Oh, You Brut!
God, I am so glad I don’t have to write about the Arctic Monkeys right now. The last thing any of us need is another jaunty British band with an ocean’s worth of breathless hype to distract us from matters at hand. You know what I’m talking about: Place indie band in crock pot; throw in one Steve Aoki–approved Tuesday-night gig at Cinespace and a couple of online handjobs; simmer for approximately six weeks. Gag me with a pitchfork.
Art Brut is a different story entirely. Yes, indie Web mag Pitchfork gave ’em a good review, and, yes, lead singer Eddie Argos proudly aspires to be a superstar. But somehow Art Brut just don’t have that same cleverly concealed, trend-hopping blood lust in their eyes for American fame, fortune and ultimately acceptance that seems to ooze from the new Monkeys. (Those guys are just too obvious, too Bloc-Party-plays-nice-with-Franz-Ferdinand-and-cranks-it-up-a-dozen-BPMs. Arctic Monkeys should just stand on Cahuenga Boulevard holding a sign that says “WILL WORK FOR CAMEO ON THE OC.”)
Instead, Art Brut seem content to play the knowing opportunists, cool enough to casually find their way onto this year’s Coachella bill without any of the tub-thumping that surrounds their imperialist compatriots. But that’s Art Brut’s secret weapon: While their clever, guitar-driven tunes can stop-start with the best of the current post-punk posse, they maintain a classic sensibility absent from most. The band traverses a landscape of musical reference points (everything from the Creations’ “Cool Jerk” to the best of Johnny Thunders to the Smiths) that at least attempts to exude a similar timelessness. And, for the most part, their long-playing debut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll does just that, tearing through 12 taut, well-written tunes in under 33 minutes. (Holy Lemonheads, Batman, have we stumbled across the new It’s a Shame About Ray, U.K.-edition?)
While the band (guitarist Ian Catskilkin, drummer Mikey B, Jasper Future on more guitars and cute mod girlie Freddy Feedback holding down the bass) bash behind him, Argos narrates the six-string-saturated wall of sound with an urgent yelp that often finds him simply talking over the music. But it works, thanks to Argos’ matter-of-fact lyricism and roguish charm. The record kicks off with “Formed a Band,” a crunchy hard-rock anthem detailing a straightforward play-by-play of the band’s inauspicious beginnings (“Look at us/We formed a band!”). Many an emo kid will relate to the defiant “Emily Kane,” where Argos unabashedly pines for his teenage girlfriend more than a decade after the fact. I’m partial to “Bad Weekend,” which pokes at journo hype (“Haven’t read the NME in so long/Don’t know which genre we belong”), concluding with the glorious refrain (and my new personal ethos) “Popular culture/no longer applies to me.” From the shame of bedroom failures (“Rusted Guns of Milan”) to a twisted mix of pride and sibling rivalry in “My Little Brother,” indie rock hasn’t been this literal since Jonathan Richman sang “Government Center.”
Not surprisingly, “Fight” extols the joys of a good-old-fashioned punch-up, something Argos knows about firsthand: A cheeky war of words in the British press with Bloc Party lead singer Kele Okereke came to blows last year when the two crossed paths at a London club and Argos decked his foe. Argos eventually laughed off the incident, going so far as to tell Spin that Okereke “wasn’t very good at hitting.” (How can you not love this guy?)
He’s equally energetic and enthusiastic over the phone from London, speaking in slurred bursts of brogue that I’m proud to be able to decipher (well, mostly). And, given the roars of laughter and sounds of clinking glass behind him, I feel like I’m missing out on a really fun party. “Nah, I’m just having coffee with some friends,” he explains over the din. “This is just what restaurants are like in England, all boisterous and noisy. We’re a country of hooligans!”
Argos’ cockney appeal brings to mind Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker, though Argos is far more human: Think of a paunchy Bryan Ferry doing his best Dudley Moore on a lot of whiskey and half an E. Argos easily captivated a capacity crowd at the Echo last November during a brief stateside tour, joking with the rapturous audience, many of whom knew the lyrics already. (Art Brut don’t have an American deal yet, but the album’s doing brisk business on iTunes and other online music stores.) As Argos repeatedly stumbled from the Echo stage into the crowd, women at the front of the stage began groping and stroking his protruding white belly, one even unbuckling his belt and going for the zipper before he finally knocked her hand away. The band rocked with the faithful precision of a well-lubed bar band weaned on the Dolls and the Smiths, setting the stage for Argos’ baiting antics. All told, it was among the most genuinely fun and entertaining shows I’ve seen for a minute now, particularly by a British act (although I should take this opportunity to big-up Maximo Park, another great new Brit band that can beat the bejesus outta the Arctic Monkeys).
“America was fantastic, and I was sad to leave,” rhapsodizes Argos. “It completely defied expectations. People told me, ‘Oh, America is hard, and they never dance.’ At every single one of our shows, people knew the words and some even knew the daft hand movements I make onstage,” he laughs. “And the dancing! At our L.A. show at the Echo, it was like Glastonbury — everyone was trying to get onstage and kiss me. It was brilliant. I can’t wait to get back.”
So maybe Argos wasn’t really joking on “Moving to L.A.,” an almost comically British take on mid-’70s SoCal mellow-rock, where he describes dreams of “drinking Henessey/With Morrissey/On a beach/Out of reach/Somewhere very far away.”
“I come from a really wet, cold city [Bournemouth], and when I was writing that song I just thought about where I really wanted to be and what I really wanted to be doing, which was running down Sunset with my shirt off,” Argos explains. “Which, by the way, was the first thing I did when I got there. Seriously. I made them drive me to Sunset Boulevard, where I stripped off to the waist and took off running down the street. With the song, I just guessed at what life would be like in L.A. and it seems that I got ?it right.”
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