Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Universal

It’s official: no-one dislikes the Arctic Monkeys. The first band to realise the wide-scale distributive potential of online music are breaking America, they outsold the rest of the top 20 albums at one point in the UK and individual downloads of album songs put them all in the singles chart. And talking to Man City mates at the weekend, one has had his copy nicked off him by his 13-year-old son and another, a hip-hop devotee and more likely to look outside the genre for, and I quote, “Arabic psychedelic funk” than music produced by four white boys, also admits to admiring their product.

No second-album hiccups for the Sheff boys then. Clearly it’s not just about energy, as that’s the one thing you usually get from guitar-wielding, pumped-up youth. It’s the tightness, the conviction and the eminently danceable nature of the sound as well as, yes, Turner’s northern apercus that make for the potent brew.

And I think there’s something calculated if not to say sly in the presentation that enhances their universal appeal. Their name itself is classic indie non-committal meaninglessness, while Alex Turner and co take the awkward, uncommunicative stereotype of the band down from the north further, rarely saying anything too political and controversial (and unlike the gobshite others if they like narcosis don’t go on about it as if it were a design for life); they are dressed to suggest that they could as easily go to a full-on club as much as an indie dive (notice the wearing of the once again popular classless and ubiquitous two-colour Nike hoodie). And musically, they have their rare gift of being able to take the (mainly UK) indie rock canon but remodel it in such a way that the music gets taken out of that frame. Their music is both a veneration and a rupture and they’re one of the few in that genre where there is no impulse to play spot the reference. The last single packed metal guitars, while as I suggested above, most of the stuff is so danceable that you feel they might be deliberately trying to replicate the jumping and pumping imperative of the Dance scene.

So this ravey rock, admiring, but not replicative of the past and not particularly forward-thinking, serves perfectly as spiky bursts of now, which is where people are ‘right now’ with the desire to enjoy themselves as individuals, because, hey, they work so hard etc and want to reward themselves with hits of regular pleasure. It’s an unfortunate link for a band so talented, but maybe they can take it one louder and transcend the sound as binge.

Clearing the jungle
Elsewhere, the Soul Jazz label has become the Souljaz (“soldiers”) by releasing Rumble in the Jungle, an overview of the reggae influence on the development of London breakbeat music. It’s a good snapshot of ragga junglism, importantly flagging up the earlier developments around the Ragga Twins as well as the thrilling rush of Super Sharp Shooter and Original Nuttah.

But perhaps the telling sign that d&b has run its ting now was the cover. Where the old Hard Leaders or Drum & Bass comps were statements of intent, in-your-face black or gaudy smashes of color and future dj-robots mixing the plates, the picture of the black raver has a sepia filter – the nostalgia indicator – and arthouse typographics.

None of this is to knock Soul Jazz – if you want anyone to play the veneration game then this lot do it better than anyone (in fact they do it so well that when they release a new studio lp such as from the revamped ESG, it doesn’t do so well because too many people see the label just as archivists).

And not that we need any more hints that drum & Bass is a music perdue. You’ll know that in d&b, like hip-hop, the wheat to chaff ratio hardly merits more than a cursory look at the genre today. Goldie as Rufige Kru has introduced some much-needed variation to the jaded genre, but we’re not exactly talking Inner City Life or Terminator and the genre is still on the life support machine that comes with it being maintained as an ‘industry’ and enough kids still looking to it for the adrenalin rush.

Vision, not Version, please
Lastly, the mainstream (aka the indie) music business is cocks on hoops about Mark Ronson, the New York-based ‘maverick’ producer. Last seen paying tribute to another of his favourite genres, hip-hop, by hooking up with Ghostface and co and doing fine party tunes, his new covers album Version shows he’s now closer in spirit to the northwest country boys of England, in their twin love of indie rock (with meaning) and soul (with the joyous release that comes from listening to ‘others’).

But I’m skeptical his stuff will last past the short-term breathless hipster focus. Even producers need a bit more of a vision than a desire to refashion old songs with generic twists. The vocalist on Stop makes Morrisey’s lyrics sound like an AA advert, and the whole indie transformation to soul stops at the point of bad early 90s indie dance, highlighting the difficulties in trying to straddle your pet genres in production. The arrival of the Supremes lyric seems like craven opportunism. There’s also a cover of The Only One I know, which if you think about it as an exercise in soulboy sublimation is pointless given that the original was already a 60s beat homage. And while we’re on about it, there’s something sacrilegious about converting the taut neurosis of Radiohead’s Just into a breezy, brassy funk number. Like Nouvelle Vague’s violation of 80s new pop and post-punk, once you’re past the initial recognition, the sound can quickly become annoying as songs you held dear get a dodgy, playful new context.

Not to say he can’t get it right – his work on Winehouse’s Rehab (a new song) had it, a successful Motown pastiche but with a slower, more compressed rhythm than much of the peak 60s stuff, able to key in to the get-down-and-dirty impulses of modern hip-hop and r&b. And to show that it bridged invention with genuine populism, Sunderland fans sing “you try to get the ball past Nyron, he say no, no, no” in tribute to their defender. Stop, on the other hand, seems to have got through on wholly disproportionate support from a supine music media (the usual suspects – just about every radio one dj, xfm, nme, the broadsheets).
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