Pictured: The High Llamas and Mojave3.
As scattered and varied as the current U.S. music scene is, it is apparently more unified than what is coming out of the U.K. From the lush and lurid music of Tindersticks to the vintage voltage of The Darkness to a wave of Beach Boys-inspired bands such as The High Llamas and The Thrills, British pop is going through an identity crisis, and we are fortunate to reap the rewards.
'My hands round your throat/If I kill you now, they'll never know,' is the way that the album Waiting For The Moon (Beggars Group), by Tindersticks, opens on the deceptively soothing 'Until The Morning Comes.' Strings and keyboards dominate, although Tindersticks start a fire on 'Trying To Find A Home,' by doing a Velvet Underground impression that shoots sparks. The duet, 'Sometimes It Hurts,' is so beautiful that it almost hurts and the harmonica and banjo sway of 'Just A Dog' is downright country.
If a British band could be considered the critics' darlings of 2003, it would have to be British Sea Power. With references to 'the most attractive man' on 'Men Together Today,' one might detect a touch of homo-eroticism on the first track of The Decline Of British Sea Power (Rough Trade), an album that is as exciting as it is terrifying. Such intensity has been hard to come by of late and it is refreshing. Punk meets post-punk at the garage door and refuses to move aside. The organ on 'Favours In The Beetroot Fields' purrs like a satisfied cat and the drum beat on 'Fear Of Drowning' conjures Joy Division. 'Blackout' has a dim radiance and 'Childhood Memories' is unexpectedly accessible.
Some of the aggressive punk rock kick of British Sea Power can also be heard on Cedars (Domino) by Clearlake. However, after getting off to a booming start with 'Almost The Same,' Clearlake takes a more lustrous approach, recalling Brit pop predecessors such as the Beatles ('Wonder If The Snow Will Settle'), the Rolling Stones ('Can't Feel A Thing'), while also attempting to define and discover its own distinctive style on songs such as 'I'd Like To Hurt You,' 'Come Into The Darkness,' 'Treat Yourself With Kindness,' and 'Trees In The City.'
As warm and sun-dappled as its previous releases, Spoon And Rafter (4AD/Beggars Group) by Mojave 3 is a musical oasis. Slide guitars and dreamy vocals are no mirage on this disc, but a source of radiant power. The near-epic 'Blue Bird Of Happiness' by the glittering 'Starlight No. 1,' the up-tempo 'Billy Oddity,' the lulling 'She's All Up Above,' and the gentle country crooning of 'Too Many Mornings' and 'Between The Bars,' might have you convinced (or fooled) that this British band had relocated to Tucson, Arizona, or some such place.
If Mojave 3's music recalls the desert of the Southwest, then The Thrills (from Ireland) and The High Llamas (from England) practically declare 'surf's up' with their brand of Southern California beach music. On their debut So Much For The City (Virgin), The Thrills thrill us with their sunny tunes, such as 'Santa Cruz (You're Not That Far),' 'Big Sur,' 'Don't Steal Our Sun,' 'One Horse Town,' 'Say It Ain't So,' and 'Your Love Is Like Las Vegas,' that revisit the days of beach blankets, bongos and boogie boards, with a 21st-century mindset.
The Thrills are relative newcomers in comparison to The High Llamas, who released their first album more than 10 years ago. Owing as much to The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, as they do to Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman and Burt Bacharach, The High Llamas new album Beet, Maize & Corn (Drag City) is blooming with the kind of achingly gorgeous music that simply makes bad days better. Strings, horns and soothing vocals conspire to comfort the listener on tracks such as 'Barny Mix,' 'Calloway,' the Asian-spiced 'The Click And The Fizz,' the verdant 'Leaf And Lime,' and the ethereal 'Rotary Hop.'
Chumbawamba has lost none of its political edge over the nearly 20 years of its existence, even after having a major hit single in 1997 with the song 'Tubthumping.' The aforementioned song makes a return appearance on the domestic reissue of Readymades and Then Some (Koch/Mutt). A bonus DVD (qualifying for the 'and then some' portion) includes a 'Tubthumping' remix by The Flaming Lips and Dave Fridmann, as well as three remixes of 'Salt Fare, North Sea' and snippets from the Chumbawamba doc Well Done, Now Sod Off. With quotes in the CD booklet from Ani DiFranco, Langston Hughes, and Jean Arp, to name a few, Chumbawamba also attempts to use its art, via songs such as 'Jacob's Ladder,' 'All In Vain,' 'Don't Try This At Home,' and 'Sewing Up Crap,' as a means to broaden the listener's awareness of the world around them.
Black Box Recorder is one of the best British bands that you've probably never heard of. After three wonderful albums on tiny domestic indie label Jetset Black Box Recorder's new album Passionoia (One Little Indian) sounds just as cool (aloof, moody) as their previous releases, but it's probably too cool (cutting edge, clever) for corporate-controlled (shame on your cloudy practices, Clear Channel) radio. Reminiscent of Saint Etienne in the way they blend dramatic and wispy female vocals, courtesy of Sarah Nixey, with boogie-down beats, Black Box Recorder goes from rah-rah ('The School Song') to raw ('The New Diana,' 'Andrew Ridgely,' 'Girls Guide For The Modern Diva') in no time. And if you feel the need to dance, you may do so to 'Being Number One' and 'These Are The Things.'
For the most part, Spiritualized has chosen to bury its cacophonous jam sessions towards the middle or the end of previous albums, but on Amazing Grace (Spaceman/Sanctuary), they waste no time in letting the bluesy rock jams slice through on songs such as 'This Little Life Of Mine' and 'She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like A Hit).' Therefore, more atmospheric songs such as 'Oh Baby,' the gospelized 'Lord Let It Rain On Me,' the Pink Floyd-like 'The Ballad Of Richie Lee,' and 'Lay It Down Slow,' have to share space with more aggressive numbers such as 'Never Goin' Back' and 'Cheapster.'
Rock is back with a vengeance, and wearing a zebra-striped, Lycra unitard on Permission To Land (Atlantic) by The Darkness. Lead singer Justin Hawkins possesses a falsetto that sounds like a cross between Jimmy Somerville and the late Klaus Nomi, and is not afraid to use it on song such as 'Black Shuck,' 'Get Your Hands Off My Woman,' 'I Believe In A Thing Called Love,' and 'Givin' Up,' to name a few. A full-fledged potty mouth, Hawkins uses the F-word in one form or another in at least three songs, which makes his rocker pose, part Freddie Mercury, part Steven Tyler, all the more convincing.
Don't forget about other worthwhile releases including Live 2003 (Capitol) by current Brit superstars Coldplay, Hai (Instinct) by The Creatures (a.k.a. Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie, of Siouxsie & The Banshees), who are joined by Taiko drummer Leonard Eto, and Britain to U.S. transplants Minibar, whose new album is Fly Below The Radar (Foodchain). Also remember the CDs by British Isles neighbors such as Universal Hall (Minty Fresh) by The Waterboys, The Remote Part by Idlewild, Us (XL/Blanco Y Negro/Beggars Group) by Mull Historical Society.