Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
By Matt Stephens | 9 February 2006
The British rock press is a truly magnificent beast. While serious music journalism on this side of the Atlantic has been relegated to complacent and irrelevant corporate print mags (whose names surely need no mention) and independent, largely volunteer-based webzines such as the one you’re reading now, the hype machine in the U.K. (spearheaded, of course, by the NME juggernaut) seems to remain massively influential no matter how questionable their frenzied endorsements become. It’s caused no small bemusement to North American rock fans such as myself that the folks who once, with utter sincerity, praised The Vines’ Highly Evolved as one of the great debuts of all time can still hold so much sway over the tastes of their readership. It’s so excitable and reactionary that it might as well be run by a thirteen year-old kid, if only that kid had the shrewd marketing prowess of Karl Rove.
The latest benefactors of NME’s never-ending hype orgy are Sheffield’s unfortunately-named Arctic Monkeys, a feisty bunch of teenaged Anglo-punks who have, in a few short months, risen from complete obscurity to sell a record-breaking number of copies of this, their personable and very promising debut album. While the exasperated reaction from NME’s highly ridiculous scribes (recently listing it at #5 on this month’s “best albums ever!!!!!!” list, or something completely fucking stupid like that) is bound to turn more than a few indie kids off, those who give it a proper chance will find one of the more catchy and personable British trad rock albums in recent memory.
I know I’ve documented my scorn for the resurgence of redundant British post-punk pretty well here on CMG, and at first glance, the Monkeys might seem to be yet another clone on the post-Libertines assembly line. To be sure, the lads bring very little new to the table: the familiar jagged guitars, heavily accented vocals, and songs about chasing birds and running from the police are present here in full force. But 19 year-old songwriter Alex Turner infuses these clichés with a soulful wit that so many of his peers glaze over. His songs tell coherent stories, which, despite their decidedly limited subject matter, demonstrate a depth of insight impressive for a guy his age. Take “When the Sun Goes Down,” a vivid tale of a run-in with a call girl:
“Bet she’s delighted when she sees him /
Pulling in and giving her the eye /
Because she must be fucking freezing /
scantily clad beneath the clear night sky /
It doesn’t stop in the winter, no /
Just as engaging are “Red Lights Indicate Doors Are Secure” and “Dancing Shoes,” as sharply written songs about late-night downtown hedonism as I’ve heard for some time. “Still Take You Home” revels in tense Costelloesque misogyny, with the cocksure Turner picking a girl apart in the verses before insisting “but I’ll still take you home” at the chorus. He even writes an impressive “forgive me” song in “Mardy Bum,” despite its marked similarity to Mike Skinner’s “Too Late,” and vents his rage at the shallowness of the music industry in the fortunately unembarassing closer “A Certain Romance.”
But just as crucially, the Monkeys bring the rawk, and they do so a little more heavily than their contemporaries. Opener “The View From the Afternoon” charges in with thunderous urgency and doesn’t let up, and its wisely followed up by the irresistible and ubiquitous single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” While this record is bound to inspire as much spastic dance convulsions as Franz Ferdinand, it invites just as much headbanging—and unlike those charming Glaswegians, when they turn down the tempo, as they do on “Riot Van,” it inspires grins rather than chuckles.
So, to be sure, the Arctic Monkeys aren’t worth all of the giddy hyperbole they’ve received in recent months, but Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is still as fun and crafty a debut as you’re likely to hear this year, one that kicks as much ass on your way to work as it does at a party or while you’re puttering around the house. In its lean 41 minutes, it gives us a baker’s dozen of highly detailed and distinctively English tales, all set to some of the catchiest music of its ilk. They may not break any new ground, but I could think of a lot worse bands to set the world on fire in 2006 than Arctic Monkeys.