Some thoughts on first impressions:
A first single is, traditionally, meant to give some small taste of a forthcoming record, and to entice listeners to pick up the disc when it comes out. Sometimes it’s representative, though, and sometimes it’s not. Now, I haven’t been swayed one way or another by a first single in many, many years – I’m so addicted to music that I usually just buy and experience the whole album, sound unheard. But even I can’t resist that first sample, especially for records I’m looking forward to.
A slew of first singles have hit the airwaves and the web recently, and almost universally, they have me anticipating their respective albums more than I already was. Here’s one you have to check out: “Going Against Your Mind,” the nine-minute opening track from Built to Spill’s You in Reverse, out April 11. “Conventional Wisdom” is also available there, and it rocks, too, but “Going” is pure BTS, and perhaps the most enjoyable two-chord song I have heard in years. After a couple of good-but-not-great albums, I’m excited to hear Built to Spill sounding like their old selves again.
Also surprisingly good is “I’m American,” the first tune to hit from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime II. I am dreading the April 4 release of this album, but the song is old-school ‘Ryche, down to the double-time metal break in the middle, and while my sense of impending disaster isn’t completely abated, it is eased a bit. Sequels always suck, but this could defy the odds.
Less exciting is “World Wide Suicide,” the boring new Pearl Jam song. The problem with Pearl Jam is that they always sound like Pearl Jam, and they haven’t shaken up their style since No Code, 10 years ago. Hopefully this song isn’t a fair representation of their self-titled album, out May 2, because it could fit snugly on Riot Act, or Yield, or any other of the forgettable records they’ve made since their heyday. Consistency is one thing, but with this song – their first in three years – Pearl Jam sounds stuck in a rut.
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First impressions are, of course, easily influenced by hype, one of my favorite pet subjects. It’s one that keeps coming up, though, thanks to the British press and their tendency to crown any young band with a few chops and an attitude the Best Band Ever in the History of the Fucking Universe. I just can’t stand that sort of thing, and I wish I were less annoyed and turned off by it. I missed out on the Franz Ferdinand Bandwagon, for example, and probably undervalued their debut album, because I was so repulsed by the hype that buzzed around them like bees.
So here’s my New Year’s resolution in effect again. I promised myself that the next time NME and the other Brit mags fell all over themselves praising some baby band as the second coming, I’d ignore the hype and pick up the record, and judge for myself. Well, that time has come – if you’re even the slightest bit tuned in to the Grand Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine, you’ve heard of the Arctic Monkeys. Even their stupid name can’t hold this band back.
For years, it was the thing to crown some band the New Radiohead, and then the New Coldplay. Now, apparently, the times have shifted again – the Arctic Monkeys are the new Franz Ferdinand, according to Brits in the Know, a pedigree that evidently is supposed to mean something besides coattail-riding. The two bands even share a label – Domino – and I can’t see the New Franz thing as anything but cynical marketing in action, and another example of Frank Zappa’s theory of death by nostalgia.
I deliberately heard nothing from the Monkeys’ intensely praised debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, before buying it. (I think the title’s a little ironic, considering that all I’ve heard people saying is that the band is brilliant, fantastic, superb, etc. Too bad that’s what they’re not, then.) It was easy enough, not living in Britain, to avoid “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “The View From the Afternoon” in heavy rotation, and approach this thing fresh.
And you know what? I like it.
Understand, there’s a world of difference between “I like it” and “This will change music forever, and add meaning to my miserable life.” But this record has a relentless, stomping sense of fun, especially in its first half, that is undeniable. The New Franz moniker is accurate, in a sense – the styles are similar, and the angular chops of guitarist Jamie Cook are very reminiscent of Ferdinand. But Cook also takes from the Clash and the Jam, and the Monkeys in general have a more street-level, less theatrical feel than Alex Kapranos’ bunch.
The real difference, however, is in the voice. The Monkeys are also led by an Alex, this one named Turner, while Kapranos indulges the preening art-rock quality in his vocals, Turner has an appealingly brash, sneering, everyman tone to his singing, one part Liam Gallagher and one part Johnny Rotten. He’s the most enjoyable part of the mix, especially considering the jovial, sarcastic nature of the lyrics. What else would you expect from a song called “You Probably Couldn’t See For the Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me” but sarcasm, and Turner sells it.
Unlike Franz, too, the Monkeys realize that their one trick can get wearying over the course of a whole album, so they’ve varied the pace here and there. “Riot Van” is a tender piece about being rousted by the cops, while closer “A Certain Romance” is a ska-inflected mid-tempo epic. But for the most part, the band sticks to tight corners, fast beats and shouted choruses, and they’re right – it does get tiring. Whatever People Say I Am is only 41 minutes long, but it’s about all I need, and it doesn’t leave me wanting more.
Still, I think the band is on a decent track. They do have miles to go before they deserve the hype, and I wish the music industry was willing to let them mature a little before shoving them down our throats. In five or six albums, the Arctic Monkeys will probably be terrific, but given the hyperbole surrounding this frenetic debut, there really isn’t anywhere for the critical acclaim to go. This is live-in-the-moment music for a live-in-the-moment world, and it never reaches deeper nor promises a continuing journey.
And maybe it’s just that I’m older now. When I was 17, I would have responded to this, but I need a wider perspective these days, something that convinces me that I should remember the band’s name (no matter how stupid it is) because they’ll be around 15 years from now. There’s none of that here. Whatever People Say I Am is a fun little bottle rocket of a record, and I admit that hearing Turner shout the chorus to “Perhaps Vampires is a Bit Strong But…” is thrilling, but I know that next year will provide a similar set of thrills from an entirely new band just like this one.
Which brings us back to hype, and my biggest problem with it. The Arctic Monkeys are a blast, and they show some potential in their hooks and humor, but they will never get any better if the world keeps telling them they’re brilliant now. So seriously, world, stop it! Turner and his boys have so far to go, but they’ll never take one step if they feel they don’t have to. This album is at best a C+, but if everyone tells them a C+ is good enough, then we’re in for carbon copies of this record the next few times out, and a slow fade to an episode of Where Are They Now. Is that what you want?
The question the Arctic Monkeys ought to be asking themselves is, can we do better than this? Where can we go now? What can we explore? How much more interesting can we make our sound? The question I’m asking myself, as I do with every new band that’s hyped to the skies, is, will they? Is the band worth following, and investing time in, or are they headed nowhere? Nothing on their debut makes me think they’re in it for the long haul, but you never know. Perhaps they’ll surprise me. Perhaps ephemeral, trendy and disposable is just what I say they are, and that’s in fact what they’re not.
Next week, speaking of longevity, there’s a new Alarm album.
See you in line Tuesday morning.