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Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    5
sound:    5
release year:    2007
label:    Domino
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageThough it’s just a small island, Great Britain has more than held its own with the United States in the battle for rock music supremacy, from the arrival of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in 1964 to the chart-busting success of Coldplay. And while Brits and Yanks have spent much of the last 40-some years largely in agreement on just what constitutes the right formula for rock genius, there are moments where fans in the U.S. strongly depart from their U.K. brethren. Sure, there’s nothing quite as baffling as the Germans’ love of David Hasselhoff, but the Britons undying (and, on these shores, largely unfathomable) adoration of Oasis and obsession with the Crazy Frog is nearly as befuddling. Even though they’ve been generally well received here, Arctic Monkeys are hardly regarded as they are in the United Kingdom, where the four high school friends are seen as nothing less than the present-and-future-saviors-of-modern-music. With Favourite Worst Nightmare, it becomes even harder to understand what all the fuss is about.

Joining a tradition stretching from the Kinks through the Jam and Pulp by writing from a distinctly British sensibility, the Sheffield quartet rode an almost unprecedented wave of hype to become the biggest British buzz band in recent memory. They were the true overnight success story, an outsider band that eschewed label support and used file-sharing and the Internet to build a word-of-mouth fan base that eventually made their debut the fastest-selling first album in British music history (and according to a NME reader poll, the “fifth greatest British album ever”). But since the hysteria didn’t cross the Atlantic, their spirited and defiant Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” didn’t sound too much different than the catchy and clever songs of other contemporary guitar-based British bands. To many American ears, they just sounded like another Brit-pop band.
Now, barely a year later, the lads have changed very little in their approach. Vocalist and guitarist Alex Turner still writes songs steeped in observational storytelling and dry wit, his nonchalant delivery still coloring his lyrics with understatement and ironic cool. The guitars still slash and drive, with one-note riffs carrying the hook in most songs. The drums still crash and swirl, placed monstrously loud in the mix. Taken as a whole, the songs sound remarkably similar to those on their debut, full of youthful energy and catchy hooks but with numerous moments where their lack of imagination results in a series of songs that fail to distinguish themselves from each other. Still, anyone who simply wanted more of what they were selling on their debut shouldn’t be disappointed.

Give them credit. Arctic Monkeys have needed little time to become an exceptionally tight, if not terribly ambitious, band. This time around, the guitar hooks are sharper, the arrangements are louder and more confident, and drummer Matt Helders has become a powerhouse behind the kit. Illustrating all of the above, the album kicks off with the massively lumbering groove of “Brianstorm,” with bratty guitar leads smothered in sizzling hi-hats and Turner’s arch descriptions of a misguided fashionista. Though his formula grows a bit tiresome, it’s obvious that Turner has an easy way with a melody, and his ability to marry simple guitar hooks to his unfussy vocal style makes the songs an easy sell, whether he’s maneuvering through the time changes and dire imagery of “Balaclava” or the breezy infidelities of “The Bad Thing.” Still, it’s Turner’s personality as a songwriter that drives the set.

Only 21 years old, his bitterness toward industry phonies and fakes of all stripes is both his most fascinating and most immature tendency. “Another variation on a theme/a tangle on the television and the magazine,” Turner croons over the swaggering guitar lines of “Teddy Pickler,” his rather silly assailing of the rock star dreams. “Do you reckon they make ‘em take an oath,” he muses, “that says ‘we are defenders of any professional or poseur around?’” That’s an unusual amount of antipathy toward the record industry for a band that hasn’t even been dropped from a major label, and his jaundiced ire confuses his personal mythology to the extent that it’s hard to know whether his assailant in “If You Were There, Beware” is some record exec who wishes to prey on his innocence or a female fan who expects too much of him.

Musically, the band takes few chances, though the ‘50s pop-turned-ska of “Fluorescent Adolescent” and the pop classicism of “Only Ones Who Know” rank as two notable developments, the latter offering Turner a chance to adopt his best jazz singer croon over dreamily dewy guitar chords. Best of all is the album-closing “505,” an organ-filled ballad of genuinely mature longing and conflicted lust. “I probably still adore you and your hand around my neck,” he sings before the song explodes into a chorus. “Or I did the last time I checked.” Still, though the album is long on energy, it’s comparably short on nuance, and Turner’s trend toward big picture dynamics threatens to dilute the eye for detail that made his writing interesting in the first place.

In the end, it’s easy to see how someone would like an album like Favourite Worst Nightmare; it’s just not apparent how someone would see genius in it. Without a doubt, the songs are catchy, the writing is imaginative, and the band interplay belies the fact that the young upstarts have only been playing together for five years. But Arctic Monkeys don’t get bonus points for being young, and Turner has some distance to go before he joins the company of Ray Davies or Elvis Costello. No doubt, Arctic Monkeys are a band worth keeping an eye on, but for every British critic who says they are the next stage in rock’s evolution, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

Again favoring dry, compressed textures that blend all the instruments into a solid wall of churning guitars, chugging drums and sly vocals, Favourite Worst Nightmare has few production bells and whistles. More than before, the textures are bright and clean, with everything in the mix turned up a few notches, but there aren’t many reasons to break out the headphones. As before, it sounds perfectly fine, but these songs will undoubtedly sound better barreling out of car speakers than in your living room.

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