So I’m going to discuss the British, and I’m going to do it without mentioning Monty Python or Tony Blair. Wish me luck.
It seems to me that the chief contribution of Britain to the arts over the last century has been to perfect the innovations of others. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of artistic achievements out there that are uniquely British, including, as per above, the Comedy Troupe That Cannot Be Named, but give the Brits a unique idea developed elsewhere, and they shine. Just in the last 50 years, they’ve put their indelible mark on two decidedly American artforms, rock ‘n’ roll and comics, to such a degree that one might think them responsible for the original ideas.
If you need any proof that the British have taken over American comics, just look at the top books in the industry – the X-Men line, which has seen sales explode recently, largely due to the contributions of British writers Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan and Paul Jenkins. The invasion began in the early ’80s, when ubergenius Alan Moore took over Swamp Thing and within pages made it better than it had ever been. Along came Neil Gaiman, who created mainstream comics’ greatest extended graphic novel with The Sandman. Meanwhile, Morrison worked wonders with Doom Patrol and Animal Man, Milligan blew minds with Shade the Changing Man and, oh yeah, Moore wrote a little book called Watchmen, the likes of which we haven’t seen since.
Americans just had to face the fact – the Brits did these little sequential art stories better. Much, much better.
Same thing with rock ‘n’ roll. (That’s the preferred spelling, by the way, eliminating both the “a” and the “d” from “and.” I just can’t bring myself to write it any other way, and Ryan Adams agrees, so hah.) We came up with that unique mix of boogie and blues, folks – Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Little Richard, all Americans. But in the early ’60s, something happened: the British started doing it better. Between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, they trounced everyone stateside, and they kept on doing it with the Who, the Kinks, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and the list goes on. For decades, we let them come on in and immeasurably improve on our foundation.
(Lately, they seem hell bent on performing a similar feat with rap, another purely American art form – witness The Streets and Ms. Dynamite, for example. But we still seem to have a lock on that one over here.)
It’s odd, then, that when the British create their own sound, lay their own foundation, they seem unable to develop it much at all. The most innovative British band (and perhaps band in general) of the last 20-some years is Radiohead, who turned Britpop on its ear with the atmospheres and dynamics of OK Computer. Since then, though, Radiohead has burrowed up its own ass, and the British scene has been full of acts trying to make an entire career out of imitating their OK Computer sound, albeit with a more commercial sheen. Trouble is, none of those bands have even hinted at any significant evolution. The sound is the sound is the sound, and if you like one modern Britpop band, chances are you’ll like them all.
Luckily for me, I like them all. It’s a sound I respond to, despite the near-total lack of growth exhibited by the new crop. The flaws are easy to see, but the overall sense of anthemic yearning carries the listener along, and often takes one skyward in ways that are wholly expected, but always welcome. Exhibit A is, of course, Coldplay, whose music offers no surprises, yet stirs the soul. I have heard complaints that Coldplay is boring, and on a purely technical level, I can easily understand that criticism. But Coldplay, like much of the new British scene, is aiming for the emotional over the technical, a goal I can heartily endorse.
The same can be said for Starsailor, a band whose first album, Love is Here, wore its sizable heart on its sleeve. Starsailor does British pop, there’s no way around it, but they believe in British pop, and you’ll not find a more stalwart emoter than singer James Walsh. He sings of love, devotion and happiness in often ludicrously simple and direct terms, but he sells every word. When he sings “Love is Here,” you can feel that he really, really believes that love is, indeed, here.
Starsailor’s just-released second album, Silence is Easy, is a pleasant burst of more of the same. There are no alarms and no surprises – the band still takes much of their sound from Radiohead and fills in the holes with the Beatles. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but it certainly doesn’t send British guitar-pop music cascading into new areas. The album is a massive production, with full string sections and pianos and layers upon layers of guitars, but it still manages to be quiet and moving. Just, in fact, like their first album. (Even the title is similar – I think their next one, barring a seismic shift in sound, should be called Noun is Adjective.)
And yes, I have to talk a bit about Phil Spector, who produced two of the tracks on Silence is Easy. Much has been made of his contribution, and of how the album might have sounded had he produced the whole thing, but his two tracks (the title song and “White Dove”) sound of a piece with the rest. The ringing guitars, emotional vocals and sweet strings are present even when Spector is not, so it really isn’t that big a deal. More credit should perhaps go to the band, who produced the rest with Danton Supple, for matching Spector’s work with their own.
Still, this sort of thing can’t be that hard to do. Arrange three chords, write some optimistic lyrics, add some strings and you’re done. That the result of this elemental alchemy is somehow magical is the eternal mystery of Britpop, and it’s one that Starsailor sees no benefit in unraveling. They are what they are, and they do what they do, even if countless others also do what they do just as well.
Elbow is, at least, a little bit different, but one can be forgiven for not being sure if they’re different in a good way. They seem to want to be a British pop band, but lack the necessary energy, so they go about imitating the Radiohead sound much, much more slowly. Their songs unfold lazily, and require tremendous patience. They’re also one of those bands that milk one note and one melody often enough within one song that any deviation sounds like a soaring revelation. In a way, they’re like a sleepwalking Catherine Wheel. Lead throat Guy Garvey even looks like a bloke who can’t bring himself to get out of bed in the morning.
And yet for all that, they’re mesmerizing. Their new album Cast of Thousands has the slowest bloom of any record I’ve heard recently, but when it’s in full flower, it’s pretty beautiful. The improvements over their first album, Asleep in the Back, are all cosmetic – the production is spacier, the instrumentation more ornate, but the songs are the same slow horizon lines as before. Elbow is a band that all but refuses to rock out. When they plug in, as they do on first single “Fallen Angel,” they use the electric guitars to swirl around one note rather than add dynamics.
Around it all is Garvey’s voice, uniquely British, which sounds often like he’s under hypnosis. He mopes around the songs on this record like a drunk looking for a place to sleep. When he reaches for a soaring melody, like the one on “Fugitive Motel,” it’s breathtaking in contrast. I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining what’s appealing about this band. Elbow makes you wait and work for it like few of their peers, and underneath they’re basically another good-to-great Britpop band raised on Radiohead, but in a sound and style so devoid of innovation and character, what they offer sounds like bliss.
Strangely, the one thing about this album that doesn’t quite work is the very thing that gives it its title. Elbow utilized their audience at a 2002 Glastonbury show as an impromptu choir, splicing their echoing vocals onto “Grace Under Pressure.” It sounds like a hurried effect, rather than a magic moment, even though the sentiment (“We still believe in love, so fuck you”) is one that would seem to fit a cast of thousands well. Also strangely, two of the most beautiful tracks (“Whisper Grass” and “Lay Down Your Cross”) are new additions for the U.S. release. These songs make excellent counterpoints to the rest of the album, in that they are relatively immediate and tuneful. It’s hard to imagine the record without them.
In the end, the lazy lope of Elbow may be Britpop’s best hope for advancing beyond the float and chime in which it seems mired. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the likes of Starsailor, or of Travis, or of Coldplay, or of South, or of… well, you get the point. It’s a good sound, but it’s starting to become as formulaic as anything else. A band like Elbow may not achieve beauty as much as it hopes, but at least Garvey and company are trying for something that reaches beyond the constraints of Britpop. Whether they (or any of the new crop) will break through to something else, something that redefines their chosen sound as much as the Beatles and the Stones redefined theirs, remains to be seen.
Next week, Harry Connick Jr. How’s that for switching gears?
See you in line Tuesday morning.