WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON

There was lit­tle mid­dle ground among the year’s best (and worst) al­bums, writes Brian Boyd

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC2006 -

SO, WHERE to stand on the Arc­tic Mon­keys ques­tion? The best de­but since Def­i­nitely Maybe, clat­ter full of acer­bic so­cial com­men­tary and acute col­lo­quial ob­ser­va­tions that steam­rolled its way across the mu­si­cal land­scape with an in­sou­ciant swag­ger? Or merely the case of a band catch­ing a wave and end­ing up at des­ti­na­tion “right time, right place”?

There was a Lib­ertines-sized hole out there, and the Mon­keys found them­selves sucked into the vac­uum. Cer­tainly, the lev­els of hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion sur­round­ing their album were al­most un­prece­dented – and MyS­pace man­aged to make a name for them­selves in the en­su­ing mael­strom.

What­ever way you cut it, though, What­ever Peo­ple say I Am was an im­per­ti­nently good record that high­lighted an ad­mirable John Cooper Clarke lyri­cal approach and some win­ning mu­si­cian­ship. En­joy it now while you can; the next album may well be a Be Here Now.

Over in Ra­zorlight land, peo­ple who got over the gobby singer Johnny Bor­rell (a sort of male Lily Allen) found that the band had set the con­trols for the heart of sta­dium rock on their epony­mously ti­tled work. While many bands head off to the mu­si­cal re­search and de­vel­op­ment lab­o­ra­tory in search of some­thing new, Ra­zorlight just riff off an old theme but punch it around a bit so it’s not that recog­nis­able.

Main­stream gui­tar­pop made a long over­due re­turn with The Au­to­matic and The Feel­ing. Both have ad­mirably ig­nored the stric­tures of stan­dard indie rock for some­thing a bit looser and more chart­friendly. The Au­to­matic had one of the songs of the year in Mon­ster, and their bright, breezy sound is as in­fec­tious as it comes. The Feel­ing lo­cate them­selves even fur­ther to­wards the MOR dial, and you sort of have to ad­mire any band who list Su­per­tramp and Wings as two of their main in­flu­ences (it makes a change from The Stooges and The Dolls). Retro? Maybe. But who’s com­plain­ing when it’s as ex­u­ber­ant as this. See also: Guille­mots and Or­son.

It was odd to see The Killers try­ing to re­write a Bruce Spring­steen album for Sam’s Town. Odd only be­cause it is seem­ingly manda­tory now for rock bands to have at least one an- ti-Amer­i­can song in their set. What The Killers man­age to do on Sam’s Town, the coun­ter­point to Amer­i­can Id­iot, is rein­vent a mythic Amer­ica. But it’s how they do it that mat­ters most. Sam’s Town sounds like Tom Petty fronting a pissed off Du­ran Du­ran.

Spring­steen him­self went even fur­ther back with We Shall Over­come: The Seeger Ses­sions. In one of those un­fath­omable ways, his choice of songs said more about the cur­rent state of US pol­i­tics than any nom­i­nal con­tem­po­rary “protest song”. And who would have thought that some­one with such an en­vi­able cat­a­logue of his own could turn in some of the most vi­va­cious live shows of his ca­reer by cov­er­ing an old folkie?

Three other lead­ing­males re­turned with no­table works. On 12 Songs, Neil Di­a­mond threw away his karaoke ma­chine ten­den­cies, re­moved the syrup and came up with one of his best-ever col­lec­tions. Whether this was down to Rick Ru­bin’s much-touted in­volve­ment or the sim­ple re­al­i­sa­tion on Di­a­mond’s part that he is, at core, a singer-song­writer, is de­bat­able.

Thom Yorke took a sab­bat­i­cal from Ra­dio­head on the un­fairly ma­ligned The Eraser. True, it was a bleakly lo-fi af­fair and it cer­tainly didn’t of­fer any respite for fans of his The Bends- era work, but some­where deep down in th­ese songs there was a bristling in­ten­sity that got him over all the un­nec­es­sary noodly bits.

Sir Stephen of Mor­ris­sey was also back and, while his album did os­cil­late a bit, a song such as the rather glo­ri­ous Life Is a Pigsty could be safely filed un­der “clas­sic”.

While a lot of the row­dier new kids on the block wear their Smiths in­flu­ences a bit too screech­ingly ob­vi­ously, this year we had the very rare oc­cur­rence of some­one ac­tu­ally out­Mor­ris­sey­ing Mor­ris­sey. Jarvis Cocker is su­perbly sar­donic on Jarvis (the ti­tle makes him sound like an X-Fac­tor con­tes­tant). The per­son once known as “the fifth most fa­mous man in Bri­tain” and who once com­pared his dis­taste for fame to a nut al­lergy, first resur­faced with a anti-Live 8 song last year, archly ti­tled Run­ning the World. On the album he sings about Dis­ney and fat chil­dren. And it all some­how makes per­fect sense. Mis­tak­enly de­scribed as a “protest album”, Jarvis is in fact more righ­teous anger than any­thing else.

The Pitch­fork ef­fect was a big talk­ing point, with the site as­sum­ing a make ’em/break ’em sta­tus. All well and good if it’s an Ar­cade Fire or the re­lated Bro­ken So­cial Scene, but not all well when it comes to im­pen­e­tra­ble post-rock ex­cur­sions. But with Rolling Stone now suc­cess­fully trans­formed into a comic for baby-boomers, Pitch­fork has be­come the medium that­mat­ters.

Else­where, all new bands seemed to be get­ting their names from scrab­ble games; Tom Waits mis­fired with Or­phans; Ha­sidic rap, in the shape of Matisyahu, didn’t even make it to the 15-minute mark; Mu­sic for Ro­bots soared; Tow­ers of Lon­don didn’t; The Great West­ern, a solo album by James Dean Brad­field, was wrongly over­looked; Young Folks by Peter, Bjorn and John sounded great; TV on the Ra­dio made the avant garde look sim­ple.

Who would have thought that the album sound­track from a Las Ve­gas show would be one of the mu­si­cal high­lights of the year? The Bea­tles’ Love was a mash-up album in all but name that could have been dis­as­trous for all con­cerned. But by deftly re-imag­in­ing the songs, this is more like a sound col­lage than a tie-in ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the stage show. For­get about The Grey Album – this is the real deal. A dif­fer­ent class.

There’re too busy singing. . . Nuts for Arc­tic Mon­keys in 2006

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