Love Songs for Yobs

The Beautiful South serenades the English in all their shabby splendor; Black Box Recorder finds the sad side of sadism

Those words are put in her mouth by Luke Haines, former helmsman for early-Nineties rock ironists the Auteurs. Then, Haines, his irony all tune and tone, wielded guitars as wildly slashing as his insults. As ringleader here, Haines (abetted by one time Jesus and Mary Chain-er John Moore) configures chiming guitars and electronic burbles into a less atmospheric take on trip hop. You could call the results a catchier Portishead with a wicked sense of humor--except that the Portishead aesthetic, by definition, is a humorless one.

Never one to mask his metaphors, Haines isn't afraid of letting on when a stick shift isn't just a stick shift. "The Art of Driving" cautions boys that they should know when to use the brakes, while a paean to "driving with no aim or intention" on "The English Motorway System" becomes a metaphor for an entire repressed relationship, if not nation, a dreary isle where one is advised to "make the most of English weather" and escape into the sterility of "Straight Life." But Haines can also be less obvious (unless "It's just French rock 'n' roll" is a clever way of saying, "It's nothing"). "Sex Life," for instance, is all about schoolboy fantasies, as is the title track. In fact, I'm not sure anyone achieves penetration on this LP, or if they'd be any happier if they did.

The imperturbably prim sensuality that Nixey carries off adds a psychological dimension to what might otherwise seem like cheap satire. With the Auteurs, Haines always sounded like an undeserving smart-ass, the aesthete as cynic, either your cuppa or not. But Nixey sounds the most innocent at her most conniving and diabolical: "Gift Horse" begins, "They're digging up human remains" and yet settles into a credible, "I just want to be loved." Though she can manipulate gorgeous, cash-endowed dolts who think it's poetic to call her "as pretty as a picture," she seems just as much a victim of herself. Her weakness for manipulating said doofuses and gloating over their dull-witted flattery reveals a threadbare ego.

Sad sods: Paul Heaton (front) and the rest of the Beautiful South
Sad sods: Paul Heaton (front) and the rest of the Beautiful South

Like a number of standout British bands, Black Box Recorder are currently languishing in the import bins, while the majors put their money behind simps like Coldplay and Travis and Badly Drawn Boy--check out the ferociously literate Idlewild or the nuanced, shoe-gazing Animal House if you've got the inclination and the cash. These last two artists could no more have sprung from U.S. soil than Oumou Sangare or Youssou N'Dour, and yet recording-industry conglomerates see no need to release them here, since they won't bring back an immediate cash return--gone are the days when precious art students like Radiohead were granted three records to build up to blockbuster status. Such is the irony of 21st-century liberalism--the free marketeering of Blair-Clinton has stunted the growth of British rock as much as the slash-and-burn economics of Thatcher-Reagan ever did.

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