Brilliant Careers 

One band sings a languid swan song, another rises to pop ascendancy

One band sings a languid swan song, another rises to pop ascendancy

After Archers of Loaf released two consecutive classic modern-rock albums (1995’s Vee Vee and 1996’s All the Nation’s Airports), frontman Eric Bachmann expressed a desire to abandon the group as a going concern and dedicate himself to diverse side projects. Bachmann’s colleagues convinced him to return to the fold, but it’s no use: The Archers’ latest album plays like the work of a band with something else on its mind besides making music together. This is one time when creative tension doesn’t produce a thrilling new cohesion; instead, the Archers experiment with other bands’ sounds rather than spending time building on their own.

Take the opener, “Fashion Bleeds,” which could be a Girls Vs. Boys outtake, or the Grifters-y “Slick Tricks and Bright Lights,” or the Polvo-like “I.N.S.” These are not bad songs—in fact, they’re brash, dynamic rock songs with typically brittle Bachmann lyrics—but they don’t fit into a unified thematic vision, the way Archers songs have in the past. White Trash Heros is a restless album, too short and with too much filler, shrouded in darkness and sour feeling.

That said, there are some electrifying moments. If nothing else, playing together for five years has shaped Archers of Loaf into a crack unit, able to switch tempos on a dime and to tie a taut net of textured guitar noise beneath Bachmann’s wrecked voice. Few bands working today can match a song like “Dead Red Eyes,” which builds from a two-note organ riff into a muscular, bass-driven tour through one man’s feeling of loss. Nor can many achieve the sweat-caked rush of “One Slight Wrong Move,” which starts off with nightmarish industrial noise and distant, echoing vocals, then rockets through a powerful guitar riff to a spooky, Vocoder-treated chorus of “One hundred million people can be wrong!” Also, White Trash Heros features two exemplary mid-tempo Archers rambles—the buoyant, raw “Perfect Time” and the title track, which cruises through America on a bed of icy synthesizers.

Maybe this is a case where too much knowledge of a band can be a dangerous thing. If I thought White Trash Heros were a transitional album, setting up a new, invigorated Archers of Loaf, I’d find it promising, even exciting. But knowing that the band is limping, I can’t help but see this album as a last-ditch final sputter—on a par with Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde or Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie, but not as fully realized as those two underappreciated platters.

White Trash Heros disappoints and thrills in equal measure, and if it is the Archer’s final testament, it will stand as a monument to lapsed potential. Let the mediocre solo albums commence.

The Scottish group Belle & Sebastian garnered a legion of kudos with last year’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, but I wasn’t among the fawners. I found B&S clever but far too twee—like The Smiths without Johnny Marr’s inventive guitar muscle. The Boy With the Arab Strap suffers from some of the same sickliness, but it’s also blessed with a fragile sort of grace. The addition of spry instrumentation and increasingly intricate arrangements infuses Belle & Sebastian with rare electricity. Their music was always lovely and literate, but now, in its best moments, it approaches transcendence.

Compare the brushed, busy sound of Sinister to “It Could’ve Been a Brilliant Career,” the opening track on Arab Strap. Starting with another in a series of provocative opening lines (“He had a stroke at the age of 24/It could’ve been a brilliant career”), B&S drift gently into a minor-key skiffle with murmuring bass, crisp electric piano, and the far-off moan of a slide guitar. The instrumentation is kept separate enough to be distinct, but the various elements blend into an honest-to-God composition.

Other standouts include “Sleep the Clock Around,” which dresses up a monotone litany with swirling synths, strains of bagpipe, and peppy horns. I also like “Ease Your Feet Into the Sea,” in which a tinkly xylophone and soft fiddle bridge a breathless, dreamy lyric about a friend’s heavy dues. And the record has three winning songs that deserve to be hit singles: “A Summer Wasting,” which undercuts its snappy big-band sound with some subtly morose piano and violin; the string-driven, soaring “Dirty Dream Number Two,” which sounds like Motown reinterpreted by a depressed Lulu; and the finger-popping title track, which mutes a rockabilly-sounding beat until it’s almost a lullaby.

I heard an NPR report on B&S in which some New York rock critic wondered why their music isn’t more popular—as in, why don’t they have Top 10 hits in the U.S.? I would invite that critic to play Arab Strap over a loudspeaker at a public place and watch how many passersby wrinkle their noses at the sound of bandleader Stuart Murdoch’s vocals. Murdoch may be a master of pop orchestration (and getting better all the time), but he sings like he’s chopping onions and getting ever closer to his thumb. Then again, weird vocals have hardly been the death of U.K. pop in the past; fans of cult pop, at least, won’t begrudge a nasal whine when the music is so full-bodied.

At its weakest (to be honest, the record barely bats .500), The Boy With the Arab Strap is punchless, and some might even say smug. Indie-rock inside-joke titles like “Chickfactor” and “Seymour Stein” don’t elevate the band’s faux-naive persona, and the songs themselves don’t add up to much musically or lyrically. At its best, though, Belle and Sebastian’s music recalls the finest, most elegant pop tunes ever to drift from overseas. It’s worth the extra indulgence.

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