By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Anglophobe? Me? Garn, don't be ridiculous. Like anybody is actually afraid of the English, least of all me. I am skeptical, I'll admit, of the sodden suburban pessimism that is the cornerstone of so much postwar British art. This gloom is no more universal an aspect of human nature than the post-imperial ennui of any fading regime (one imagines the late Romans would limp home from a drab day at the coliseum to pen a few despondent dactyls). But given this inescapable fatalism, I prefer my Brits when they accept their heritage of disillusionment as lyrical substance rather than sublimating it into daft operettas or space melodramas--especially when they meliorate this fatalism with some pluck and humor and maybe even a little analysis.
Take our man Paul Heaton, perhaps the most essentially British musician to attempt a transatlantic crossing since Paul Weller. Like Weller, Heaton formed a soulful pop combo after his boisterously youthful band proved untranslatable into Americanese. Except that, just as Heaton's cheeky Housemartins offered an acre more political insight than Weller's brashly earnest Jam, the Beautiful South aren't as one-dimensionally sentimental as the Style Council. In other words, Heaton ain't a sap.
Nonetheless, he's fascinated by saps--so much so that he compulsively impersonates one. When Heaton's South began in 1989, they were sweet-toothed satirists, splicing cynical love plights (like "Song for Whoever," which ran through a shifting cast of women's names) with radio-ready melodies. In 1994 their greatest-hits collection, Carry on up the Charts became one of the fastest-selling discs in U.K. history. They became unlikely pop idols, discovering an unexpected mass market for gently orchestrated romantic sourness.
In Britain, that is. Stateside, the Beautiful South may as well be filed under "World Music: U.K." (someplace between Morris dances, Childe ballads, and Ian Dury), considering how little attention they've drawn. That's partly due to Heaton's dense tangle of lyrics, full of idiosyncratic convolutions of phrase that naive Yanks might mistake for unfamiliar Britishisms. Here the Brits are a leg up on us: They know Heaton is speaking a language all his own, refusing to tell the whole story while dropping enough clues to keep you attentive--like Donald Fagen, of all people. After all, a pun like "When will my conker/Conquer thee?" may mean more in that land of Hobbit-lovers and hillocks, but "The Mediterranean looks like aspirin tonight" is hardly part of anyone's vernacular.
Following 1998's dour Quench, Painting it Red (Ark 21) opens with a reassuring, jaunty sense of purpose: The lead scene of "Closer than Most" discovers auxiliary frontman Dave Hemingway waiting for his new sweetie to wake up so they can have a go again, while a buoyant keyboard riff echoes the Faces' free-lovin' "Stay With Me." A similar synth burble carries over into "Just Checkin'," a bizarre tale of widows who've taken up daily pubbing, and then excuse themselves for this alcoholic routine by claiming they're searching for the ghosts of their husbands. Such a masterpiece of concision excuses Heaton's density; it takes a tangle of language to smuggle a narrative like that into your melodic memory.
From there, Red dribbles off into familiar, if no less rewarding, Beautiful South territory, with Damon Butcher's piano tinkling along as Heaton's delicate tenor splits the difference between music-hall tearjerker and blue-eyed soul. As always, Heaton's lyrics summon up claustrophobic suburban neighborhoods, a world where, as "Property Quiz" has it, "There's less chance of dying in a crash/Than being bored to death." Such sentiments are keyed to a rhythm of perpetual drizzle--imagine one of Ken Loach's gritty verité films scored by Bacharach-David.
With no other options, Heaton's chumps turn to love and wind up wrangling with its lesser manifestations--furtive sex, the thrill of adultery, attempts to dodge the wife at the local pub. At worst, "husbands turn to tragic bores" and couples fade resentfully into the woodwork. Best-case scenario: "'Til You Can't Tuck It In" is a realistic version of "When I'm 64," a duet between Heaton and third vocalist Jacqueline Abbott that settles into a waltz time warmed over by muted trumpets. Here, the two swear to love, honor, and obey the gray hairs that no combing can conceal and the fleshy bulges that no girdle can contain.
The sprightly Marxism of the choirboy who chirped, "Don't shoot someone tomorrow/That you can shoot today" in 1987 is now long dormant. These days, there's probably more class solidarity in the Big Beat yobbishness of the Housemartins' most successful alum, Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim). But if the charm of the Housemartins was their insistence that you could express your righteous political aims without falling back on de rigueur punky anger, then the spirit of the Beautiful South is the insistence that the less-than-well-off deserve the right to be graceless and immoral. The middle-aged staggering and petty jealousies and minor triumphs of these folks, Heaton declares, deserve to be enshrined in the tones of saccharine beauty as much as the idealized puppy love that dominates the radio.
Her wispy coo floating high above the Beautiful South's grimy lover's battleground, Sarah Nixey is the latest variant on the posh, repressed bird that Pulp's Jarvis Cocker expertly skewered in "Common People." On Black Box Recorder's The Facts of Life (Nude import), Nixey flexes the budding schoolgirl-as-dominatrix power that bubbled beneath the band's 1998 debut, England Made Me. After duping some dewy-eyed virgin schoolboy onto the playground after school, for instance, she lunges at him with a breathy taunt, "Write my name in blood across your shirt."
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.
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.