Art Brut Vs Satan
By Calum Marsh | 11 May 2009
Bang Bang Rock N Roll (2004) was not a concept album because Art Brut are a concept band. They are not a joke band, but a band that works almost exclusively with jokes; simply and simplistically conceptual, self-aware and self-mocking, spouting catchy one-liners with an affected accent and Pink Flag (1977) guitars. But comedy, concept, and shtick don’t benefit longevity, which is why Bang Bang wore thin and why its follow-up, It’s A Bit Complicated (2007), came and went with little fanfare. That the record was as solid as their debut but with half the interest and acclaim indicated pretty clearly that the joke wasn’t funny the second time around.
And so Art Brut return to reassert their continued relevance—or perhaps to simply remind us that they still exist and that we should maybe care—with Art Brut Vs Satan. Sullied by pedestrian competence and a continued reliance on band-defining gimmickry, Vs Satan feels too phoned in to get excited about. This is Art Brut playing it safe, sticking to a formula too superficially conceptual to still be fresh the third time around. Vs Satan isn’t exactly a bad record—the band’s usual verve and cockney charm make these thoroughly enjoyable summer BBQ jams, and those aforementioned one-liner proclivities make cursory listens worth it for the laughs—but its goodness is middling and strictly transient, a passing fancy to be used up and discarded. Fitting, then, that so many of these songs should be about getting drunk and getting high and getting laid, its form matching content so acutely in this regard that Art Brut’s ultimate meta-gesture seems to be the one they probably least intended, the one that posits fleeting pleasure and a fundamental absence of substance as both point and package. It’s not irony, it’s rock n’ roll!
Lead single and album opener “Alcoholics Unanimous” chugs along as you might expect, its singalong chorus less anthemic than predecessors “Formed A Band” and “Modern Art.” Argos belts like he means it, but this quickly begins to grate: his exaggerated talk-sing once had justification (“Formed A Band”‘s early “line” “Yes, this is my singing voice”) befitting of the band’s joke appeal, but at this point that distinctiveness is just one more quirky convention Art Brut have run straight into the ground. “DC Comics And Chocolate Milkshake” fairs better, its goofy I-refuse-to-grow-up! sentiment contrasting favorably with the former track’s Bukowski-style booze guffaw. Argos’s characters are often endearing, like his crush-obsessive in “Emily Kane” or the guy thrilled to see his new girlfriend naked (“Twice!”) in “Good Weekend,” and that sweetness is considerably easier to get behind than his romanticized party-hards. But the record’s best track, and the only track which transcends mediocrity to stand tall on its own, is the lo-fi-slamming “Slap Dash For No Cash.” As I’ve echoed earlier in my track review, the track balances a fine (and humorous) line between gentle ribbing and surprisingly considered technique. When Argos asserts that he wants “to hear his friends hanging around” or “his parents telling him to turn it down” because “those are the records [he] like[s],” it’s worth a smirk and a nod of approval, particularly given the recent new-Wavve of shitgaze.
In what might well have been a move toward further legitimization or co-opted indie cred, Art Brut have employed the production talents of Frank Black. As a result Vs Satan is their best sounding record, but one wonders if Black couldn’t have been put to better use were his creative juices given room to flow more freely. That Vs Satan sounds so unambiguously like just another Art Brut album despite their choice of producer is cause enough for disappointment. Songs like “Demons Out!,” a fairly rote rock anthem built up to an enormous ending refrain, and “The Replacements,” which does what it can to mimic the title band’s trademark style, stress the real issue here: these are unexceptional songs, no matter how competently produced they may be. Frank Black doing a perfectly fine job producing totally average Art Brut material can’t help but inspire a resounding “meh,” a minor pleasantry worth neither cheers nor jeers but maybe a little shoulder-shrug and a smile.