Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am…/Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/Broken Social Scene

WHEN I TOLD my 16-year-old daughter that I was reviewing the debut album by Arctic Monkeys, she was not particularly impressed. “Yes, yes,” she said. “They’re legends, of course, but we’ve had all those tracks on our iPods for ages.”

There has been much excitement – and in some corners hand wringing – about the speed and apparent ease with which new artists can nowadays get themselves a fan base. Thanks to the internet, and the concomitant rise of instant messaging and texting, the current generation of teenagers have become their own instant tastemakers. They don’t need journalists or radio stations, let alone record companies to search out new music on their behalf. They can log onto and find music by literally thousands of acts, ranging from the big American emo stars to the death metal band who rehearse in the shed at the end of the garden next door.

Having heard something they like the sound of, they can download it on to their computers and iPods, and become instant online friends with the band and the band’s friends. Next stop is the band’s own website where the new fan might be able to access more tracks, find background information and lyrics, and get directions to the next gig.

The upshot of this — when it all works out — is the Arctic Monkeys show I witnessed at the Astoria in October. With just one commercially available download-single to their name at that time, the group of teenage lads from Sheffield had sold out the 2,000-capacity venue. The place was rammed, and the touts were buying tickets right up until the band went onstage. Even more impressive was the fact that the audience knew the words to most of the songs, and sang along with the sort of practiced enthusiasm you would more usually expect to find among the crowd at an Oasis gig. Clearly it wasn’t just my daughter and her friends who had been listening to these songs all summer.

Which rather begs the question of why they would want to buy the album now. One reason is to acquire the music the way it was intended to be heard. A lot of the downloaded tracks I’ve listened to don’t start quite at the beginning of the song or fade before the end. And some of them are reproduced more quietly than others. And besides, fans of Arctic Monkeys will want to own it because that’s what fans are all about. But what about the rest of us?

Despite its already “legendary” reputation and willfully awkward title, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is a splendid debut album which should explain to the uninitiated and sceptical why so many people have locked on to Arctic Monkeys as opposed to the thousands of other acts putting themselves about in the same way The star of the show is Alex Turner, who plays guitar and sings in that expressly northern way that combines chirpy with chippy. While the rest of the band provide a speedy, indie-rock backdrop, Turner’s lyrics (early drafts of which he stores on his mobile phone) lend the music a distinctive-sense of time, place and attitude — think of a latterday 19-year-old Jarvis Cocker or Pete Shelley.

‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’paints a priceless picture of a local club where the bands sing in bogus American accents. ‘All the weekend rock stars are in the toilets practicing their lines,” Turner sings with a knowing sneer as the song builds towards its ultimate put down: “I’d love to tell you my problem/You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham!” Their recent No. 1 hit, ‘Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’is a catchy punk-pop song with a lyric that Mike Skinner might have penned had he been brought up in Yorkshire. While it is one of several numbers that find the band soaring away in their most recognisable mode, other songs demonstrate a broader range. ‘Riot Van’has a slow, wistful air, as Turner recounts a run-in with the local constabulary against a gentle sequence of shimmering jazzy chords: “‘Have you been drinking, son?/You don’t look old enough to me’/’I’m sorry officer, is there a certain age you’re supposed to be?/”Cause nobody told me’.” And ‘Mardy Bum’is a sweet and sensitive song that uses humour gently to explore the fault-lines of a relationship: “Now then Mardy Bum/I see your frown/And it’s like looking down/The barrel of a gun.”

On the evidence of this album, Arctic Monkeys are a group who would have attracted the attention of a record company sooner or later and doubtless made it big irrespective of the networking opportunities provided by the internet. They have just done it much quicker than would have been the case ten years ago, and on their own terms. But the great virtue of these modern, viral marketing techniques is that they can provide a conduit for acts which might otherwise have struggled to attract the attention of an A&R department.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a five-man band from Philadelphia, have generated sales of more than 25,000 copies of their self-titled debut album, all of which have been packed and posted from their own front rooms. Thanks to the new word-of-mouth, their gigs are packed wherever they go in America, and their show at the University of London Union last November sold out on the day it was announced. They now have a specialist company called Alternative Distribution Alliance putting the albums in the shops for them in America, but remain essentially unsigned.

Their music owes its most noticeable stylistic debt to Talking Heads, a reference which is particularly obvious every time singer Alec Ounsworth opens his mouth to deliver another round of stentorian, Byrne-like vocal gymnastics. It begins with the ringmaster from hell exhorting the crowd to “Clap your hands!” before breaking into the bustling art rock of ‘Let The Cool Goddess Rust Away’The lyrics are vague entities, their meaning elusive. “Curious velocity/Brought me to a halt/Flatten me baby/Gimme some salt,” Ounsworth slurs against a typically springy rock beat. But as the songs come into focus so they take on an angular beauty — especially so on the sad, elegiac chorus of ‘Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)’.

Independent business plans and unconventional working practices facilitate yet more strange and beautiful music on the latest self-titled album by Broken Social Scene. The Toronto collective employs a floating roster of anything up to 17 members moonlighting from various local bands, an arrangement which recalls the Byzantine musical adventures of Snow Patroller Gary Lightbody’s Glaswegian collective the Reindeer Section.

There are times when BSS suffer from a somewhat chaotic overload of ideas and instruments. “I wanted songs that sound like there was too much happening so you could not fucking hear anything,” explains Kevin Drew, who along with Brendan Canning remains the mainstay of a project which has generated five albums since 2001. He gets his wish by the time the string section and the horn section collide in a huge kiss-off at the climax of the serpentine, ten-minute epic ‘It’s All Gonna Break’.

But elsewhere tracks ranging from the joyous, Flaming Lips sound of ‘Ibi Dreams Of Pavement (A Better Day)’to the atmospheric, electro-rock noodlings of ‘Finish Your Collapse and Stay For Breakfast’ are surprisingly lucid, whatever the titles may suggest.

The huge stylistic lurches which the album encompasses may not be to everyone’s taste, and it seems unlikely that a project as bold and open-ended as this could get off the ground — let alone last for as long as it has — if the participants were dependent on the largesse of a major record label. The kids it seems are doing it for themselves, and frankly they are much better off for it. It’s like punk all over again, but with a global reach and a much more adventurous musical manifesto.

© David SinclairThe Word, February 2006

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