Friday, July 10, 2009

Album of the Week: Art Brut's "Art Brut Vs. Satan"

If there are any indie rock enthusiasts out there that are not already in the habit of downloading and devouring the weekly NPR All Songs Considered podcast, let me take this opportunity to strenuously suggest that you ought to get in said habit, posthaste.

Not only have I learned a ton about everything from up-and-coming international pop singers to seminal indie record labels to exactly how awesome all the stuff at sxsw that I didn't go to was, but the enthusiasm and kindness with which main host Bob Boilen approaches his show is as heart-warming as it is riveting. For Clevelanders, try to imagine an indie rock Dan Moulthrop, and you'll be close to how great of a host Boilen is. He's by far and away the most talented of the bold-faced NPR names, with the well-informed perspective but without the stoic demeanor of Michele Norris AND in possession of Ira Glass's casual grace yet without Glass's often smug, Eggers-esque "ironic" detachment.

Boilen, in his enthusiasm and his curatorial skill, has turned me on to many artists in the last year, from The Shackletons and The Phenomenal Handclap Band to An Horse, Patrick Watson, and Zee Avi. I love all of those groups, but when I had the unexpected pleasure of bumping in to Boilen at a St Vincent/Lo Moda show at the Black Cat in Washington DC several weeks ago, it was the April 27, 2009 podcast that featured Art Brut's then-just released new album that I mentioned as we shook hands (and I, embarrassingly, acted all fan-boy and asked him to take a picture with me. Shut up - I know I'm not very cool.).

Prior to the Art Brut episode of the podcast, the totality of my experience with the South London "art wave" band (thank you, wikipedia) was a novelty appreciation for a hit track from their debut album (Bang Bang Rock & Roll), "Good Weekend," with its celebration of the singer's new girlfriend (best lyric: I've seen her naked ... twice. I've seen her naked ... TWICE!).

The newest Art Brut Release, Art Brut Vs. Satan, finds lead-talker Eddie Argos continuing to draw on his stock-in-trade - a wonderful combination of his unimpeachable comic timing, enthusiastic repetition, puns, dramatic tempo changes, and lyrical dexterity so fluid it borders on feline.

On this album, he brings the Art Brut treatment to topics like his love for public transportation, sweaty palms, people who like the Beatles as opposed to those who like the Stones, the record-buying public, lo-fi recording, a late discovery of The Replacements, debating whether to buy inexpensive second-hand records versus brand new re-releases with extra tracks, crappy summer jobs, and especially booze (and all the sex and regret and regrets about sex it entails). The album skewers as it celebrates, with songs mocking high-production U2/Coldplay/Brian Eno wannabes ("Slap Dash for No Cash") and the celebrity musician culture more focused on maintaining a clean public image and Top 40 rankings than making great music ("Demons Out"), while other songs give shout-outs to simple pleasures such as sugary cereal and comic books ("DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake") and the view from the back seat of a city bus ("The Passenger").

The booze & consequences theme is the most persistent, from beginning to middle to end, with album-opener and first single "Alcoholics Unanimous," which features familiar hangover stanzas like "I've been up all night/I've been making mistakes/I've been hiding it well/But I don't feel great" and a lead-backup singer exchange like "Last night we tried to warn him/Took me ages to get up this morning."

Art Brut TV on MUZU.

The booze parade continues on "What a Rush" with its "sober-ish" post-liquor fueled hook-up rationalizations, as the narrator looks for his missing clothes, referencing the fact he has a girlfriend and disparate parental-influenced album tastes, culminating in the final observation of the track: "I should be guilt-ridden/I'm just wondering where my clothes are hidden."

The album closes as it opens, on a hungover, boozy note with "Mysterious Bruises," a track so awesome it is, by an incredible margin, the front-runner for this blog's Best Song of 2009 award. Though Argos's perfect timing is on display in every single track, his performance on "Mysterious Bruises" is particularly noteworthy. The song is a lingering one, clocking in at nearly 7 1/2 minutes. The tempo and the background jam change so many times throughout the song, you never realize how many minutes have gone by, nor is it bothersome that the song consists of reconfigured and differently phrased pronunciations of the same handful of lyrics over and over again. Many writers have acknowledged the pithy brilliance of the chorus's dominant refrain ("I can't remember anything I've done/I fought the floor and the floor one), and while I admit it is wonderful, I particularly dig the disparate refences to his pharmaceutical solution: one Zyrtec, two advil. After an ill-advised drinking session initially intended to help the narrator screw up the courage to tell a lover how he felt, that prescription is what he hopes will get him through the pain and horror.

As Argos says best:

I finally managed to unravel the plot/
It's not a happy ending, but it's the best that I've got.

I woke up this morning covered in bruises/
One Zirtec, two Advil are gonna get me through this.

On the strength of this song, along with tracks like "What A Rush" and "Slap Dash for No Cash" I can proudly say I endorse this album specifically and this band, in general. In a way, they remind me of a British version of Detroit's Electric 6 or even Cleveland's The Hot Rails. In a way, all three bands are novelty acts, but to only classify them as such ignores the serious musical chops the individuals involved bring to the recording studio and the hilarious social/cultural commentary you find in the lyrics. These might not be bands that I'll buy every album that comes out, but my spirits will definitely perk when I hear a new one is released. As for the whole ranking thing, Art Brut's Art Brut Vs Satan earns a "buy this new next time you are at the record store" score. And to that I'll add the suggestion that you keep your eyes peeled when browsing the bargain bins to see if you can score copies of their previous releases, Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005) and It's A Bit Complicated (2007).

1 comment:

thatgirl said...

One of my former coworkers from my student days had a boyfriend in the U.K. who would send her CDs and that's how I heard "Bang Bang Rock & Roll" for the first time and played it for everyone I knew at the time.

Saw them at the Beachland and they put on a great live show.

Couldn't get into "It's a bit complicated" so much but I'm really liking this one too, especially the song about the Replacements.