Not better off dead

By NICK SYLVESTER  |  June 12, 2007

I’m not trying to paint Art Brut as backthrowing nostalgics, even when they romanticize old-school mixtape making “from the crackle of vinyl to the hiss of the tape” (“Sound of Summer”) and sum up teenage angst with another dated pastime, “learning lyrics from the CD inlay to impress people with the stupid things I say” (“Nag Nag Nag Nag”). But it’s worth taking a second to realize that — even for mere physical reasons, let alone the meta-ones — lots of people don’t interact with music the way Art Brut seem to have. The fanaticism that (punk) rock inspired, for instance, the very idea that a band could change your life, is now just a “memorable quote” in a Zach Braff movie.

The band knew this back on Bang Bang, when Argos rolled unshakable naïveté into his hilarious, lovable-loser shtick. This time out, though, the hurt comes through as neither set-up nor punch line, just a sigh. Argos’s awkward speak-sing delivery can even sound lost and lonely with these hulking instrumental jams behind him (“Late Sunday Evening” features horns), as if he were performing karaoke but for his own band. It’s a different sort of speak-sing from, say, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn’s. Argos doesn’t command the songs; he loses himself in them, sometimes mumbling along, sometimes slipping into internal monologues that address the song directly and even his own performance. “Sorry if my accent’s flawed,” he says in “St. Pauli,” “I learned my German from a seven-inch record.” If there’s one thing that separates Art Brut from the other “wry” UK rock acts — Arctic Monkeys, Cribs, Rakes, Brakes, etc. — it’s Argos’s ability to regard his own awkwardness.

So too he finds himself stumbling through romances, resigned to the inevitable communication breakdowns. Music and romance often inhabit the same emotional space for him, as in “Pump Up the Volume.” A tortured Argos narrates a make-out session, looking at the radio across the room and asking himself mid embrace: “I know I shouldn’t/And it’s possibly wrong/To break from your kiss/And turn up a pop song.” Still nervous about approaching members of the opposite sex, he’d sooner let the dancing do his talking (“Direct Hit”). That plan is a success, a rare break for Argos, so the song hits hard: a driving drum beat with unexpected swipes of hi-hat goading the band on, steady bass holding down the bottom but erupting with color when the chorus approaches, dueling guitars that career into dizzy spells.

Which is to say that “Direct Hit” isn’t an answer to Argos’s “What else can we do when the kids don’t like it?”, just a passing escape. Complicated’s answer, meanwhile, is very simple: you can’t really do anything. You have no idea whether the music you make will communicate past all the boundaries of age, race, gender, and social class to the kids. It might not even get to that point. You might get sick of splitting the bucket at KFC and telling yourself, “It won’t always be this way” (“Post Soothing Out”); you might cut your Mohawk down and sell back your Misfits jacket and get yourself a job at an office somewhere, one with benefits and a matching fund for your 401K.

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