Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Arctic Monkeys. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino, 2006)

"Well they might wear classic Reeboks/ Or knackered Converse/ Or tracky bottoms tucked in socks/ But all of that's what the point is not/ The point's that there ain't no romance around there."

Here's the thing about the UK music press: it has its head up its collective ass. You can't turn around over there without NME feverishly hyping some godawful group like Menswe@r, Gay Dad, or Starsailor. It's incredible. Bands go from the gutter to the Top of the Pops in a matter of days, it seems, and usually on the basis of little more than some scrivener hoping to break the next big thing. But more often than not, the next big thing turns out to be the next big bust, releasing some gloriously underwhelming garbage before sinking back into obscurity. For a country responsible for some of the best music of the last 50+ years, it's tastemakers are pretty tonedeaf.

Which is why I was initially skeptical about the Arctic Monkeys. When their highly anticipated debut LP Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (the title is lifted from a line spoken by angry young man Albert Finney in the coolly devastating 1960 kitchen sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) was released in January 2006, it became the fastest selling album in UK history, moving over 360,000 units in its first week. The stage seemed set for another entry in a long series of wind-ups and let-downs. Could it be that good? Could it be any good?

Well, I don't know about 360,000 units in one week, but this album truly rules. A four-piece from the industrial city of Sheffield, the Arctic Monkeys offer up some wryly observational, bitingly abrasive, and mercilessly hooky guitar pop gems on Whatever People Say I Am. It's an invigorating collection, played with style and wit, and if you like your rock catchy, bouncy, and funny (but not Weird Al funny), then you need to check it out.

Generally speaking, the songs on the record trace the course of a weekend, beginning in the afternoon of the first day and moving through the night into the morning after. In between first track "The View From the Afternoon" and closer "A Certain Romance," the band captures the nervous anticipation of a good night out, the frenzied fun and slightly disappointing reality of the subpar shows and overcrowded bars, the sweat and smoke and promise of sex, and the come down that inevitably arrives with the sunrise. It's Saturday night and Sunday morning condensed into 44 thrilling minutes, and it's worth the hangover.

The View From the Afternoon rips and roars from the very first notes, snarling guitars and pounding drums rushing from gnarled thrash to spry, angular sprint, the notes ping-ponging off the walls as singer Alex Turner barks, "Anticipation has a habit to set you up/ For disappointment in evening entertainment but/ Tonight there'll be some love/ Tonight there'll be a ruckus yeah/ Regardless of what's gone before." It's a nice note to begin on, and hints at the crackerjack crunch confections of the rest of the LP.

"I Bet You look Good on the Dancefloor" turns frantic strums and dumb-genius rhythms into a rousing club jam spiked with lines like, "I said I bet that you look good on the dancefloor/ Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984/ From 1984!" The trudging funk of Fake Tales of San Francisco takes the piss out of all the "weekend rockstars in the toilets practicing their lines" before exploding into a ragged rush at the 1:40 mark, the bass doing its best Entwhistle impression behind furious snare beats. "Dancing Shoes" uses a disco hi-hat shuffle and stabbing guitar lines to get the moneymakers shaking , with a slightly bluesy, scorched-earth solo to keep things from getting too fruity.

Riot Van offers a brief respite from the breathless riffery of the album's first half, a gorgeous down-tempo ballad to police brutality and drunken public hijinx. "So up rolls a riot van/ And sparks excitement in the boys," murmurs a resigned Turner. "But the policemen look annoyed/ Perhaps these are ones they should avoid." Of course, no cops are avoided, and to no one's surprise it all ends badly: "Thrown in a riot van/ And all the coppers kicked him in/ And there was no way he could win/ Just had to take it on the chin." Throughout, the lovely, jazzy chords give the tune an air of sadness, a nice counterpoint to the aggressive laddishness of the rest of the record. "Riot Van" proves that these boys have some heart.

Whatever People Say I Am ends on two extremely strong notes. From the Ritz to the Rubble captures perfectly the over-articulate rage of the idle young man, and the desperation inherent in his nights out. "Last night what we talked about/ It made so much sense/ But now the haze has ascended/ It don't make no sense anymore," says Turner, as the band goes into full-blown Pixies mode behind him. It's the album's best rocker. "A Certain Romance" starts with brash bluster and smoothly segues into a charming, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" semi-ska number, slightly goofy but highly heartfelt.

So it seems like the music press got this one right. The Arctic Monkeys' debut is as addictive a platter of Brit-rock as I can remember, steeped in the best traditions of UK guitar pop and rich in cleverly constructed and expertly delivered lyrics. So believe the hype and buy this record.