A survivor band if ever there was one, the Charlatans have drawn on personal tragedy to produce one of the stand-out albums of their long career.
Wow, well, maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the appearance of this mini-gem, after all. If you wanted to reach for the epithet in the lexicon best to sum up the Charlatans (modern UK version; not '60s US model), it would be "survivor". This is the band who dealt with the death of their founder keyboard player Rob Collins (in a car crash) by producing the powerful, self-confident Telling' Stories -- a UK number one album, which brought together some of the best songs and performances of their career.
In 2013, the Charlatans had to endure more sadness with the passing of their one and only drummer Jon Brookes, who died of a brain tumour. The notion of the comeback is therefore nothing new to the band. Beyond that, the Charlatans have over their 25 years-plus in existence shown an unusual ability both to experiment with new musical styles and -- vitally -- to execute them to a high standard.
The first track to Modern Nature is, still, however, a revelation. The seasoned listener might reasonably judge that in 2015 there really is nothing original left which can be mined from the rich seam of '70s-grooved soul and funk. The glorious, warm, mellow "Talking in Tones" proves that assessment wrong in spades. The only disappointment is that none of the other preceding tracks can quite match the quality of the opener. With its Fender Rhodes intro, layering over metronomic on and off beats, ushering in singer Tim Burgess's ultra-relaxed mid-Atlantic vocal tones, "Talking in Tones" is pure aural pleasure. The track also, for all its upbeat lyric and beautiful bridge, is a song that clings to a downshift which conveys a feel sombre in its reflection. Several of the songs head more for the sunny uplands than darkening introspection, but "Talking in Tones" has a signature atmosphere which never quite loosens its hold on the album as a whole.
The first half of Modern Nature is overall very strong. The track "So Oh" is blissed-out. "Come Home Baby" could have fitted seamlessly on to a late '70s Steely Dan album like Aja. "Let the Good Times Be Never Ending" -- which you feel must be a paen to their buddy Brookes -- is an uplifting clarion, a manifesto for life and friendship. It finishes on a bass/keyboards/muted brass vibe which meshes in sync perfectly -- like prime-time Kraftwerk but 10 times warmer.
Warmth is a word that best characterizes Modern Nature. The Charlatans are a band who have hit the heights and the depths. What can tear you apart can make you stronger, and there is a sense of these semi-grizzled English scruffs making a collective decision that, yes, they would do their best to pay tribute to Jon Brookes -- but, equally, the best way they could do themselves and their history justice would be to come together and record an album that just screams BAND OF BROTHERS. But it's the sound just as much the feel which is bathed in warmth, a reminder that even the clipped anti-septics of click tracks and ProTools can't dispel the collective timbre of a band which specialises in hitting the groove around an expertly played keyboard sound (and, lest we forget, the late Rob Collins was a Hammond organ muso -- the Charlatans have form.)
Modern Nature isn't perfect. There is the occasional lapse in the quality of the song-writing. Around two-thirds of the way through, the pace (on "We Live on Borrowed Time") becomes samey and slightly tedious. However, the band immediately put that right with the the following "Walk With Me" -- a souped-up groove deploying a mass vocal on a lyric of optimism. It also has a Doors-like sound that Ray Manzarek would have applauded.
The album concludes on some demos and remixes, mostly given the dub treatment -- the Charlatans have (positive) form here too.
The cover of Modern Nature has a photograph of the band on a beach. It could be a sunrise or sunset. Overall, the album can't quite escape the shadow of Jon Brookes, and it does ultimately feel like a a long extended walk towards that fading sun. But day always follows night, something the Charlatans above all never forget.