Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Arctic Monkeys - Don't Believe The Backlash

Two things to get clear before we start. One: I'm not usually the type to go all gooey over bands proclaimed to be the Next Big Thing. I really don't see the point of Bloc Party, for example. Show me any number of Test Icicles, Forward Russia or The Kooks, and my reaction is likely to be something like "Yes yes, now run along sonny." That, and "Shouldn't you be in school?"

Two: I think Arctic Monkeys are fantastic. Their album, "Whatever People Think I Am, That's What I'm Not" (Domino) has camped out in my CD player, and snarls furiously at any CD that tries to usurp it. Full of Pop Hooks and fuzz-guitar theatrics, riddled with huge choruses and bags of attitude. It not only boasts wonderful lyrics (is there a better line in recent memory than "His bird thinks they're amazing though so all that's left, is the truth that love's not only blind but deaf"?) but each track is actually about something, a little potted summary of subjects like Love, lust, prostitutes, insincere bands, bouncers and moody girlfriends.

It's not perfect - there are probably one too many breakneck shout-alongs, and occasionally the lyrics are clever-clever rather than clever. But these are minor quibbles, and what's to complain about when they round things off with "A Certain Romance" - rollicking Zeppelin intro falling away to a lilting ska, describing all the things wrong with society and gently railing against them. Witty, exhilarating and yes, romantic, it's the closest the Arctic Monkeys come to genius.

So having established these things, you understand why I worry about this band, for make no mistake there will be a backlash. No band can hope to live up to the hype they're generating at the moment. As an example, last week NME voted this album the fifth best British Album of all time. That's "Of All Time". When the record had been out for three days. The same issue compared them favourably to The Clash, Oasis and The Stone Roses. Plus now that they're a bona fide success, people are likely to feel that they no longer need to be championed, and the easily-bored music fans like us will go off in search of the next Next Big Thing, be it The Young Knives, The Fratellis or whatever.

Arctic Monkeys seem to be brilliant. They're not original - these are old tricks but they're done very very well, and with a fresh twist. They may go on to be legendary, and their debut may come to be regarded as a classic. It's so hard to tell this close to all the hype. Remember how lauded Be Here Now was to begin with? Let's give it time.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

In Praise Of Corporate Back-Slapping

It's an odd thing, this: at the end of the year, the press (and many blogs like this one) spend ages deciding which music was the best. But it seems that a plaudit isn't worth anything until it's scrawled on the side of a tacky plastic bauble, and so the definitive "best of 2005" is decided at two award shows in February: The Brits and The NME Awards.

The Brit Awards is an industry celebration, rewarding those that have made the industry the most money in the last year. It's not a celebration of new talent, it's more like an AGM. I don't mean this in a derogatory way, I just mean we should take it for what it is, and accept that James Blunt and Katie Melua are just as likely to win as Kaiser Chiefs or Gorillaz. Anyway, it's not like anyone really remembers the winners. In 1998 the Best British Male and Female were that world-beating duo, Finlay Quaye and Shola Ama. Sonique won one in 2001. Go on, try to remember one of her songs. Even perennial underachievers Travis have won three, for Christ's sake.

But the awards are always worth watching just in case something kicks off. You don't need me to remind you of what can happen when rock stars meet free booze on live TV (for an account of the Brits' best disasters, see here). There's also the odd wild card award - like when impossibly fey indie-poppers Belle and Sebastian beat Steps to Best Newcomer, or when Grump-rock obscurities Eels won the international equivalent. It's those instances, when indie cool collides head-on with light entertainment on prime time ITV, that have you cheering at your screens.

The NME awards were initially set up as an alternative to the Brits. The Brats, as they were then known, were literally a one-fingered salute to a record industry that constantly rewarded Robbie Williams and Annie Lennox. These days, however, a look at their nominations reveals little difference between the two. This partly reflects the healthy state of guitar-based rock in today's "scene" (man), as well as the self-conscious "cooling-up" of the Brits. The presence of Babyshambles in the nominations also gives away the fact that these are voted for by the NME readers, and so are subject to fanaticism. Plus, the NME awards will only ever be shown on niche digital channels or at the very most, Channel 4 after midnight. It's difficult to get excited about a specialist music mag celebrating its own.

But if choosing between the two, it really comes down to this: who would you most like to see lose an award - James Blunt or Bloc Party? The Brits may be corporate entertainment, but with a bottle of wine and a few vocal personalities, it's a great evening's viewing.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Will The Insecure Publicity Whore Please Come To The Diary Room?

Well, it couldn't last. There was a brief time, just after Christmas, when it seemed our airwaves were unsullied by reality shows. Then Celebrity Big Brother comes along and tramps muddy footprints all over our nice clean media hallway like a big filthy dog.

Chillingly, the makers of Celebrity Big Brother have gradually honed the programme so that the nastier elements are brought to the fore. They looked at the bits that people really remembered - the horribly public breakdown of Vanessa Feltz and Les Dennis - and said, "Now that's what we need more of." So they select a range of public figures as close to the edge as possible. Hence we get Michael Barrymore nervously eyeing the swimming pool, Jodie "damaged goods" Marsh lashing out at anyone within range, desperate attention-cravers like Pete "gorilla suit" Burns, and George Galloway just in time for a truly bizarre mid-life crisis. Put them all in close proximity, add some ritual humiliation and see who becomes the gibbering, whimpering husk first. Psychological cockfighting, that's what it is. Might as well poke them with sticks.

The trouble is, not all of the potential train wrecks on the list are available, so in order to make up the numbers the tabloids are trawled for Z-listers with time on their hands. Used to be one of the less memorable Baywatch Babes? Come on in! Singer in a third-division indie band? Why not! Ex-wife of seventies cop show actor? Where's her number? Actually, the genius bit this year is Chantelle, the non-celebrity. With such non-entities in the house, clearly nobody in there has heard of each other. She has to convince the others she's famous - which is, of course, exactly what all the others will be doing. Brilliant. It's as if the show is satirising itself.

It's compulsive viewing: compulsive in the sense that washing your hands till you bleed is compulsive. Watching it certainly isn't an enjoyable experience, you know you'll regret it, but you just can't help yourself. Because it encompasses all that is deplorable in the human condition, and you just hate yourself for enjoying it. You feel you'll never get clean again.

And you know that ultimately, the world will be a poorer place for it. The ropey second Ordinary Boys album will sell more copies than it deserves to. Chantelle will become an actual star, proving TV eats itself in the end. And as the taste envelope is pushed in pursuit of enthralling a public which is increasingly harder to shock, the stars they choose will get ever more contoroversial. Next year: Gary Glitter?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Oh Alright Then - The Best Music of 2005 (and potentials of 2006)

The only point in these end-of-year best-of top ten lists really is to highlight some albums and artists that may have passed you by in the last twelve months. You will already know that albums by Franz Ferdinand, Gorillaz, Hard-Fi and Kaiser Chiefs are great; their precise order of merit is irrelevant. You may even have ventured toward albums by Editors, Elbow and Super Furry Animals from The Distractor's recommendations - and well done you if you did. And finally you could do a lot worse than seek out albums by Jose Gonzalez, Brendan Benson and Hot Hot Heat. There you go, there's ten.

But once the calendar clicks round to new year The Distractor likes to look forward rather than look back, and its hunger for things new and exciting becomes insatiable. So what do we have to look forward to? Well, it's make or break time for the Arctic Monkeys - you worry that they've given themselves too much to live up to. Also worrying is the news that The Streets' new album is to be a treatise on the "realities of the music business" - uh-oh - and that Scissor Sisters are "out to prove that they're no novelty band" - thereby completely missing the point of why people liked them in the first place. Hopefully Snow Patrol will be able to resist the temptation to do an album full of songs like "Run" - they're so much more than mere Coldplay copyists. Also imminent is the return of Radiohead - lord, please don't be shit - and the new Pet Shop Boys album is being talked up by the always readable and usually reliable Popjustice.

And what of the exciting new bands? Who is lined up to be the next medium-sized thing? Well, the good folk at Take Your Medicine are banging on about a couple, and that's usually reason enough to check them out - The Bridge Gang and Bromheads Jacket. Karma Download's tips for 2006 are worth seeing, but the pick of them for me is The Sunshine Underground - like The Music, only with tunes. You already know of The Pipettes - and the sneaking power-pop fan in me can't help but blurt out a love for Orson and The Feeling.

So 2005 - not as bad as all that, and plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic for the new year. Hopefully there'll be some musical atrocities too, otherwise we'll have nothing much to write about.