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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement

The Last Shadow Puppets
The Age of the Understatement

It’s generally accepted that in terms of creativity — or what Phil Spector would consider a ‘contribution’ to the history of rock ‘n’ roll — music differs to all other arts in at least the following statement: All artists/bands usually produce their best work when they are still young, or during the first years of their career. And that has nothing to do with Keith Richards’ usual explanation for every new Rolling Stones tour. “We’re fighting people’s misconceptions about what rock & roll is supposed to be,” he told Rolling Stone‘s (the magazine) David Fricke in 2002. “You’re supposed to do it when you’re twenty, twenty-five ­– as if you’re a tennis placer and you have three hip surgeries and you’re done.”

What Richards forgot is that rock ‘n’ roll is not only about the actual physical act of being able to play in front of an audience (which people even older than him have demonstrated to be capable of doing), or being able to run from one side of the stage to the other for two hours every night. It is also, and more importantly, about being able to keep ‘contributing’. And it’s been quite a long time since the Stones produced their last ‘valuable contribution’ to the general rock ‘n’ roll canon. In fact, they themselves know perfectly well which pieces deserve that consideration — the same ones that they can’t leave out of every night’s set, the ones they produced when they were much younger, and at the height of their creativity.

And what does all that have to do with the Last Shadow Puppets’ first album? A lot. Because it is such a great album, and one that could only be produced by a young artist/band, one that has not yet reached their creative peak. I’m basically talking about Alex Turner, singer and composer for the famous Arctic Monkeys, and not so much about his partner in this new musical adventure, Miles Kane, as this is his first published output (though the debut album of his ‘proper’ band, the Rascals, is due this year). Anyway, after seeing the couple play a semi-acoustic set in Madrid last month — in which they kept interchanging their guitars and their roles from song to song — I’m absolutely convinced that this is no Turner solo effort in disguise.

Anyway, again to my theory. The Age of the Understament is, as everybody has already said, a beautifully crafted trip down to the cinematic sounds of the ’60s. It’s a collection of vibrant tunes sung with fierce emotion by two voices that complement each other seamlessly and effortlessly over a pleiad of arrangements (thanks to the extraordinary production of Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett string conducting) that instantly brings up images of Michael Caine in Alfie, or of Sean Connery in any of his James Bond pics (now that Amy Winehouse is out of the race, due to Mark Ronson’s negative, and the job of writing the new 007 film’s song is vacant again, why not offer the position to these boys coming, respectively, from Sheffield and Liverpool?), and even Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns. That is, the Last Shadow Puppets sound is a mixture of John Barry and Ennio Morricone, the sound of another time.

The nicest thing is that, apart from the obvious technological differences between the past and the present, between the scratchy sound of the Barry soundtracks on vinyl and the Kane & Turner’s absolutely crisp sound on CD, their album not only evokes the past, is that it really is the past. As also happens with Richard Hawley, the Last Shadow Puppets haven’t come up with some kind of modern rock enhanced by little touches of musical past accents; instead, they have recreated it. Theirs, as with Hawley’s, is an authentic travel in time. And a trip that could have only been organized by someone who does it for the first time, by someone so young (and this is when I finally come to an end on my theory) and who is still discovering things that the rest take for granted.

To use another actual link, don’t you ever feel jealous at any youngster that has yet to see Raiders of the Lost Ark? You’ve seen it so many times that when they show it again on the TV, and even then you still get hypnotized by it, you can’t truly remember the feelings you had when you saw it for the first time. The same thing happens with music. The more you’ve listened to, the less surprises you’re gonna have in the future, and the less emotional your output will be. Remember when you listened to that Ziggy Stardust album for the first time? The feeling may have long gone, but not because you’re older. It’s because you’ve heard and seen too much since that day, and therefore every day it’s harder to find something really new. It happens to you, to me, and to Keith Richards… but not to Alex Turner and Miles Kane, who have just discovered Scott Walker, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, etc., and who are right now as excited as you, me, and Richards were when we were at their age and discovering new things that were great. And Turner & Kane have now, as Richards had in his time, the possibility and the talent to digest their excitement and turn it into something that gets published for all of us to hear.

And if they’re learning, and still discovering new things (again, new for them), and if they contrinue to develop such a strong and creative response to it, that means that their creativity is still far from dried. In fact, there should be much more to come in the future (think of the Stones Turing the Decca era, or the Beatles’ first four albums). Turner clearly wasn’t used up by his turn with Arctic Monkeys.

OK, OK, but does all this mean that the album is good or what? Should you buy it? Of course — it’s a great collection of songs. And that’s the understatement.

RATING 8 / 10