Some things in the rock world are so predictable that you can set your 1963 “Ringo Is Gear-Fab!” watch by them: the new Rolling Stones album/Jagger solo project/Richards solo project always seems better at first than it actually turns out to be, while the new Prince joint is always underrated; rap albums with more than six guest artists on them always suck; any new artist who claims the Beach Boys and the Beatles as its main influences always double-sucks. These are things on which you may rely; islands of calm, perhaps, in the turbulent sea of music.
But no home truth is as reliable over the last 11 years as the cycle of the band called the Charlatans UK: album, tragedy, better album, tragedy, even better album, etc. The fresh-faced lads from Cheshire blew Madchester away with their self-released single “Indian Rope”, and were signed to Beggars Banquet in 1990; they hit the Top Ten with “The Only One I Know” that year, and Some Friendly debuted at #1 on the album charts by year’s end. Everyone was taken with the quintet led by Rob Collins’ swinging Hammond-style organ sound and singer Tim Burgess’ breathy sad sound — England was swinging like a pendulum do, back in those days of baggy clothes and lots of drugs. Plus, Burgess was, like, totally cute and stuff. (He was actually voted England’s most fancied man three years in a row. I’m not kidding.)
So then, of course, something bad had to happen. Three somethings, actually: guitarist Jon Baker quit the band, bassist Martin Blunt had to get his extreme depression under control, and baggy bit the big one. The second album, Between 10th and 11th, was ignored because of that third reason, but that might actually have been a good thing, because they avoided the trap of disappearing along with Inspiral Carpets and the Farm. (Remember the Farm?) It was actually pretty good, improving on the original in some ways, and pushing new guitarist Mark Collins more into the mix.
And the machinery was set in motion again. Tragedy: Rob Collins caught an eight-month jail sentence for driving his gun-happy friend away from a liquor-store robbery; he didn’t know his mate was sticking the place up, but he had to go away anyway. Better album: Up to Our Hips, which also debuted at #1 in the land. It might have been the hot blonde chick on the cover; it might also have been the snaky Keef-flavored guitar grooves of “Jesus Hairdo” and “Can’t Get Out of Bed”. But they couldn’t capitalize on the damned thing here in the States because Rob Collins’ arrest record kept them from touring.
Then, the ultimate Charlatans tragedy: halfway through recording 1997’s Tellin’ Stories, Rob Collins was killed in a car accident. Martin Duffy from Primal Scream finished the keyboard lines, and that record solidified the Charlies as a true band of survivors. It was laden with hits like “North Country Boy” and “One to Another”, and although there was no explicit reference to the loss of the band’s founding member (besides the closer, entitled “Rob’s Theme”), Tellin’ Stories showed increasing depth in Burgess’ lyrics and vocal attack. When the singles comp Melting Pot hit the stands, everyone was realizing that this band was one of the jewels in the post-Britpop crown.
Which still didn’t prepare a lot of people for the glorious triumph of Us and Us Only. This record followed a double downer; not only was it the first post-Rob album to be written, but it also reflected the chaos surrounding the embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of pounds by the band’s bookkeeper. Song after song found Burgess laying himself bare: the choogling sneaky boogie of “Forever”, the Dylan-inflected “Impossible”, the gospelish ego-check of “The Blonde Waltz”, and the oh-so-very-Stonesish “The Blind Stagger” were so much more personal and intimate than the band had ever tried to be before. Burgess says that this was the first time he was really out of his shell, and it’s clear that that nakedness suited him just fine — it’s a concept album, really, about Burgess wanting to move to Los Angeles to be with his wife and to start a new life, but it’s lovely as all hell and meaningful in a way that no one ever really thought these guys could be. All through the album, connection to a lover also becomes connection to the audience: “I Don’t Care Where You Live” isn’t just sung to Michelle Burgess, it’s also sung to us, and we feel it in our guts. Plus, Tony Rogers is a great funky keyboard player.
Which brings us, finally, to Wonderland. This is the band’s first record in ten years to be uninformed by any recent horrible occurrence. In fact, everything was going pretty well for everyone heading into the recording of the album; they’d figured out how to work the bi-continental thing, their finances were sorting themselves out, and they had a new take-no-prisoners sound in mind. This is what immediately leaps out on the opening track, “You’re So Pretty — We’re So Pretty”. It starts with 18 seconds of nowhere: a repeated piano figure in one speaker, muffled like it’s been around forever, and some Linn drumslaps to go along with it. But then Burgess’ voice comes in with Blunt’s funk bass, and we know where we’re headed: “Show me the diamonds / Show me the gold / Call me the answer / Oh yeah / Call me anywhere / I don’t have a care / This is my world”. The Charlies really are trying to prove whose world it is: great growly blues licks and chicken-scratch work from Mark Collins, solid good-foot drumming from Jon Brookes, and a slinky neo-baggy groove is born. And at first it seems like the chorus, a confident “You’re so pretty / We’re so pretty” is pretty clearly about Mr. and Mrs. Burgess, one starts to suspect that they are celebrating all their fans, new and old, English and American.
Wonderland has a stronger allegiance to American rhythm and blues than anything they’ve ever done, something Burgess emphasizes by employing a brave if thin soul falsetto on the next song, the clubby “Judas”, and many others. This addition to Burgess’ repertoire was inspired by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder — he has said he was inspired by the idea of a big lead singer busting out with a really high voice and not giving a rat’s ass if anyone doesn’t like it. Let’s just set the record straight here: it ain’t great, but it ain’t bad. It’s just another vocal styling. Sometimes it works, like on “Love Is the Key” and “A Man Needs to Be Told”, and sometimes it doesn’t, like on “I Just Can’t Get Over Losing You”. But he also sings in his good old pop snarl on most of the tracks, and he sounds damned good when he does that, too. So be not afraid of what you’ve heard about The Falsetto. It’s not overused, and it doesn’t ruin anything. It’ll probably sound better on the next album.
The Charlatans have never sounded better or tighter or more versatile; this is an album so sure of itself that it seems arrogant at times. Another, smarter reviewer has compared Wonderland to the Stones’ disco moves on Black and Blue and Some Girls, and I cannot say them nay. But there’s a lot of other influences going on here: soul and funk and Beatles flute voicings and Oasis and John Cougar Mellencamp and at least three different incarnations of Primal Scream and d’n’b and house music. They’ve never been the most original band, but their combination of every cool-sounding musical style ever approaches an original sort of derivativeness. The melodies are beautiful, the execution is flawless, and the production work by James Spencer and Black Grape’s Danny Saber couldn’t be glossier or richer.
It sounds like I’m overhyping this record — but you’ll notice I’ve said nothing about the lyrics yet. Frankly, this is where the record falls down. Burgess has pulled back on this record in a big way. Nothing is as personal or intimate as on Us and Us Only, and some of the lyrics on these songs are frankly crap. What the holy hell is the Blag, and why is Tim asking “Teach me whisperings of the Blag” on “I Just Can’t Get Over Losing You”? On the same song, we get the classic couplet “Look, you’re a tough new book to crack / Feel the pain of a off-shore shark attack”. Sure, all lyrics sound vaguely silly out of context, but these stand out even in context. They go a long way to spoiling a great groovulous groove and bringing the middle of the record to a grinding halt before Martin Blunt’s great acid-house instrumental “The Bell and the Butterfly” redeems the record.
Not everything is so horrible — Burgess manages some nice touches here and there: “And if I fall by the way-side / I’m coming down with my hands tied / There is no fall before my pride” is pretty nice, and I’m quite fond of “A man needs to be told / There is a war going on / There is a world going on”. But why oh why must we suffer through shite like the momentum-killing “You will be a little quieter with a gun in your mouth / I am facing north while you’re still facing south / Perhaps I need you more than you need me” on the otherwise great “Wake Up”? It’s like Burgess just doesn’t care what he’s singing, which is a big comedown from the last album. Maybe this is all quibble to you, but I’m a lyric guy.
Two theories about that. One is that since they did the whole album on Ecstasy (admitted in an interview), “the whisperings of the Blag” sounded pretty good, and that lyrics themselves don’t matter much with such funky music. I hope that’s the case, because the other option is chilling: that this is the way they’re trying to break through to our stupid non-verbal American minds. The jury’s still out on this one for me.
But let’s look at the big picture. Wonderland is a really cool-sounding album with stunning melodic lines and a great dancefloor mentality. If you don’t listen too closely, it sounds like their best. And even at their second- or third-best, it’s still damned good.
But perhaps the most likely reason that this album lacks the depth we’ve come to expect is the simplest one: it breaks the cycle. There were no horrible tragedies to spark Burgess into saying anything important. It’s sad, but I fear it’s true. Of course, true to form, there is a new trial for the band: Tony Rogers is now receiving treatment for testicular cancer. Sad to say it, and I wish him well, but I bet their next album is gonna be a mutha.