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Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Dance, Monkey

I confess to having heard, thinking back, a few Arctic Monkeys songs before I knew they were Arctic Monkey songs, and I neither liked nor disliked them - they sound like another variant on the Bloc Party Kaiser Chiefs Franz Ferdinand 80s raiding party line of impossibly lanky stupidly haircutted bands. They all riff on Joy Division and early Cure and all the bands that were important to me when I was in my 20s, so I enjoy the songs as much for the pings they elicit in my memories as for the music itself, which I hasten to add can be quite good on occasion.

But when I'm told:
the hyperbolic wags have outdone themselves with the breathless buzz surrounding the Arctic Monkeys, an ascendant post-punk quartet that is, apparently, the greatest U.K. band since the Sex Pistols -- or at the very least, since the Stone Roses. Or Oasis. Or maybe the Verve or the Libertines.

Whatever. NME magazine recently declared the Monkeys' debut, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," the fifth-greatest British album ever . According to this heretical new NME math, the Monkeys are greater than the Beatles.

my instincts immediately shift to the suspicion that I'm being worked. The reviewer concedes The Arctic Monkeys aren't that good, but the album is:

brash and boisterous, (and)... crackles with unbridled adolescent energy -- so much so that it often sounds as though it's about to combust. It's the most exciting new album to have roared through my headphones since, well, the start of this year (whatever that's worth).

All Things Considered has an audio review broadcast Tuesday. They make much of the band being young and from Sheffield, a midlands city gone to decay with the decline of the British steel industry, claiming The AMs speak to British youth in ways their rivals do not. So here is a band hyped for both its music and its street credibility. That they are not, in fact, mannequin good-looking (like the ridiculously pretty The Strokes) also feeds the street cred. Here's a Guardian review that implies that The AMs' hype has a bit to do with the DIY/internet angle (much like CYHSY). Here's a Salon review of a live show.

I still neither like nor dislike the music enough to advocate anything more than trying it yourself, but I do find it interesting that a band making relatively similar and not distinctively (to me) superior music to a whole passel of bands working the same lineage is generating a press buzz aimed at superstarring the band. Almost every review I've read compares the AMs to the same bands and mentions their Sheffield background, which means that reviewers around the world are hearing some superlative quality in the music of The AMs that elevates their music above those bands to which they're compared, but also means that the fact that the AMs come from an urban-poor economic background somehow more deeply authenticates their sound. My guess, and it's a guess only, is that the latter has more oomph, if for no other reason than it grants weight to the genre as a whole - it's not a bunch of upper-middle class college kids playing at angst and anger. The DIY angle serves to demonstrate that the AMs aren't a prepackaged band produced to mimic a sound record companies think will sell.

All of which to say, I am predisposed to distrust the hype, often at the band's music's expense. The emphasis on the reviews of the AMs is not on the music but on the band. I wonder if Bloc Party had been from the crumbling Sheffield and its members promoted as angry sons of laid-off steelworkers seeking meaning in post-industrial Britain their music would be just as praised. I'm not saying The AMs' music is not good - it leaves me relatively indifferent, but that's taste. And I acknowledge, even pride myself, that this type of hype - "the fifth greatest British album ever(?)" - makes me suspicious. I acknowledge that I'm petty enough to resent being told to love this album or else. I wonder if there are as many people who can't judge The AMs' music fairly because they've bought the hype as there are people like me who can't judge The AMs' fairly because they won't.

* * * * *
Have another High Violets song. I like this one I posted earlier much better, but....