If there’s one thing I’ve learned in over a decade of covering popular music, it’s this: Don’t trust the British. The rock press in the UK is both widely read and extremely competitive, which means that rags like NME and Melody Maker are constantly trying to trump each other by claiming they’ve found the newest savior of modern music. Acts get hyped to the rafters in the Land of AnglesI can’t even remember the names of all the CDs that have landed in my hands with the label “Album of the Year” applied by some overeager scribe.
Of course, sometimes they get it right. Pulp is worth the ink that preceded it across the pond, as are, of late, Placebo and The Beta Band. But there are so many plainly unremarkable Hype Cases that one has to scrutinize any claim made by the foreign glossies and tabs.
Recently, the most highly touted band from the UK has been Gomez, and no wonderthis quintet of early-20-year-olds doesn’t sound much like any other act in its homeland. With bluesy slide guitar, Middle Eastern-accented acoustic picking, hypnotic drumbeats, and dueling vocalists, Gomez is following the grand British tradition of appropriating American folk music and converting it to art-school-enhanced exotica.
The first Gomez album, last year’s Bring It On, showed promise. Only about half the songs were memorable, but those happy few (especially “Here Comes the Breeze” and “Whipping Picadilly”) were enough to make even the casual listener stop and ask, “Who are these guys?”
The swift follow-up, Liquid Skin (Virgin), is less populated by showstoppers. In the right mood, shambling groove-pieces like “Hangover” and “Revolutionary Kind” can be both lovely and breathtakingand the album as a whole is pleasing to the earbut too much of Liquid Skin feels like aimless noodling. And although Gomez’s sound may be a rarity in jolly old England, here in the States, hippie-jam bands are practically an infestation. Gomez is more eclectic and electric than Phish (and vocalists Ben Ottewell and Ian Ball can sing a damn site better), but it shares the same lack of grounding. Tunes drift off into the atmosphere, only occasionally entrancing those listeners who aren’t high on something.
Gomez remains promising, though, as does the latest overseas buzz band, Gay Dad. Leisure Noise (London), Gay Dad’s debut album, is in the classic Instant British Rock Star vein; it’s fussed-over, arena-ready glam rock. The guitars chime like early U2, bandleader Cliff Jones’ vocals are swoony, and his lyrics alternate between romantic praise and bitter put-downs. At its bestthe impassioned power ballad “Oh Jim” and the unstoppable, escalating toe-tapper “To Earth With Love”Gay Dad sounds like a combination of the recently disbanded New Radicals and the long-lost Irish conglomerate Hothouse Flowers. But if the band has sweetness and swagger, its main failing is a lack of personality to match its big sound; even its most accomplished work sounds a little generic.
That’s also the problem with Snow Patrol, a band from Northern Ireland whose debut Songs for Polar Bears (Jeepster) throws out Swervedriver-esque guitar drone and Beta Band-like random sampling with intermittent distinction. The album opens with two consecutive amelodic, stilted anthems, and then, just when a less patient listener would be packing up the disc for resale, the cacophony breaks on “The Last Shot Ringing in My Ears,” a haunting, mumbled song that sounds like the typical quiet/loud Nirvana arrangement...without the loud. This minor variation in form heralds a string of slightly unusual, marginally intriguing rock experiments, in which Snow Patrol attacks grungy and distorted guitar-pop from momentarily fresh angles. Again though, singer Gary Lightbody (despite the colorful name) doesn’t have the charisma, the vision, or the voice to make Snow Patrol any more than an entertaining-today/irrelevant-tomorrow diversion.
For solid vocals, you have to turn back to Gomez, or to Muse, whose debut album Showbiz (Maverick/Warner Bros.) is rattling a few American windows. Muse’s sound has been described as “if Jeff Buckley fronted Radiohead,” which isn’t too far off. Muse lead singer Matthew Bellamy isn’t as dynamic as Buckley, but he does indulge in Buckley-like hum-singing, the technique of stretching a one-syllable word into four or five notes. And like Radiohead, Muse is definitely part of the prog-rock revival, exploring multi-part songs that drift from plaintive to scorching. The approach is immediately impressive“Cave” in particular is almost sinister, jolted with air-raid guitar and pounded piano keys. But though Bellamy’s voice is attractive, his singing is a little too much about itself; there’s no real passion behind the histrionics. Eventually, the epic scope of the songwriting starts to sound a little hollow as well. It’s a pretty picture, but it has no theme.
What all these bands are striving for (or should be) is the sort of marriage of purpose, subject, and sound that made the last few Pulp albums such sensations in the UK. They deserve credit for not merely exploiting a trend or putting on elaborate poses, but they each need to have more to say before they start booking studio time.
Which brings us to David Bowie, whose career should be both an inspiration and a caution to all young musicians, especially in the carnivorous British rock scene. Bowie has been cranking out albums for over three decades now, changing styles before he can get pigeonholed, dabbling in diverse subject matter, and occasionally stumbling into a moment of divine brilliance. If his legacy will be measured in classic songs more than completely realized albums, it’s only because Bowie frequently gets a concept before he has any tunes, and he’s too impatient to let his talent catch up with his inspiration.
Bowie’s latest album, ‘hours...’, has been compared to one of his earliest records, Hunky Dory, because it’s a return to acoustic-based swish-pop. But though ‘hours...’ is certainly an improvement over Bowie’s more recent forays into industrial noise, it’s still no Hunky Dory (which remains his catchiest and most invigorating record). Even without the comparison, the new record would seem timid, unadventurousit’s meant to be a series of songs about aging and reflection, but it lacks the poignant melodies that would sell such a melancholy idea. The few songs that do work get by because Bowie is still a legitimate rock star whose own well-developed persona provides much of its own meaning. What we know about his life and career fills in the blanks of mediocre songwriting.
Interestingly, all these neophyte UK rockers and the more experienced Bowie share the same problem: They simply need more space and time to develop their ideas. But in the case of Gomez, Gay Dad, and their peers, these bands are hampered by the very press that seeks to exalt them. The downside to being “discovered” after a handful of club gigs is that those writers who claim you often beat you back down once you grow beyond the early, fumbling attempts at self-expression. The temptation then is to stunt your growth and remain the band with great potential who never made it. Didn’t some British musicians once warn us that Pop Will Eat Itself?
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