ART BRUT: BRILLIANT! TRAGIC! (2011)
1) Clever, Clever Jazz; 2) Lost Weekend; 3) Bad Comedian; 4) Sexy; 5) Is Dog Eared; 6) Martin Kemp; 7) Axl Rose; 8) I Am The Psychic; 9) Ice Hockey; 10) Sealand.
Eddie Argos has openly proclaimed this to be Art Brut's best album so far, but I believe that's just marketing. After all, if you are going to make your fourth record sound exactly like the previous three, you have to point the potential buyer's mind in the right direction. Now everyone who values Eddie Argos' opinion will spend hours, days, weeks of their formerly precious time trying to decode all the subtle differences and G-E-T what it is exactly that makes Brilliant! Tragic! so brilliant. Which, in the logical end, is somewhat tragic.
No cosmetic changes this time: the band is still the same, and Frank Black remains in charge as producer. Bassist Freddy Feedback's backup vocals and a few lines of actual singing from Eddie (mostly confined to the line "Goodbye, don't cry" on 'Ice Hockey', hearing which makes it easy to understand the reluctance to use his voice as a musical instrument earlier on) are by far the only thing that makes a difference. That, and the near-total absence of fast and furious rock'n'roll, as the band drowns itself in either alt-rock-sludgy or indie-rock-fudgy mid-tempo.
'Ice Hockey' and 'Is Dog Eared', at five and a half and six minutes respectively, are brave attempts to pull themselves out of the trench they dug out for themselves with Bang Bang — brave, but ultimately useless, since neither gives any clear indication of where exactly they could be heading. Uh... art rock? 'Ice Hockey' is sort of like a tribute to David Bowie's space sagas, with multi-sectioning, moody acoustic intros, heavy-psychedelic guitar tones, astral voice overdubs, but it is way too crude and boring to be parody or kitsch, and way too primitive (not to mention out of place) to be a source of real inspiration. Maybe it was Mr. Black Francis pushing the band in that kind of territory, but it is simply not the kind of territory on which they will ever feel safe. They may be inspired by the Pixies, yes, but they will never become the next Pixies.
Whatever be, they are still at their best when they are just being good old Art Brut. The album's saving grace are Eddie's seemingly infinite waves of wisecracking, never lost on the critics — critics, being smart guys (or, more precisely, Smart Guys™) themselves, love other smart guys, and here are some samples of smartness for you:
"Clever clever jazz, man — sorry that doesn't sound like it's planned — we're working in a genre you don't understand"; "He's a bad comedian, I don't know what you see in him" (okay, that one doesn't really look all that smart outside of its context); "I want to be played in the background / While a couple drinks their wine / That would be a triumph, with a voice like mine"; "I want to give the world the finger / With the exception of my favourite lead singer... When the world's got you by the fucking throat / Who'd you want in your corner? AXL ROSE!"; "People in love lie around and get fat — I think I'm okay with that". Admit it, that's smart. And funny.
It is just that all this wicked sarcasm, masquerading as post-modern sacrilege, sort of gets lost in the haze: most of the lyrics aren't even discernible through the noise, and riff-wise, Brilliant! is the least satisfactory Art Brut album so far. Perhaps I need to rephrase that: it is their most «Art», but their least «Brut» album so far, and I have always preferred them for the latter rather than the former. Furthermore, we cannot even understand if they really are a one-trick pony or if they are capable of other kinds of goodness — because each and every attempt at broadening the palette so far has been feeble and tentative, and the results were neither here nor there. Perhaps it's high time Black Francis actually ditched them; his presence clearly does not help.
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