" is a bit more compelling and thematically appropriate for this summative occasion with Argos declaring “we make music for people who don’t like people”.

While the first disc is appealing as an introduction for Art Brut newcomers, the second disc is a slightly uneven but mostly rewarding treasure trove for longtime fans. The Bang Bang Rock & Roll demos illuminate very little other than the fact that the band’s exuberantly puckish charm didn’t occur overnight. The three demos from It’s a Bit Complicated, produced by Pulp’s Russell Senior, on the other hand offer a fascinating look at what makes elements make Art Brut work so well. The Senior demos offer a more relaxed, less dynamic presentation of the band. Acoustic guitars feature prominently in "Blame It on the Trains", the electric guitars on "Post Soothing Out" are greatly muted and "St. Pauli" seems almost slinky. Listening to this incarnation of the Art Brut reveal just how essential the band’s impressive chops are to the whole enterprise. It becomes obvious how expertly Eddie Argos utilizes his group’s roaring, razor-sharp punk rock soundscapes to make his rants about hangovers, sexual inadequacy, and public transportation seem epic and meaningful rather than ridiculous and mundane. The two live tracks included here further highlight just how great a force of nature the band really was. Hearing Ian Catskilkin, Freddy Feedback, Jasper Future and Mikey Breyer channeling the raucous majesty of tourmates the Hold Steady on both their shaggy dog version of "Modern Art" and the Replacements and Springsteen-referencing show-stopper "Post Soothing Out" is thoroughly impressive.

As for the new material on disc two, many of the songs here will prove fascinating for the kind of fan willing to comb through a rarities disc, which is to say they’re B-sides of the first order. The best of the batch feel like they’re unpolished gems that serve as missing links the band’s story. In "About Time", Argos muses on why he used to hate Morrissey before making the pleading that, "though I’ve nothing to say in their defense, I think it’s time you forgave your parents." "Maternity Ward", "Ignorance Is Bliss", and "Positively 5th Street" all provide insight into Argos’s preternatural enthusiasm while also hinting at the fact that, when you get right down to it, optimism is half put-on, half defense mechanism. Other songs are well executed but not terribly groundbreaking extensions of the band’s niche (is anyone really surprised that Argos is fond of eating sweets or has three minutes of jokes comparing sex to the WWE?). Unsurprisingly, Art Brut’s style proves generally unsuited to covers except for their version of the Cure’s proto-"Emily Kane" hit, "Catch" but it’s still enjoyable hearing the band and Black Francis agro-goof on the Beatles throwaway,"Her Majesty".

The promotion material for Top of the Pops is loaded with declarations from Eddie Argos that, with this release, the band has finally achieved what was there goal all along -- classic-rock status. It’s easy to read this as more cheeky self-deprecation from the man who claimed that he’d write a song to bring peace to the Middle East but there’s actually a serious argument in there. The whole ethos behind Art Brut’s form of outsider pop is the idea that this is just rock music, anyone can do it. If Coldplay can sell out stadiums, why shouldn’t Art Brut take a crack at being the next great rock band? For those who think the band has succeeded, point made. For everyone else it begs the question, if a band can have this much fun not succeeding, then what’s the point of success anyway? It’s something worth thinking about, preferably over a frosty milkshake and the latest issue of Batman with Art Brut playing in the background.

7
Music

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

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

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

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 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image