The Charlatans UK

Simpatico

(Sanctuary; 2006)

By David M. Goldstein | 11 May 2006

Julie Christie, the rumors are true: the Charlatans UK have gone reggae. Originally baggy also rans who gradually morphed into an ongoing tribute to the Rolling Stones (circa '72), frontman Tim Burgess has been repeatedly telling the British press how much time he spent listening to Sandanista! last year, and it shows.

Too bad most of those critics have also utilized the ghastly phrase "UB-40 tribute band" before ripping Simpatico to shreds. No surprise there that the Brits love their hyperbole, but I feel safe in saying that Simpatico is hardly that bad. Its myriad dub-influenced riddims aren't such a significant departure from the baggy dance-pop that the Charlies originally made their name on, and Tim Burgess's reedy, eternally boyish vocals keep Simpatico from sounding like the work of any other band. Regardless, most of the attempts here at reggae suffer not because these guys are incapable of skank, but rather from a seeming lack of conviction. They're all very workmanlike and pleasant, with the requisite dub-bass work and the kick drum hitting on the two, but too often it sounds like the band is doing the bare minimum to get these songs across, when they really should be getting freaky.

When the Charlatans use roughly half of Simpatico to ditch the reggae inflections in favor of sounding like themselves, things pick up considerably. Opener and first single "Blackened Blue Eyes" is a bit of a red herring because with its sinister piano riff exploding into seedy wah-wah guitar stabs and a driving back beat, it sounds like little else on the record. It's a vintage Charlies track that would've sounded swell on 2001's groove-heavy Wonderland. Elsewhere, "Dead Man's Eye" is a repetitive, yet convincing slice of trad-rock that benefits from Burgess's enthusiasm and a dynamic start-stop riff, and "When the Lights Go Out in London" is a gradually rousing anthem (supposedly about the London bombings) that improves with repeated listens. But Simpatico's unquestionable tour de force would have to be the Bright Lights, Big City grandeur of "NYC (There's No Need to Stop)," arguably the silliest song of the Charlatans' entire career (no small feat that), and therefore unbelievably fun. "NYC" finds the Charlies continuing their time honored tradition of blatantly ripping off the Stones (this time, "Undercover of Night") replete with Burgess rapping about all those things that make Gotham City bitchin', like staying up way late and taking in "peep shows" with a gonzo chorus of "New York! Say what?!" A celebration that no native New Yorker would ever sing, it will still sound incredible at Shea Stadium should the Mets make a pennant run this year.

And its unfortunate that very little of the unbridled enthusiasm exhibited in "NYC" was able to penetrate the reggae tracks. "City of the Dead," "Muddy Ground," and "Road to Paradise" are all entry level riddims that'll sound fine as background music to your poolside barbeque, but good luck telling any of them apart. "The Architect" fares a bit better on account of a spooky theremin line, icy electric piano, and a lithe bassline containing more pop than those which precede it, but its still more Matisyahu than Lee Perry. My copy of Simpatico came packaged with a promo CD containing the B-sides from the British release of "Blackened Blue Eyes," and it's suspect that "Cry, Cry, Cry" is a stankier slice of reggae than anything that actually made the final cut.

And so it goes for any band on their ninth studio album that isn't named the Beatles or Rolling Stones. Those already on the Charlatans bandwagon will likely enjoy enough of Simpatico to warrant its purchase, but there's no questioning that's its one of their weaker efforts. The reggae excursions are not so much embarrassing as they are simply uninspired, and its difficult to accept mediocrity from the same band responsible for utter Brit-pop classics like "One to Another" and "North Country Boy"; both of which spring from 1997's career highpoint Telling Stories. Newbies would be advised to start there.