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Friday, June 30, 2017

The Charlatans: Us And Us Only


1) Forever; 2) Good Witch / Bad Witch 1; 3) Impossible; 4) The Blonde Waltz; 5) A House Is Not A Home; 6) Senses; 7) My Beautiful Friend; 8) I Don't Care Where You Live; 9) The Blind Stagger; 10) Good Witch / Bad Witch 2; 11) Watching You; 12*) Your Precious Love; 13*) Sleepy Little Sunshine Boy; 14*) Good Witch / Bad Witch 3.

Well, not quite us and us only, because by this time it seems as if Tim Burgess simply cannot get a good night's sleep without a little Bob Dylan effigy under his pillow, or without the air lightly perfumed with Beatles, Stones, and even Beach Boys spirits. Honestly, this is getting a bit annoy­ing, because it is one thing to enjoy a quotation from one of your idols from time to time, and quite another one to beat this principle into the ground, as if Bob Dylan were one of those name­less «stock phrase generators» that kept supplying blues songwriters for decades. At least if Bur­gess and Co. were truly great melody writers on their own, this melding could work; the fact of the matter, however, is that many of these songs are fairly mediocre on their own, and the most easily noticeable thing about them is the reference — and this, in turn, makes it look like they are simply plundering their betters to mask their own incompetence, which would be unjust, but hey, never underestimate the effect of first impressions.

At least ʽForeverʼ, the lead-in track and the first single is relatively autonomous (even if I still can't help mentioning that the psychedelic Mellotron part on this thing sounds very close to the arrangement on the Stones' ʽ2000 Light Years From Homeʼ). The «baggiest» song on the record, it relies on a heavy funky bassline and this hazy Mellotron coating to get its acid point across rather than Burgess' convoluted love lyrics and predictably mediocre vocal delivery. The sound is interesting, but the usual problem persists: there's a little too much psychedelia and pretense here for the song to qualify as straightforward pop, yet not nearly enough for it to qualify as an attrac­tive work of art, either. It comes, pretends to make a point, goes, and while the memory of that bassline still lingers on for a bit, that is definitely not a case of «forever».

The second single was ʽMy Beautiful Friendʼ, and since it rhymes with "don't say this is the end", we will have to assume that Jim Morrison just happened to take a short stroll through Burgess' front courtyard, too. The melody sounds like it's been written by some Byrds member circa 1967, though; we also have the same foggy Mellotron, and only the funky drums, as if still controlled against their will by the Madchester vibe, indicate that we are more than twenty years removed from that date. Well, that, and also the lyrics, too ambiguous and post-whatever for their own good. It's a strange vibe, but again, feels more like an admirably lost opportunity than a predic­tably accomplished goal.

It does look like the opposite sex has finally occupied Burgess' mind more densely than ever before, what with the third single, ʽImpossibleʼ, beginning with the lines "Impossible raw women, I know you're all too hard to please" — unless he managed to accidentally confuse them with sashimi, this is a Lennon / Dylan mash-up (with a brief lyrical nod to ʽEvery Hungry Womanʼ as well) with Al Kooper-ish organs and Zimmerman-style harmonica. The words are bad, the vocals are devoid of impression (and it is particularly pathetic when Burgess begins to precisely mimic Bob's or John's intonations), but the song still gets by as a curio. As does ʽThe Blonde Waltzʼ (blonde waltz... get it... blonde!), with its references to "my darling young son"; as does ʽA House Is Not A Homeʼ, which borrows its title from a Love song, but lifts its guitar riff directly from ʽI Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)ʼ — only the first half, though, because, you see, the Charlatans would never pretend they could be more than half as good as Dylan; as does ʽSenses (Angel On My Shoulder)ʼ, borrowing its harmonica parts and its opening line ("you're my sweet black angel") from another Stones song; as does ʽWatching Youʼ, a slow blues-rock vamp that still finds an opportunity to slip in the line "don't cry, put your head on my shoulder"... aw shucks, enough already.

Honestly, I would not need to concentrate on all these references so much if I knew what exactly would make its own sense about these songs. But they just do not seem to make sense on their own: the majority of the instrumental lines sound as if I'd already heard them many times (some­times, as you can see above, you can easily pinpoint the direct source), the vocal deliveries are consistently boring, and while I can understand how it may be possible to build up your own identity by scavenging off fallen heroes, I do not sense much identity here. What The Charlatans are doing is fun, and they might be doing it better than anybody else (provided anybody else was actually doing it at the time), but the entire album, like its predecessors, is ultimately devoid of meaning. The songs do not rock all that hard, the songs do not convey a sharp sense of humor or irony, and, frankly, this schtick of «let's take modern alt-rock and back-cross-breed it with ele­ments from the classic age ripped out of their context» is getting stale.

Maybe this is why my favorite piece on the album is the three-part (two-part, actually; the third part is a reprise of the second, added as a bonus) mini-suite ʽGood Witch / Bad Witchʼ, the only composition here that sounds thoroughly modern — a dark piece of trip-hop that pins an evil bassline (bad witch?) against a pretty chime part (good witch?) and distorts Burgess' vocals into what sounds like a rheumatic rant from the illegitimate son of Tom Waits and the 21st Century Schizoid Man. (Okay, this might actually make the song more intriguing than it is). At least on this track, they never rip off anybody in particular, and succeed in creating a creepy atmosphere where the different elements complement each other (angelically-diabolically) instead of neute­ring each other. Perhaps if there was more stuff like this on the album, it would not give off this uneasy impression of an empty / unfunny exercise in post-modernism.


  1. Good catch! 'Forever' has a '2000 Light Years From Home' feel to it, indeed. Here's one from me then: 'Impossible' has a line 'They are all handing out free tickets', which I guess you'd like to immediately continue with 'to the wedding of his son', eh?

    Again, me and you probably view this album the same but you somehow have higher expectations. To me Charlatans were a perfect fit for radio and this album is probably their best when it comes to radio-friendly/quality balance. You're right about the lack of identity and the constant borrowings (jeez, Oasis who get blamed for ripping off Beatles all the time did like no more than 5% of Charlatans' plagiarism) as well as overall lumpy songwriting and production. Still, I never viewed Charlatans' music as the one to help to save my life or something. There was a period when I would listen to them almost every day as a background music and I'm thankful to the guys for this.

    Oh, wait, wait, here's another one!

    'A House is Not a Home' lifts not one, but one and a half lines from 'Tangled up in Blue' ('I think I used a little too much force' and '[They're halos] soon to be divorced'). It IS like finding 10 differences between songs after all!

    1. Thanks! If anything, these guys are at least steady suppliers of fun brain puzzles.