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Friday, June 2, 2017

The Charlatans: Between 10th And 11th

THE CHARLATANS: BETWEEN 10TH AND 11TH (1992)

1) I Don't Want To See The Sights; 2) Ignition; 3) Page One; 4) Tremelo Song; 5) The End Of Everything; 6) Subtitle; 7) Can't Even Be Bothered; 8) Weirdo; 9) Chewing Gum Weekend; 10) (No One) Not Even The Rain.

This is probably a great driving album — all these rock-steady funky rhythms and unnerving Madchester beats are your perfect companion for a long, monotonous highway trip as you try not to fall asleep behind the wheel. But as a work of art, The Charlatans' second album is at least one notch below their first, since it adds nothing new to their sound and, in fact, seems even to take away something old; in particular, I have not noticed any attempts to go for an old-fashioned sound like they did with ʽWhite Shirtʼ. This time, it's all about modern dance, and the idea of modern dance in early Nineties' Britain was a bit... stiff.

Now an established act in their own rights, they could allow themselves a highly reputed producer, and the sound here is determined by Flood (Mark Ellis), who had previously produced Erasure and worked as an engineer for Nick Cave, U2, and Depeche Mode (and would eventually be one of those responsible for ruining U2's artistic credibility). Unsurprisingly, the emphasis is placed even stronger on groove, at the expense of melody, and so, for the most part, it is hard to tell one song from another, unless you take the extra effort to decode the psychologism of the lyrics, some of which are actually not bad at all, or concentrate very specifically on the guitar and keyboard work, some of which seems quite well thought out.

The first single drawn from the album was ʽWeirdoʼ, which became the band's biggest US hit and fared pretty well on the home market as well. Its singular attraction is typical of the Charlatans: mixing modern rhythms and electronics with a loud, almost storming Hammond organ sound — somewhat justifying the song title, since the recording does have a «weirdo» feel against all the regular Madchester production of the time. Once again, Collins is the main hero here: the syn­copated guitars, programmed drums, and the acid synth bleeping would make this sound like an 808 State outtake, but his organ outbursts, alternating between paranoid sustain and choppy funk chords, are what gives the track a life of its own — although, in my opinion, he never goes far enough to drive the song to truly ecstatic heights (not that he could: this would require an exten­ded organ solo, and that would have been judged too «progressive» and «pretentious», had he attempted to try it).

The real problem, however, is that the organ parts of ʽWeirdoʼ actually make it stand out, while the typical track on this album is much more even — think something like ʽChewing Gum Week­endʼ, where keyboards, guitars, and vocals all merge together in a smooth dance-gel, cool to tap your foot to, but little else. The only other tune with a very distinct keyboard part is ʽTremelo Songʼ, where Collins switches from organ to electric piano (I think), and pulls out a simple, but efficient little nagging riff that oozes tension and paranoia, and then multiplies them in a clever symbiosis with the bass line. Again, not surprisingly, the track came out as the second single, led off by Burgess' cheerful introduction of "The birds don't sing / They crush my skull / And I am worthless". (It is actually sad that Burgess is such a generally colorless singer — some of those lyrics are quite poetic, and we can only wonder what could be achieved here with a distinctive, rather than camouflaging, vocalist, like Robert Smith or Dave Gahan).

On the few occasions that the band breaks away from the formula, the efforts are largely wasted. ʽIgnitionʼ slows down the groove, but this merely means that instead of listening to funky chords, we have to take in a lot of controlled feedback; hugged by Collins' keyboard overdubs processed through studio trickery, it tries to convince you to give in to psychedelic seduction, but somehow it all comes across as amateurish and boring to me. Another attempt is made with ʽSubtitleʼ, where they give up on rhythm altogether and drown the sound in synthesized strings and elec­tronic wobble, while Burgess is trying his hardest to sound like an angel from Heaven. Result? It's like the bus from Magical Mystery Tour has just gotten hopelessly bogged down in a New Age swamp. Better get back to them dance grooves, boys.

Cutting a long story short, this is a respectable effort, but it belongs very much in 1992, an «alt-dance» experience that is way too constrained by the formulaic limitations of its era, and seems almost afraid to fully exploit the talents of the band's most talented members (Blunt and Collins). At least the last track, ʽNot Even The Rainʼ, ends things on a somewhat catchy chorus and an unusually grim coda with industrial overtones (Flood's clients had also included Nitzer Ebb and Ministry, so the man was no stranger to industrial) — I just wish there'd been more eye-and-ear-catching moments like these on the album to pique my interest.

2 comments:

  1. While Flood may have assisted in the dismantling of U2 as a respectable band, his other longtime customer PJ Harvey has not suffered from a similar fate, thus I see U2, the Edge and Co. the ones responsible.

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  2. Yeah, U2 turned into some sort of dance act with Flood, but Depeche Mode was almost a rock band on Songs of Faith and Devotion. I wouldn't say that Flood's work is characterized by a prioritization of "groove"; he just makes albums sound really big.

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