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Got in over my head in an attempt to break the code of Badly Drawn Boys The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (X-L) and Stereophonics difficult third album Just Enough Education To Perform (V2). Rather than do the man thing of blustering ahead willy-nilly, I stopped to ask directions from some Real Live Britons: renowned music writer and Londoner Barney Hoskyns (even if you hate rock critics and are Yank-centric, youd do well as a thoughtful person to read his books on The Band and on LAs postwar music history: Across The Great Divide and Waiting For The Sun, respectively); and my boss, Richard Peel, unfortunate lover of cheesy metal and BritPop, who is both a layperson and an erstwhile classmate of Badly Drawn Boy/Damon Goughs at City of Leeds College of Music.
Im rather at sea with such releases b/c I spent the last decade ignoring the feeble whimpers of BritPop/BritRock and all that rave, electronica stuff Britpress mainstays Simon Reynolds and Ekow Eshun are so jazzed about. I aint a Spin mag groupieYep, Ive been cocooning in the velvet-mota Lair of the Black Crowes (the Stereophonics new labelmates) —- a place Kelly Jones and the Lads from Les Phonics seem quite content to frequent these days: see their new discs lead track Vegas Two Times and try to split hairs with me about how the tune differs from any vintage Crowes composition, beyond vocals (the title itself is pure Robinson). Back when the Stone Roses, Oasis, Manics, Blur were what Travis and the Phonics are in this moment, I didnt want to know. Those bands had recycled ideas, natty threads, the stray catchy riff and modish haircuts but no boogie, no sex, no groove. They were easy to ignore.
However, now that the Crowes are about to embark on a tour with a starship-load of attitude-y Limey brothers —- Oasis Gallaghers from Manchester, Spacehogs Langdons from Leeds —- and Ive strayed from The Boogie, I am taking a pause to look around at whats been happening on the rest of the pop planet. As an avowed Anglophile, it makes sense to begin with the Sceptered Isle. The Negress in me resists the spoils of Empire —- i.e. British Invasions in this case —- but the thinker in me is intrigued by the Brits, their arrogance and concept-driven (read up-front pop star presentation) band culture.
Unlike your perennial asshole critics at Rolling Stone who believe its their God-given right to tell the public what is Important in music and pop culture, I dont think that —- because I like to call myself a Rock Critic —- what I say or dont say about a record holds much weight. I do believe there is a difference between dispensing clever opinions that preach to the converted because one needs to aggrandize oneself, to maintain control over an imagined populace and really loving an album so much that youre losing sleep and sanity over it and you just got to tell somebody about its greatness so they can share the burden.
Of the two records discussed herein, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast is the one built to qualify as one you might obsess about over time, even if you argue its not quite on par with music the disc is carelessly compared to: Van Morrisons Astral Weeks, Nick Drakes Pink Moon, Tim Buckleys early work. This is not to say that Just Enough Education To Perform is without its pleasures; only, to this untrained ear, they are more ephemeral.
There is one reason I could get mad about a song like Stereophonics Mr. Writer. Despite the Britpress slagging of the single as lame and toothless, I feel I have fought the good fight in my gig. Thus, on G.P., why should I waste ink praising a band who, after a mere two records, is so smug that they feel its okay to slag the journalists who feather their nests? But what is more irritating is the notion that bands —- a bit cocky, a bit blessed and on the rise —- routinely have no better sense than to lump music-first-and-above-all fanatics like me in with hacks at major media outlets. No doubt most of you readers hate critics (or at least show them disdain) so it seems presumptuous to claim that the music press has any true bearing on a bands progress and prosperity, beyond manufacturing vacuous hype. The last year, the Year of Almost Famous and the Return of the Noise Boys, eulogized the Golden Era of Rockcrit when egos like Jon Landau held the whip-hand over bands and record labels I grew up in that period, so I believe critics should have a degree of autonomy. But I exist/work in a vastly changed rockbiz environment where the publicists and managers control access, so most of my generation of aspirants have been reduced to hacks. There are hacks aplenty across the Pond in Blighty, many of whom write for the weeklies New Music Express (and once, for the late, Melody Maker, now merged with the NME) and monthlies like Q, but they are considerably more empowered. Its not just down to distance. Ever read reviews in those publications and wondered how they got away with such denigration of artists and irreverence for scenes that garner much worshipful prose in the US? The aforementioned Simon Reynolds wrote about the BritPress powers in 1996 for Spin: But the Brit-press is happiest when it can cover stuff happening on its own doorstep, on a week-by-week basis. If a band is local, it’s so much easier to kickstart the hype-cycle that so appalls Americans: the group’s discovery at a live gig by a cub reporter (‘I have seen the future’), its endorsement by a more established writer, the granting of ‘Single of the Week’ honors, the pricking of major label A&R interest, the full-page debut album rave, the front cover, and so forth. So accelerated is the hype-cycle these days that stages are often skipped; buzz bands sometimes make the front cover before they’ve even released a record.
If you havent caught the Badly Drawn Boy bandwagon thus far, this may explain the start of the process by which he eventually comes to be touted as genius on these shores. Reynolds further comments underscore the wide appeal of a band like Stereophonics and their immediate predecessors:
After an initial anti-grunge backlash in ’93 (Suede’s defiantly Anglophile blend of glam Bowie and glum Morrissey), Britpop really got rollin’ in ’94. There was the neo-Merseybeat swagger of Oasis, Blur’s unexpected self-resurrection out of the ‘has been/never-was’ dumpster, and Pulp’s strange and wonderful ascent to cult popularity, after 15 years in the wilderness. In ’95, Britpop went into overdrive: Elastica, Supergrass, Bluetones, Cast, Gene, Shed Seven, Menswear, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
The Britpress will seize on any excuse for a fit of chest-swelling, tub-thumping jingoism. Britpop was ideal, since its aesthetic base—the mid-60s, filtered through its late ’70s echo, New Wave—had hitherto been strictly an indie style, and thus the province of the weeklies. At the same time, Britpop bands are overtly anti-experimental and pre-psychedelic; they combine a play-safe 1966-meets-1978, three minute pop aesthetic with a doctrine of stardom-at-all-costs, making them highly desirable to record companies and extremely radio-friendly. Because the bands it deals with now hit the charts, the prestige and morale of the Britpress has been boosted; for the first time in 15 years, people turn to them as tipsheets on future stars. For instance, this January a grubby little gang of sub-Oasis oiks called Northern Uproar appeared on MM’s cover one week, and on Top Of the Pops the next (TOTP being the UK’s premiere pop TV show, based around that week’s new chart entries). Furthermore, Britpoppers behave like pop stars; they make strenuous efforts to give good face and good quote, all of which makes the music papers’ job much easier.
Now, whether Im fond of Stereophonics or not —- and I am, for their clever resuscitation of mint rockist ideas only the Black Crowes have bothered to assay in recent times —- it cannot be denied that they wear the raiment of self-styled pop stars. This is a factor that makes the Phonics at least slightly more compelling to the jaded, as compared to the likes of Fred Durst who believes hes a star but is more hack-con man a la Master P.
Damon Gough is not a pop star. His very usage of a moniker, Badly Drawn Boy, points toward even more self-effacement than Yank melancholy hottie Elliot Smith (blessed with an equally prosaic name) but not the theatrical masks of a David Bowie. For all The Hours lugubrious air and brooding folk, there lurks a certain cleverness, artistic pretension and intellectualization, beginning with the Joseph Cornell-citing album art. BDB must actually be a point on the line between Smith and this moments most promising singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who also presents the listener with a very controlled, inner-universe, but counters the vibe of sonic solitude with flamboyance.
Barney Hoskyns, former US Correspondent for Mojo mag, told me this about BDB:
Englands search for post-Britpop heroes goes on. Following the Oasis implosion, everyones looking to the bedsit mavericks to save the day: Summer 2000 saw indie Britain wetting its knickers over 30-year-old Mancunian Damon Gough, self-styled Badly Drawn Boy. Believe the hype and the Boys first long-player is another Pet Sounds, another Pink Moon. But Goughs response to Britains Dadrock/Teenpap polarization (sound familiar?) is actually to fashion his dewy little tunes as homegrown addenda to the low American fidelities of Pavement and Sebadoh, Guided By Voices and Grandaddy.
Barney also believes BDB strives toward glimmers of artists from Burt Bachrach to stoner maniac Skip Spence but is not the British Beck as fans over there have asserted.
Its probably done BDB great disservice to be likened to critic darlings of yore. Still, there are undeniable flashes that cause the mind to conjure: Camping Next To Water rather sounds like early Big Star, a Chris Bell composition played backwards; Stone On The Water almost seems like a Love outtake (Forever Changes zone). On Another Pearl, BDB gets whiteboy funky. Harmonicas, French horns, cellos, spooky nickelodeon pump organ, sitars —- to him its all good. On the folkie-tip, he reminds me less of the obvious referent —- Richard Thompson —-than an obscurity like Vashti Bunyan. The instrumentals have the same odd optimism and essential Englishness that the suites on Nick Drakes Bryter Layter impressed upon me BDB could be Drake with muscle and no preciousness —- hes a robust version, masking his exuberance and decidedly un-Limey self-confidence behind nuggets of harmony and arresting chord changes embedded in a flow of cheeky melancholia. At turns, his verve and nerve remind me of Americas current greatest band, Marah, who, as natives of South Philly have chips on their shoulders (to rival those of generations of men from the North of England whose entire lives were bound by the Pits) and are a rag-tag lot who present their songs as gilded and vital as if they were sprung full-blown from the head of Zeus.
Back to dinosaurs: Gough might have made a better and more provocative producer/collaborator for Stevie Nicks latest release than the moribund Sheryl Crow. Nevertheless, this record most reminds of De La Souls 3 Feet High And Rising its as if theres a surfeit of creativity thats got to come out in spurts of tunes, swinging guitars, fragments and interludes.
So, I doubt BDB is our generations answer to Brian Wilson or even Van Dyke Parks such glory days will likely never be seen again for a roots purist like me, alienated by the ravages of digitization. The current generation may well someday recollect The Hour Of Bewilderbeast as their Sgt. Pepper, a cunning and knowing summation of tech and compositional advances made in recent years by the likes of Beck and Bjork and assorted hipster deejays. Parts of this disc do rather sound like what John Lennon might have been had he never graduated beyond Skiffle but somehow had his stuff remixed by the Dust Brothers or William Orbit or whoever Reynolds is ga-ga over today. What Richard Peel, who is certainly ga-ga over BDB and the Phonics equally, opined about his former classmate and the Lads: The Stereophonics are cut from the same socio-economic cloth as BDB (substitute South Wales for Northern England) and the sensibilities are essentially the same but the Stereos are much simpler and direct in their songwriting. Simple and direct, see. No arsing around, heres my song, three or four chords, a chorus you can sing on the terraces at footie (soccer, yall) games or in the pub. You know where you stand with these lads and that is certainly a part of their appeal. Its great sometimes to know just where the song is going to go and the chorus seems like youve heard it before. All part of the comfort zone that Brits seek out, hence it appeals to me. Not as a great piece of songwriting but its familiar and friendly
Richard then broke down the Phonics appeal from the white English working-class male perspective: Brits love their own (we practically invented xenophobia after all) and if stuff is familiar its much easier to share that with your mates rather than having to really listen to the music. As long as you can just shoot the shit with your mates and not have to delve too deeply into anything were happy. It also helps the listener that the guys on stage look like they just walked out of the local chippy and are going down to the park for a bit of a kickabout. The artists themselves are accessible, you know, just ordinary lads like. Again the comfort zone. You wont find them wearing designer labels, flash sunglasses, make up or fancy hair dos or schmoozing with rock glitterati. Theyd rather go down the pub with the lads (or at least thats what they want you to believe).
Whether newer artists are unashamed stars or genuine, arty types mining Dylans Guthrie-derived conscious bard thing, its no longer of much importance to me. I can hardly stand to listen to music anymore. Theres almost no room left to hear something new. But for the rest of you, here are two acts from The Motherland that are striving towards greatness (or at least renown) in a time of a lot of pop apathy and Dark Stuff.

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