The Charlatans are like that favorite old t-shirt of yours in the closet. You know — the one that it seems like you’ve had forever, but you still wear more than most of your newer, shinier shirts. Your significant other can’t figure out what’s so special about it, maybe has even tried to get you to get rid of it. You understand where they’re coming from, but in a way that you can’t quite figure out, that old shirt makes you feel more like yourself when you’re wearing it.
The fact that something’s been around for a while doesn’t necessarily make it worth holding onto. The Charlatans have certainly been around, enduring a well-publicized series of trials, tribulations and trends (embezzlement, death, Britpop, etc.) that would finish off most bands three times over. You could argue, of course (and critics have), that the very reason they’ve survived is the consistently undistinguished nature of their music. Sure, the Charlatans have always been groovy, but what have they really ever had to say?
Well, plenty as it turns out. Thanks to their always-increasing musical prowess, their power as a great live band, and the sheer optimism that singer/frontman Tim Burgess shoots through their every song, the Charlatans embody all of rock ‘n’ roll’s great intangibles. Even their sad songs feel redemptive.
After a string of Top Two albums in their native UK, however, the Charlies’ eighth studio album, Up at the Lake, didn’t even crack the Top Ten. You can put that down to their last album, 2001’s Wonderland, which deviated significantly from the band’s rollicking, Stones-and-Dylan-influenced rock. In came the drum machines, soul-sister backing vocals and Curtis Mayfield arrangements. It was just enough of a departure to make lots of hardcore fans scratch their heads. The album yielded only one hit single; for the first time in their 14-year career, the band are without an American record deal.
With the glitzy LA soul fixation — not to mention Burgess’s 2003 solo album — out of their system, Up at the Lake finds the Charlatans as laid back as ever. Perhaps inevitably, they’ve stripped back their sound to a point that most recalls 1997’s Tellin’ Stories, seen by many as their peak. But this is different, too. Mark Collins’s guitars have never been this high up in the mix. The velvety Hammond organ licks have gone by the wayside, reduced to background fluttering or transformed into electric pianos.
The Charlatans have never sounded this relaxed… or mature.
Up at the Lake gets stronger as it goes on. The title track and “As I Watch You in Disbelief” are stately but serviceable stompers. The discofied “Feel the Pressure”, mixed by the Chemical Brothers, adds some of the Brothers’ trademark breakbeats. The song has plenty of attitude, with Burgess copping freely from the Stones’ “Beast of Burden”. Unfortunately, the Chemicals have mixed out the hook — if there was one. What’s left is a lesser imitation of one of the Charlies’ best songs, “One to Another”.
It’s on the summery, West Coast-tinged midtempo numbers where Up at the Lake comes into its own. “Bona Fide Treasure” is irresistibly enthusiastic and melodic. The George Harrisonesque “Loving You is Easy” (“ cause you’re beautiful”), sung beguilingly by keyboardist Tony Rogers, is as beautiful as it is vulnerable. And “Try Again Today” is a perfect example of Burgess’s knack for finding the happy in the sad, with a sympathetic, understated backing from the band.
Up at the Lake is the third straight Charlatans album that maintains a high standard of songwriting and melody from start to finish. With its rich harmonies (a new feature) and sparkling guitars, it’s the first Charlies record that’s more informed by the Beach Boys and Beatles than Mick and Keef.
The Charlatans have entered middle age tastefully and gracefully. That ragged old t-shirt looks new again.