Auteurs make a big splash before a small crowd

CAMBRIDGE – Hype is a constant factor in the music biz – an irritant and an enticement – but only occasionally can you actually buy into it.

Enter the Auteurs: a year-old band from London fronted by singer-songwriter-guitarist Luke Haines, which has been touted by a number of UK critics as one of 1993’s best new outfits. They made their US debut at the tiny Middle East Upstairs Monday night, playing an intense, focused 40-minute set.

I’m a believer.

However, their debut album, the archly titled New Wave, is not enough upon which to base that judgment. It’s a pleasant, hook-packed, acoustic-centered disc, but one that reminds you too much of Aztec Camera: smart ‘n’ sharp in words, but too light ‘n’ breezy in music.

It’s not that way in concert. There’s no mistaking the Auteurs’ edge, obsessive urgency or genuine rock ‘n’ roll kick. The Auteurs, a guitar-bass-drums trio augmented by cellist James Banbury on tour, made a big splash before a small crowd. Haines started the night with two solo acoustic songs, but then the band kicked in and mixed it up: Most everything was a jumble of the artsy, the poppy, the rocking, the crunchy and the bittersweet – somewhat like the live side of Matthew Sweet. There was guitar noise, but it wasn’t overplayed; melodicism and lyricism were the twin peaks.

“It’s a conscious thing, being melodic,” said Haines, after the set, reacting to the current glut of noise bands. “But I don’t think we play happy music. The songs remind me of kleptomania. And there’s a mean streak, I think.”

Indeed, in ‘Show Girl’, Haines has an upbeat, stop-and-start grabber about marrying a show girl (a trophy wife?), impressing her (with drugs and bowling?!), and being pleased to be in such complete control, asking (of the media?) “Don’t you recognize us?!” In the fractured, Robyn Hitchcock-ian ‘Housebreaker’, Haines ensnares his woman in his all-consuming web: “Your time is mine/What’s yours is mine – all mine.” In ‘Home Again’, Haines is an invited guest, but he’s still creepy. He’s alone in his girlfriend’s home, picking through her drawers, looking for clues to her past.

Haines also revealed an interest in the stars and the star-making machinery. Melancholy is not far from fascination.

“There is, perhaps, a voyeuristic streak in the music,” admitted Haines later. “These are songs written from observation. I slip in and out of them.” There are more than a few musings about the potential ups and downs of stardom.

But, of the difference between the softly stinging New Wave and the harder-rocking live band? “I like the way the record is,” said Haines. “But we can’t reproduce it live. When we’re good live, we’re 15 times better than the record. This gig was OK, a good set, but a little weird.” (The band fills 800-capacity clubs on its home turf.)

Trust me: the Auteurs’ US debut gig was at least 10 times better, and the album is not exactly a warthog. New Wave is an alluring soft stab from a band that possesses a much harder heart. Plus: Haines’ guitar leads kicked in, and Banbury’s cello undertows lent a brooding chamber-rock tint. It was both oblique and full-tilt.

© Jim SullivanThe Boston Globe, 14 April 1993

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