The Atlantic Divide
Another year, another wave of quirky British bands pouring into the States. It's got all the makings of a new British Invasion. Well, except for one thing: the invasion. For every Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand that succeeds in North America, there are dozens more that barely make it across the pond -- and dozens of critics ready to lump 'em all into the same "art-rock" or "new-wave revival" category. The thing is, many of these bands come from a different lineage, one that started at the end of the '70s, when groups like the Jam, the Specials and Squeeze were deciding what to do after punk -- but without forgetting it. There are plenty of new bands with this same attitude -- that post-punk doesn't have to be mopey and melodramatic. And they've got the same problem too: an American audience far smaller than they deserve.
1. Ordinary Boys: Three albums into their career, the boys from Worthing have become a household name in England -- literally. Frontman Sam Preston's a bona fide TV personality, starring on the 2006 season of Celebrity Big Brother. On this side of the Atlantic, though, the Boys have barely got a foot in the door, and damn it, it's just not fair. The band's 2006 offering, How to Get Everything You Ever Wanted in Ten Easy Steps, shows that its sound has evolved from a straight-up Specials/Smiths/Jam mix to one that's more forward-thinking and experimental. Yes, that does involve electronics. But the Boys' use of blips and bleeps is more of an added flavor than a primary ingredient. And Prestons' lyrics are as whip-smart and chastising as ever, calling out the usual cultural suspects (fame, the music industry, etc.) while not getting too serious ("Ballad of an Unrequited Self-Love Affair").
2. Maxïmo Park: On their 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, these four blokes from Newcastle established themselves as the band to watch . . .in England, of course. That's why they can get away with releasing an "extras" album so early in their career. 2006's Missing Songs is just that: a collection of B-sides and demo versions of songs from Trigger. Whereas the Ordinary Boys built their foundation on ska-driven beats, Maxímo Park have more eggs in the new-wave basket. And by new wave, we mean XTC, not A Flock of Seagulls. Though Maxímo Park has the danceable tunes to please the Franz/Bloc Party crowd, its style is vibrant, pop-minded and, at times, punk. There's no reason Maxímo Park shouldn't be next year's big import. Besides, we Americans love bands with umlauts in their name.
Year in Review
3. The Holloways: Having formed in 2004 and with one album under their belt, these North Londoners are still new kids on the post-punk block. But you'd never know it, judging by the stellar songwriting and sharp lyricism on said debut album, So This Is Great Britain? With two-part harmonies and a heavy dose of ska and '60s pop, the Holloways are one of the few English bands that serve their songs sunny side up. That's not to say they're at all sugarcoated -- far from it. The album opens with the title track, which shows the "land of hope and glory" in a none-too-rosy light, concluding that "we're all just a bunch of slaves." But they're slaves with good taste.
4. The Pipettes: If it weren't for the occasionally randy lyrical matter, you'd swear the Pipettes' debut album, We Are the Pipettes, was written forty years ago. Sounding (and looking) like a Phil Spector wet dream, the three birds who front this polka-dotted pop group do their damnedest to make London swinging again. Backed by a band of dudes (known as the Cassettes), the Pipettes aren't post anything, just pure retro ...and a nice break from the norm. You'll find no synthesizers here, just loads of strings, horns, and beats bigger than that hairdo Spector sported at his murder trial.
5. The Rifles: For all the bands that want to relive 1984, the Rifles are right there with 'em, though they're just as interested in 1964. And on their debut album, No Love Lost, they occasionally have it both ways. While the band's contemporary indie-pop influences weigh the heaviest, songs like "Robin Hood" sound like a Merseybeat band after spending a year in modern-day England -- upbeat, tightly wound pop played with uncanny neatness. Still, it's songs like "Local Boy" -- which falls somewhere between the Cure and the Newtown Neurotics -- that populate most of the album and make the Rifles worth seeking out.
6. Little Man Tate: Not to be confused with the long-haired Californian solo act of the same name (or the 1991 Jodie Foster flick, for that matter), Sheffield's Little Man Tate knows where the party is. And according to the anthemic, Blur-like "House Party at Boothy's," it's one that's likely to catch on. This is one band that's heavy on the pop but just as full of smart (and occasionally smart-ass) lyrics. And there to deliver the verbal goods is Jon Windle, whose swaggering, cocksure style makes him equal parts rock singer, crooner and acutely observant storyteller. Oh, wait -- there's the smart-ass part too, best exemplified by the self-explanatory "Man I Hate Your Band" -- a song Windle probably prefers to do without an audience sing-along.
7. The View: This group from Dundee, Scotland, gained a pretty important fan early on, when Babyshambles' Pete Doherty caught a live View performance in early 2006. Of course, it was both a blessing and a curse; drummer Steve Morrison was involved in one of Doherty's many arrests -- but only after Doherty got 'em the industry hookup, handing the View's demo to an A&R guy from Rough Trade. And it's a good thing too: The View is one of the few bands here that don't always have to prefix punk with post, as evidenced in "Posh Boys," a short, fast blast of minimal, two-chord fury. But it's still catchy as hell.
8. The Subways: Though not as overlooked as most on this list, the Subways are still likely to get a "Who are they?" from the average Yank -- and that just ain't right. This past summer's U.S. tour with Taking Back Sunday, Angels and Airwaves, and Head Automatica bolstered the Subways' trans-Atlantic popularity. But more important, it was good for their American audience, who got to hear something different from the usual alt-rock crap they're used to. And given the Subways' blend of jagged Brit pop and thick-riffed Detroit rock, they're the right Anglos for the job.
9. Buzzcocks: Sure, they've gotten plenty of credit for pioneering the first wave of Brit punk, and we've been reading about it for the past thirty years. But that's ancient history. The thing is, the Buzzcocks from 2006 didn't need to remind you of the Buzzcocks from 1976. They've been too busy doing new stuff to get fat on their laurels. Not only did Manchester's finest release Flat-Pack Philosophy this year (their fifth studio album since reuniting and eighth overall); but their decision to join the Warped Tour proved they can still keep up with the kids -- and show 'em what real pop punk is.
10. Paul Weller: Any Brit rock band worth a shit today will cite Weller and his long-defunct band, the Jam, as an influence. Those who don't are either lying or just not worth listening to, period. And in 2006, Weller's importance to British music was codified at the Brit Awards, where he received the "Outstanding Contribution to Music" award (or, what we in the States call a "Lifetime Achievement Award"). Still, America has yet to pay any real attention to the man known as the "Modfather." Maybe that'll change next January when Weller performs a three-night, career-spanning concert in New York City. Either way, it's bound to be out-standing.
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