I, Jonathan

Washington City Paper | May 26, 2006
Art Brut’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll has been bouncing around British record-store racks—and a few top-10 lists—for a while now, too. Like Field Music, it’s just now seeing the light of day on this side of the Atlantic. And like Whatever People Say, it’s gotten rapturous press—and a fair amount of hype, too. So how’s Bang Bang Rock & Roll different? Funnily enough, it’s all in the mythologizing.

Or maybe in the demythologizing. Kickoff cut “Formed a Band” is infectious and hilarious, with spastic frontman Eddie Argos chanting catch-phrase non sequiturs over a muscular Stooges strut. “And yes, this is my singing voice,” he offers, apropos of absolutely nothing. “It’s not irony.” Later, just before the track winds down, Argos waxes mysterious: “Dye your hair black,” he advises. “Never look back/My past is my business.” The chorus—“Formed a band/We formed a band/Look at us/We formed a band!”—is totally smart, totally stoopid, or both.

Elsewhere, on a succession of tracks that are as anthemic as they’re heavily accented, Argos & Co. reveal not only why people make rock ’n’ roll but also why they listen to it at home (according to “My Little Brother”: “He made me a tape of bootlegs and B-sides/And every song/...[S]aid exactly the same thing/Why don’t our parents worry about us?”), why they watch it in clubs (according to “Bad Weekend”: “[T]here’s no reason for staying in/There’s nothing on the television”), and why the genre is completely bankrupt (according to the title track: “I can’t stand the sound of the Velvet Underground/...I can’t stand that sound/The second time around”). All the while, naturally, the band turns in the kind of taut, breathless cacophony that restores your faith in rock ’n’ roll.

Just to prove he thinks about other stuff, too, on “Emily Kane,” a bouncy, jangly number that sits pertly next to the rawer stuff, Argos pens a mash note to the girlfriend he had at 15—and with whom he’s still obsessed. “If memory serves, we’re still on a break,” he points out before crunching the numbers: “I’ve not seen her in 10 years, 9 months, 3 weeks, 4 days, 6 hours, 13 minutes, five seconds.” On “Moving to L.A.,” he conspires to evade rainy English weather by getting himself “deported” to the United States. Jokingly, but still thrillingly, the band indulges in Beach Boys–y harmonies on the chorus.

But it’s on the slurred and Fall-like “Modern Art” that Argos nearly gives the game away, name-dropping the Tate Gallery, the Pompidou Center—“That’s in Paris”—and David Hockney before remembering that he’s supposed to be a primitive (ergo the “Brut”): “I see a piece by Matisse.../I take five steps back/I put my head down and I run at it.” “Modern art,” you see, makes Argos “want to rock out.” In the very next song, Argos gets himself a “brand new girlfriend”—what Jonathan Richman suggested could transform his own sung-spoken experience of looking at modern art back on the Modern Lovers’ first album, an obvious hate rock ’n’ roll/love rock ’n’ roll precursor.

Bang Bang Rock & Roll might not be as good as that record, but it’s still a terrific one. It’s an ingenious one, too, which ultimately may be the band’s undoing. After all, if listeners perceive Argos’ act as schtick—or, worse, as performance art—his rock ’n’ roll cover will be blown to smithereens. Mum’s the word, OK?

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