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The Noisettes: Whats the Time, Mr. Wolf?

Dan Raper

UK garage-rock band's soulful female vocalist distinguishes this solid debut

The Noisettes

What's the Time, Mr. Wolf?

Label: Motown
US Release Date: 2007-04-17
UK Release Date: 2007-02-05

Do you remember the game "What's the time, Mr. Wolf?" The receptacle of children's outcast-ridicule -- a mad post-"Dinner Time!" dash to catch the quicker, more popular kids before they get back to the starting line? There is a double meaning for an adult recalling the game: On one hand, the "Mr Wolf" snarl still holds some venom, and is still a potent metaphor for ferocity. On the other, it's still a game for little kids. The Noisettes embrace this paradox (innocent embrace of ferocity) with both arms -- to illustrate, on official merch the band's type faced as NOISEttes. Get it?

On the other end of the spectrum, it's also incorrect to characterize the band in terms of recreation of childhood innocence. If there's anything purer about the Noisettes than other indie/punk trios kicking around Britain these days, it's the approach towards prototypical sex-snarl, the kind that Karen O approaches, but with more soul (the kind that Peaches overshoots with brilliant profanity).

The truth is, when you dig into it, there's little that's truly original about the Noisettes' sound. But in the face of their verve and true punk attitude, it hardly matters. Britain's pub rock revival (that started with the Arctic Monkeys, and quickly dragged us down to the growling level of the Fratellis) stretches quite comfortably to include the Noisettes' buzz-saw rock-n-roll. The London three-piece is conventionally composed of guitar, bass and drums, but as with bands like the White Stripes, it wrings as much from that combination as one could hope for, veering between acoustic, folky blues and crunchy, full-textured rockers. And given front woman Shingai Shoniwa's propensity for sexual innuendo, growled ferocity; and girl-group melodies, it's no surprise critics are talking about the Pipettes and the Fratellis in the same breath. The Noisettes' debut effort shouldn't be dismissed as a turbo-charged Pipettes or a female-vocal Fratellis. For one, the group's much more influenced by modern-day pop-punk (the same Green Day and Blink 182 songs we grew up with) than by the ideal of recreating ’50s girl-group harmony. And over the Fratellis issue; well, all there’s to say is that this trio's got a heap more integrity than the other group, no question.

A couple of songs are all that are needed to illustrate this point. "Mind the Gap" is a spun-out stomp, building from a relatively staid opening to a climax filled with fuzz and carefree abandon. Shoniwa's brand of warble effectively jumps from kitten to lion in a heartbeat, and it's a large part of the band's appeal. Sure, it doesn’t stringently adhere to an idea of rock as Earl Greyhound, but both bands share a reputation for blistering live shows and an image that is dependent upon the charisma of the female lead. But back to the songs, eh? "Scratch Your Name" bounds from a classic rock riff towards Maximo Park-style punk robot-rock. It's a memorable chorus ("Scratch your name into the fabric of this world") not a smart one, but who said we were turning to the band for its depth of insight?

The Noisettes also slow things down -- usually for part of a track, as at the beginning of "Count of Monte Christo". Nominal closer “Hierarchy” (the secret track that follows, includes a much more prominent role for secondary vocalist Dan Smith than is seen anywhere else on the album), is better when it kicks into the second verse (a little more vocal emphasis, a little more volume, a little more swing) than on the straight acoustic sections. It's no surprise, really, that the band is best when in top gear.

The Noisettes may get dismissed as another NME-hyped British export without the legs to stand up to America's cultural skepticism, but it shouldn't. The band has, after just a couple of years playing together, crafted a tight, but never predictable indie-punk aesthetic; it nods to plenty of rock-n-roll of the past 50 years, but never worships it mindlessly. Here's a group that is unashamedly fun … if you're in the mood to let it, the Noisettes could just remind you again how enjoyable innocent ferocity can be. If Shingai Shoniwa is Mr Wolf, and it's dinner time, I'll be running headlong.


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