THE AUTEURS: NEW WAVE (1993)
1) Showgirl; 2) Bailed Out; 3) American Guitars; 4) Junk Shop Clothes; 5) Don't Trust The Stars; 6) Starstruck; 7) How Could I Be Wrong; 8) Housebreaker; 9) Valet Parking; 10) Idiot Brother; 11) Early Years; 12) Home Again.
If the name of the band is «The Auteurs», and the name of the band's debut album is New Wave, it would be only logical if the first song title were ʽAnna Karinaʼ. As strongly as I have to congratulate myself for coming close to the truth (since one of the songs on the band's second album is actually titled ʽNew French Girlfriendʼ), all of these trappings — including the fuck-this-world black-and-white imagery on the band's early photos — only suggest a pool of reverence for the intellectual rebel attitude of early Sixties' Europe; the music, however, generally scoops up inspiration from completely different waterbasins.
The Auteurs were really little more than a pretext for Luke Haines — the man behind, before, in the middle of, and all around the band — to adorn himself with a cool moniker. The rest of the band consisted of bass player Alice Readman, since she already was Luke's girlfriend anyway; a rotating set of not particularly outstanding drummers (Glen Collins on this particular record); and James Banbury as the band's resident cellist — probably the only distinctive element of The Auteurs' sound and style that is not Luke Haines. That said, he does not play on every track, and the cello always stays in the background: first time I listened to New Wave in a somewhat distracted state, I did not even notice that some of the songs had a cello padding to them.
With these details out of the way, let us talk about the early, barely-post-pre-pubescent years of Luke Haines as bandleader, songwriter, arranger, musician, and spiritual vessel (setting aside the tacky issue of Luke Haines as a human being, commonly reported to be rather juicy, but should not really concern all of us who strive for civility).
Every once in a while, The Auteurs are reported as one of the first, if not the first band to symbolize «Britpop», preceding by a very brief margin all of those people like Blur, Oasis, etc. — a rather confusing pigeonholing, actually, because (a) «Britpop» itself is an awful word in its current usage (if The Kinks weren't the first real Britpop band, then who the heck was?..); (b) The Auteurs sound nothing like either Blur or Oasis; (c) The Auteurs do not, in fact, sound tremendously «British» at all — neither does Haines sport a particularly «trademark British» singing accent, nor are the lyrical subject matters particularly UK-related, and what else is there for the music to qualify as «Britpop»? A heavy Gilbert & Sullivan influence?..
In reality, the very name of «The Auteurs» surmises that Luke Haines would like, if at all possible, to avoid pigeonholing. He is simply a singer-songwriter who happened to see it fit, at the time, to indulge his singer-songwriting impulses in a «rock band» format, no more, no less. Music-wise, he is not a particularly pretentious or ambitious singer-songwriter, seeking for direct self-expression rather than for new and surprising formats. His melodic gift is obvious, but not tremendous, and quite conventionally realized: The Kinks may have been just as much of an influence here as Love, or R.E.M., or any band, American, British, or world-wide, that could grow its own identity out of a fairly «normal» understanding of melody in folk, pop, and rock'n'roll traditions. Nothing particularly eyebrow-raising here, unless you think that regular use of melodic cello overdubs in pop-rock songs was a particular stunner for 1993 (and why should it be, when Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne were merrily engaging in it twenty-five years earlier?). Nor does New Wave flash around in an eye-attracting retro parade: Haines goes just as easy on heavily distorted, lo-fi grunge / alt-rock guitars as he does on the acoustic strum or on the «colorful» electric pop-rock tones — New Wave is quite clearly a product of the post-Nirvana world, despite its allegiance to the pre-Nirvana one.
The old and new schools go for a merry merge already on the first song — ʽShowgirlʼ combines a dreamy, ethereal vocal part, almost straight off some obscure psychedelic nugget from the late 1960s, with a simple, feedback-drenched guitar buzz in the chorus that was all the rage in 1993. The trick worked, though: once they'd released this melancholic, self-deprecating tale of a guy disillusioned in being married to a showgirl, it effectively clicked with the critics and eventually led to a serious recording contract. And how does it sound today? Well... it isn't particularly awesome, but you do get to take a bit of a liking to Haines' artistic persona, and supposedly, that is all that's really required of the first song. Because «a bit of a liking» is quite likely to grow into a serious attraction, over time.
The «liking» that I'm talking about is hardly a kind of «I really like this guy» liking, though; it's more of a «I really like how this guy is manipulating my attention» liking. Luke Haines is a semi-decent rock lyricist, deftly hiding his childhood traumas and adolescent disillusionment under metaphors, allegories, and impressionistic chaff so thick that very quickly, you lose all hopes or wishes to decipher the message — you have to simply remain contented with the fact that he is smart, ironic, and romantic, while you, most likely, are dumb, straightforward, and deadly dull.
More importantly, he can also come up with some fine vocal hooks and occasionally resonant pop guitar riffs — such as the nagging dental drill driving ʽIdiot Brotherʼ, or the mean little pissed-off chord sequence at the end of each chorus to ʽEarly Yearsʼ. None of these riffs will probably ever make it to the Great Textbook, but over the course of the record, they support each other in building a coherent impression: there is really not a single «useless» song on the album, each offers at least a little something to add to the general pool of depression, hatred, disenchantment, disillusionment, self-deprecation, social anguish, explicit and implicit envy...
...you'd think I'd be talking Alice In Chains here or something, but probably the one big advantage of Luke Haines is that he is expressing all that stuff without having to resort to clichés — such as brutal heavy riffs, jarring power chords, or hateful screaming at the top of one's lungs. Instead, he does it all through hushed, dreamy vocal hooks: lines like "bailed out, this skin is shed / bailed out, this thing is dead" or "downtown, you're burning down / I'm sick of parking cars" are delivered almost lovingly, the way others would sing of a love interest lost or found.
If forced to choose one song, I'd probably go along with ʽStarstruckʼ, whose lyrics cleverly walk the line between the two different meanings of the word — maybe for no other reason simply than the way he articulates the phrase "I was always starstruck" that resolves the verse-chorus build-up. Idealism and cynicism are attitudes that are pretty hard to combine within the confines of a single vessel — like matter and anti-matter, you'd expect them to cancel out each other, but Haines has the skill it takes to override the laws of the universe: this and many of the other songs are delivered from the perspective of somebody who obviously believes in something grander, yet hardly ever admits that it is reachable.
Overall, running slightly ahead of the events to come, I find New Wave to be The Auteurs' finest moment — Luke Haines' image and style is already fully fleshed out, the individual songs are all written at the top of his abilities, and the balance between the Sixties, the Eighties, and the Nineties in the arrangements and atmospheres is dang near perfect. And yes, the album is anything but flashy, and quite prone to disappearing in the cracks of the floorboards of time, so all the more reason to join me in a big juicy thumbs up here.
Check "New Wave" (MP3) on Amazon