Art Brut Join the Nostalgia Parade
Nostalgia always leaves out the good stuff. Ever notice how 60s nostalgia always conveniently neglects how central a role opposition to the Vietnam War played in that era’s music? Outside of CBGB coffee table books (how NOT punk is that?) and never-ending tours by bands like Agent Orange or the Subhumans (who are at Bowery Ballroom on 6/15 and the Music Hall of Williamsburg on 6/16), who outside of a crowd of diehard individualists remembers first-wave punk bands like those two? And isn’t it funny that the first wave of 90s nostalgia, like the Breeders’ recent comeback, looks back to the earliest part of that decade, or even to the 80s? Is this a generational thing, a twenty-year cycle…or a reflection of how forgettable so much of the 90s’ ostensibly most popular music was? And there’s more to come: zeros nostalgia is next in line.
Although those who spent that decade across the pond might disagree, the European corporate music conglomerate took longer to drown itself in dreck than it did here in the US: good bands like Pulp and Blur spent a lot of time on Top of the Pops. Which the Brits take very seriously, or at least used to: let’s not forget that American Idol was a spinoff of the long-running Eurovision competition. That fascination with pop-charts-as-spectacle springboarded the career of Art Brut. A cynic would ask how many songs they ever made after the surprise 2004 hit Formed a Band: the answer is on the new Art Brut retrospective – imagine that! – appropriately titled Top of the Pops. Forty tracks, including one by Art Brut “franchise” band We Are Scientists (one of a friendly network who dedicate themselves to keeping the Art Brut catalog alive in concert). Defiantly blue-collar, sometimes to the point of self-parody, frontman Eddie Argos’ tongue-in-cheek, wide-eyed persona fuels the songs’ irrepressibly cynical sense of meta.
It’s funny how quaint so many of these songs are, even though the band is still active. Pump Up the Volume has a guy taking a break from making out with a girl so he can turn up the radio. My Little Brother “only listens to b-sides.” Nag Nag Nag Nag has a kid escaping the drudgery of home, his “album collection reduced to a mixtape” for travel purposes. Sideways references to decades of radio hits pervade these songs: the riff from Cool Jerk, allusions to ZZ Top, the Beach Boys (or the Clash parodying the Beach Boys), oi punk and especially Wire (a cynic would say Elastica instead). Ian Catskillkin and Jasper Future’s guitars (not to neglect founding member Chris Chinchilla on the early stuff) buzz and roar and are surprisingly tuneful despite themselves. As the band grew up, you can watch the humor extend to the music: wry harmonics and phasers and other effects make their appearances, more or less to mask the band’s musical limitations. What other group would have set a song about Guns & Roses’ brain-damaged vocalist to a Joy Division bassline?
Is 40 tracks of Art Brut overkill? For a band that was basically a lark from the git-go, maybe – although what’s most impressive is how strong, and funny, the satire is throughout most of this. DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes’ kitsch-obsessed trendoid, the snooty Strokes wannabes in Demons Out! and the Jarvis Cocker wannabe in Sexy Sometimes all get a karmic kick in the ass. And Alcoholics Unanimous is just a great song, one that needed to be written and a good thing that it was Art Brut who did it. How ironic it is that a band formed as a spoof of the pop music machine would become one of the very last to ride that machine to any kind of genuine success.