(Don't) Believe the Hype
Bang Bang Rock & Roll
For years rock 'n' roll has been in a desperate state. Mall punk and hip hop have taken over the airwaves, leaving poor old rock music to hug its knees and cry. Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you wouldn't know it based on the chatter coming from the genre's biggest boosters. I'm talking about the hype machine that lifts underground bands to savior status, bending over so the skinny, almost always British guys have a step up to the cross. Every few months, music rags find a new group to burden with delusions of grandeur under the guise that one album or one song or one hook could save rock 'n' roll.
If it needs rescue--record sales being what they are, it's as if an evil stepmother has all popular music locked away in a tower--I imagine the hero would look more like hard-rock god Ronnie James Dio, but with a contemporary haircut and lightning shooting from his eyeballs. Or like flame-throwing, leather-clad Japanese punks Guitar Wolf but with--no, just Guitar Wolf.
Regardless, I don't think pale Brits singing about birds is the way to go. Pale Brit Eddie Argos, leader of the London five-piece Art Brut, agrees that the whole thing is ridiculous. He's writing hilarious songs about it and people are getting the joke. Which makes me believe he could give rock the kick in the ass it needs. You might say he could save it.
Art Brut's Bang Bang Rock & Roll (whose long overdue stateside release is coming May 26) confirms Argos's philosophy with its first track. "Formed a band, we formed a band/Look at us, we formed a band," he crows over an earnest post-punk chug. His grand contribution to rock history, he adds, will not only become as well known as "Happy Birthday," but will also bring peace to the Middle East.
Rambling his way through the album, Argos delivers one-liners in a toneless shout that will have some listeners tuning out while others reconsider their candidacy for rock stardom despite an inability to sing. Argos's mates prove more vocally adept on the simple, monotone backups of "Moving to L.A." For the most part, the instrumental element of the band's songs is interchangeable, a canvas for their leader's exasperated rants. Blame reviews like this one if the guy ever develops an ego problem, but Argos is the sound of Art Brut. Unfortunately, that means the band's biggest vulnerability is sustaining their popularity once everyone knows the punch lines. (For what it's worth, I've had the album for months and I still laugh when Argos yells, "Modern art makes me want to rock out!")
Art Brut may not be the most musically challenging rock martyrs, but they are the funniest. "Bad Weekend" has the resigned frontman sighing, "Popular culture no longer applies to me," in regard to a certain U.K. mag that regularly wets its pants over young blood. In the last few weeks, the track has gained uncanny relevance for a lot of people who follow the buzz. (If I read another album review trying to convince me that the Arctic Monkeys are anything more than a decent rock band who made a pretty okay album, I'm ripping up my NME subscription renewal card. I'm kidding of course. Why would I have a subscription to NME?)
Argos's sarcasm being so explicit, the few times when I'm unsure of his sincerity are troubling. When he confides, "I can't stand the sound of the Velvet Underground," I can't tell if I'm supposed to admit I've never been down with Lou and company either, or just laugh nervously and hope I haven't revealed a chink in my rock-crit cred.
Argos might have been the most reviled man on Insound.com's bestsellers, if he didn't tone down the snark occasionally. And when he does, he re-enchants even the cynics, bending that same impetuous tone into giddy, teenage enthusiasm. He reminisces over a high school flame and proudly displays the B-side mixes made by his younger brother. The climax of "Good Weekend," a song about two days spent in bed with a new lady friend, has him announcing, perhaps from a podium with a megaphone, "I've seen her naked--twice!" He's the goofy, tipsy, slightly obnoxious life of the party, and who doesn't love that?
Being likable gives Art Brut permission to knock down indie-rock sweethearts (despite being indie-rock sweethearts), much as LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge" mocked namedropping trendsetters (despite being, etc.). Maybe delivering the message in a Trojan horse is the key. If even the band are occasionally confused by their own sincerity, all the better. The most effective way to ridicule is to partly buy into the bullshit. And when they make their inaugural appearance on Top of the Pops, they can always say they were just kidding, right?
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