THE AUTEURS: NOW I'M A COWBOY (1994)
1) Lenny Valentino; 2) Brainchild; 3) I'm A Rich Man's Toy; 4) New French Girlfriend; 5) The Upper Classes; 6) Chinese Bakery; 7) A Sister Like You; 8) Underground Movies; 9) Life Classes/Life Model; 10) Modern History; 11) Daughter Of A Child.
With a title like that, some might think The Auteurs would be quitting the cool Euro flavors of New Wave and embracing country-western and other rootsy directions. Others, already accustomed to the idea that Luke Haines' album titles have intentionally little to do with album content, might not think that — and the latter would be more correct than the former, since the only song on here that has a vaguely country-western sheen to it is the slow-waltzing ʽBrainchildʼ (whose lyrics actually include the word «cowboy», but something makes me suspect that these lyrics would hardly be welcome in Nashville anyway).
Altogether, Now I'm A Cowboy is a bit heavier and going for a more «rock-oriented» sound than New Wave — fewer acoustic pieces and more loud instrumental passages (such as the codas to ʽUpper Classesʼ and ʽModern Historyʼ). Cutting down on subtlety also leads to cutting down on variety and on charisma: the result is an album that is ever so slightly more crude and generic than its predecessor. But, after all, Luke Haines did want to be in a rock band, and build himself up a steady fanbase — and you can't just do that with a «brainy» sound, downplaying the «brawny» component. «Brainy» + «brawny» = «musical brownie», which would be a good definition for this record: tough, rich in calories, but sometimes way too heavy on the stomach.
Haines' lyrics have already reached that stage where objective interpretations do not exist: all that remains is just a general sarcastic feel of rejection, sometimes targeted at the well-to-do (ʽI'm A Rich Man's Toyʼ, ʽThe Upper Classesʼ), sometimes at the pseudo-intellectual elites (ʽNew French Girlfriendʼ), sometimes at celebrities (ʽLenny Valentinoʼ), and sometimes just rejection per se (ʽA Sister Like Youʼ — very sad-sounding, but nobody knows why). Fortunately, the lyrics are still nowhere near the focal point of the album, perfectly enjoyable and sympathetic even if one does not know one word of English (and even if one does, I doubt it would help much).
I have no personal preferences here — maybe ʽNew French Girlfriendʼ sticks out a little, with active help from James Banbury: his cello «swoops» in the intro set such a vividly sneering atmosphere that the song gets an initial kick-start like no other. ʽChinese Bakeryʼ is a good proposition for lovers of well-rounded Britpop vocal hooks. ʽA Sister Like Youʼ is a good proposition for Kinks fans (the fact that the song deals with the mystical trials of «two sisters» can hardly be a total coincidence; melodically, there is little resemblance, but atmosphere-wise, the song dispenses the same soft, lyrical melancholy as Ray Davies' ʽTwo Sistersʼ). ʽBrainchildʼ is interesting because it really takes a country vibe and translates it into the language of jangle-pop: where you'd normally expect slide guitars and fiddles, you get regular electric twang and cello, not to mention those hushed post-punk vocals.
The larger, «epic» compositions are questionable. Personally, I like ʽThe Upper Classesʼ, with its lightly-depressing mantraic coda (and its little guessable nod to The Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ, or am I seeing things?), but don't care a lot about ʽModern Historyʼ, which, despite lacking a clearly fleshed out melodic line, repeats the same coda trick once again (with an even better guessable nod to the same source, even including some windy white noise for fatness' sake). It seems like, generally, if Haines does not manage to say something in three minutes, he won't be able to say anything in five or six — and the arrangements on Auteurs' albums still remain too sparse and simple (but tasteful) to hold your attention for all that time by themselves. Basically, they just ain't big enough for big songs.
Still, the people, always great suckers for loudness and bigness, went for it and pushed Now I'm A Cowboy higher up the charts than its predecessor — and ʽLenny Valentinoʼ made enough of a splash to have an entire dream-pop band from Poland named after it four years later (even if the song itself is anything but dream-pop; only Haines' hushed vocals could be said to have a dreamy atmosphere to them — the rest is loud, dark, punchy power-pop. By the way, most of the vocals on the album are «hushed», which sometimes gets annoying — we do know that Haines can be a proper singer, but it is almost as if he is too embarrassed to sing properly).
This probably makes the album sort of an «objective peak» for the band, but the way I see it, the public just didn't catch up to their quality soon enough — as it often happens, the debut album had to sink in and simmer for a while, with the prize for its awesomeness going to the inferior sophomore effort. But that's alright: like I said, the quality fluctuations are quite subtle anyway. Most of the songs here are still smart, catchy, stylish, and haven't at all lost their resonance in the modern world, as long as it still flaunts its «Lennies» and «Valentinos». Thumbs up.
Check "Now I'm A Cowboy" (MP3) on Amazon