The British Are Coming… Eventually
Muse, Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol Finally Hit the U.S.

There’s this big dead tree in my back yard.

It’s been there for a long time, since before I moved in last year. It’s this enormous, hulking carcass that loses dead branches all the time. When that hurricane came up the east coast last year, I was certain that it would whip this tree out of the ground and hurl it onto the roof of my house, obliterating all of my earthly possessions. And I’d then have to do what any sensible guy would do after something like that: take it as a sign from God, swear off material things, and join a nomadic monastic order, traveling the world and fighting injustice wherever I may find it. And, um, learn how to use a sword. ‘Cause those guys always have swords.

I kind of found the whole idea of losing everything I’d collected over the years in one fell swoop comforting, and I’m sure it would actually take a disaster, like a fire or an earthquake that destroyed all my CDs and comics all at once, to get me to stop collecting like a madman with a trust fund. But it won’t be that tree that does it. As I type this, burly-looking men with chainsaws are removing that towering eyesore once and for all.

It’s fascinating to watch, too. They’re doing it in sections, starting at the top, which means that they’re counting on the tree’s root system to hold it in place while they climb it. Of course, the root system is dead, so who knows what might happen? But most likely, I will be minus one dead tree in a few hours. The odd writer part of me has been casting about for some metaphorical hook to hang this on – like maybe the tree symbolizes my childhood, which, though it died a long time ago, I’ve been holding on to, and now that I’m almost 30, it’s time to let it go? But the more practical, sensible part of me is telling the odd writer to shut up. And he’s right, I think.

Sometimes a dead tree is just a dead tree.

* * * * *

I mention this a lot, but I put an insane amount of time and thought into my year-end top 10 list. Most of that thought, recently, has gone into revising the rules of eligibility to reflect my new global audience, thanks to this wacky world wide web thing. For example, here’s a sticking point that I’m currently wrestling with: international release dates.

I have a noted aversion to import prices. It comes from not having a lot of money. For the cost of one import CD I can buy two, sometimes three domestic CDs, so I usually wait for stateside releases of albums from the UK and Japan and such. This is hard for me to do, especially when mags like NME and Q make these records I’m missing sound like perfection wrapped in plastic. Usually this isn’t a big deal when it comes to the list, however – UK and US release dates usually only differ by a month or two, and rarely is something so good that it makes me retroactively rewrite my list.

But sometimes, it happens. And it just did.

Muse’s third album, Absolution, came out in the UK last year. After months of reading about how swell an album it is, I finally picked it up when it hit these shores two weeks ago. Now, you have to understand that it’s also quite rare that I agree with British critics, who tend to alternately grasp hold of flashes in the pan and overpraise them, or heap derision on any artist that shows an ounce of ambition. There’s a definite too-big-for-their-britches mentality in UK music reviews, like they’re being written by childhood acquaintances of the band members – “Ooh, look at little Chris Martin, thinks he’s so important and aaah-tsy. Why I remember when he couldn’t tie his shoes. You sell a few records and you think you’re God’s gift, I swear…”

But I have to say, all the four-star reviews of Absolution are spot-on. This is an amazing record. Okay, to start, it does sound an awful lot like Radiohead used to, with the atmospherics and falsetto vocals and creepy minor chords, but since when is that a bad thing? So many bands have made inferior stabs at capturing OK Computer without recognizing what made it special – the songs, not just the sounds – that to hear a band really dig in, really try to pick up the gauntlet that Thom and company threw down, is astonishing in itself.

So yes, the blueprint is Radiohead’s, but Muse have taken hold of this sound and owned it. To call Absolution sweeping is almost an insult – it’s huge, boundless, almost visionary in its expansive landscapes. This band is fearless. They’re universal dreamers, and no sound is too big, no texture too vibrant, for them to embrace. Their frontman, Matthew Bellamy, has a voice wide and vast enough to encompass any sound the band makes. He’s part Yorke and part Jeff Buckley, but most of all, he’s an impressively emotional singer who gives every line his all.

And that’s kind of the motif for the album. There isn’t a wasted second here, nothing that doesn’t add to the drama and force of the album. It’s obvious with every track that they dreamed big, and then knocked themselves out to achieve the sounds they heard in their heads. It opens huge with “Apocalypse Please,” a snarling stunner that explodes out of the gate with pounding piano and a phenomenal vocal melody. “Time Is Running Out” and “Endlessly” are two of the most intelligent and soaring hit singles I’ve encountered in some time. “Sing for Absolution” is so beautiful it brings tears, and “Stockholm Syndrome” wipes those tears away with sandpaper and acid.

The most epic track among epics here is “Butterflies and Hurricanes,” a piano-fueled masterpiece with a breathtaking breakdown and comeback. And nestled within that song’s lyrics is the album’s mission statement: “You’ve got to change the world and use this chance to be heard.” So much attention is paid to bands and artists who don’t really have any ambitions, who are content to jam out two or three chords, look bored and get paid. Muse is the polar opposite of this kind of band – they’re wide-eyed and idealistic, and their canvas is beyond vast. Absolution begins by announcing, “This is the end of the world,” and it gets bigger and bigger from there. We need to cherish bands like this, who believe that we haven’t seen it all, and who want to take music to new places, to new heights.

In short, this is a top 10 list album if I’ve ever heard one. And there’s my dilemma – it’s quite plainly a 2003 album. But if I hear 10 albums better than this in 2004, I will be surprised. So I have to include it this year. But I can’t. But I have to. You see? I have nine months to think this over, of course, and who knows, this may be the best year for recorded music in a decade or so, and I may not have to worry about Muse come December. As it stands, this is the best thing I’ve heard so far this year, an album so uncompromising in its artistry that it deserves every accolade and more besides.

* * * * *

Whenever the UK press is right about a band like Muse, I so want them to be right about everything else, but it rarely happens.

Case in point. The British press has been practically wetting itself over Franz Ferdinand, a Scottish band that has just released its first album. Reading some of the notices this record has been getting, you’d think they’ve made Sgt. Pepper II: Electric Boogaloo. The hype, quite honestly, is out of control for this band. And unfortunately, the tidal wave of press will probably color your enjoyment of the album, because if you’re expecting genius unparalleled, you’re not going to get it.

What you will get is a fun little disc. And if that’s all you’re after, then Franz Ferdinand should more than fit the bill. They sound, to me, like Morrissey’s disco band might. The songs are upbeat, danceable, and full of nifty guitar melodies, and Alex Kapranos’ voice is low-key and sneering. The lyrics, particularly those for “Cheating on You,” are similarly sneering, calling to mind the Smiths frontman more than once. The album takes a couple of listens for the smarm to turn to charm, but it eventually does.

Also taking a couple of listens to appreciate are the impressive guitar lines. Very little of what the two guitarists are doing is typical, and especially on songs like “The Dark of the Matinee” and spunky opener “Jacqueline,” it’s unexpected and fun. Still and all, this band seems to have only the one trick, and if you like that trick, you’ll dig the album. For these ears, a whole album of this punky funk is a little draining. (I do, indeed, see the irony in so wholeheartedly embracing Muse one second and poking holes in the Franz Ferdinand hype machine the next, but trust me on this, the two records are not even comparable.)

Slightly more successful is Snow Patrol, another British band whose third album, Final Straw, hit the states this week. The British press has been more reserved about this record, probably because there’s very little here that will light the charts and the indie discos on fire, but they have compared it to Coldplay and Travis and other textured guitar bands. Snow Patrol is the brainchild of Gary Lightbody, and he certainly takes quite a bit from the British guitar-rock scene. For Final Straw’s first 10 songs, Lightbody delivers sweet yet simple pop songs with cranked guitars and interesting production, but I spent these songs waiting for him to do something magical.

And then at track 11, he did. “Somewhere a Clock is Ticking” is terrific, a web of guitars and vocals that sounds like the second coming of Catherine Wheel. Closing track “Same” is similarly excellent, and one wonders why Lightbody only delivered the goods at the end. The remainder of Final Straw is decent without being exceptional, but it ends on such a high note that you almost forgive the rest of the record for being somewhat bland. Neither Snow Patrol nor Franz Ferdinand will likely make a dent in the top 10 list for the year, but both have made pretty good records that I don’t regret buying.

But I would have regretted paying import prices, naturally.

* * * * *

The tree is down completely now, and the burly gentlemen are feeding the chunks of dead wood into a chipper – you know, the kind that Steve Buscemi found himself in near the end of Fargo. It’s the end of an era, truly. And I still don’t have a metaphor.

Next week, Todd Rundgren, Modest Mouse, and/or Trey Anastasio. And maybe Aerosmith.

See you in line Tuesday morning.