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’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.