The Atlantic Divide
Another year, another wave of quirky British bands pouring into the States. It's got all the makings of a new British Invasion. Well, except for one thing: the invasion. For every Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand that succeeds in North America, there are dozens more that barely make it across the pond and dozens of critics ready to lump 'em all under the same "art rock" or "New Wave revival" categories. The thing is, many of these bands come from a different lineage, one that began at the end of the Seventies, when groups like the Jam, the Specials, and Squeeze were deciding what to do after punk but without forgetting it. There are plenty of new bands with this same attitude, that postpunk doesn't have to be mopey and melodramatic. And they've got the same problem too: an American audience far smaller than they deserve.
1. The Ordinary Boys: Three albums into their career, the boys from Worthing have become household names in England; frontman Sam Preston is a bona fide TV personality, starring in the 2006 season of Celebrity Big Brother. On this side of the Atlantic, though, the Boys barely have a foot in the door, and dammit, it's just not fair. The band's 2006 offering, How to Get Everything You Ever Wanted in Ten Easy Steps, shows that its sound has evolved from a straight-up Specials/Smiths/Jam mix to one that's more forward-thinking and experimental. Yes, that does involve electronics. But the Boys' use of blips and bleeps is more of an added flavor than a primary ingredient. And Prestons' lyrics are as whip-smart and chastising as ever, calling out the usual cultural suspects (fame, the music industry, et cetera) while not getting too serious ("Ballad of an Unrequited Self-Love Affair").
2. Maxïmo Park: On their 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, these four blokes from Newcastle established themselves as the band to watch ... in England, of course. That's why they can get away with releasing an "extras" album so early in their career. This year's Missing Songs is just that a collection of B-sides and demo versions of songs from Trigger. Whereas the Ordinary Boys built their foundation on ska-driven beats, Maxmo Park has more eggs in the New Wave basket. And by New Wave, we mean XTC, not A Flock of Seagulls. Though Maxmo Park has the danceable tunes to please the Franz/Bloc Party crowd, its style is vibrant, pop-minded, and, at times, punk. There's no reason Maxmo Park shouldn't be next year's big import. Besides, we Americans love bands with umlauts in their names.
3. The Holloways: Having formed in 2004 and with one album under their belt, these North Londoners are still new kids on the postpunk block. But you'd never know it, judging by the stellar songwriting and sharp lyricism on said debut album, So This Is Great Britain? With two-part harmonies and a heavy dose of ska and Sixties pop, the Holloways are one of the few English bands that serve their songs sunny side up. That's not to say they're at all sugar-coated far from it. The album opens with the title track, which shows the "land of hope and glory" in a none-too-rosy light, concluding that "We're all just a bunch of slaves." But they're slaves with good taste.
4. The Pipettes: If it weren't for the occasionally randy lyrical matter, you'd swear the Pipettes' debut album, We Are the Pipettes, was written 40 years ago. Sounding (and looking) like a Phil Spector wet dream, the three birds who front this polka-dotted pop group do their damnedest to make London swinging again. Backed by a band of dudes (known as the Cassettes), the Pipettes aren't post anything, just pure retro ... and a nice break from the norm. You'll find no synthesizers here, just loads of strings, horns, and beats bigger than that hairdo Spector sported at his murder trial.
5. The Rifles: For all the bands that want to relive 1984, the Rifles are right there with 'em, though they're just as interested in 1964. And on their debut album, No Love Lost, they occasionally have it both ways. While the band's contemporary indie-pop influences weigh the heaviest, songs like "Robin Hood" sound like a Merseybeat band after spending a year in modern-day England upbeat, tightly wound pop played with uncanny neatness. Still, it's songs like "Local Boy" which falls somewhere between the Cure and the Newtown Neurotics that populate most of the album and make the Rifles worth seeking out.
6. Little Man Tate: Not to be confused with the long-haired Californian solo act of the same name (or the 1991 Jodie Foster flick, for that matter), Sheffield's Little Man Tate knows where the party is. And, according to the anthemic, Blur-like "House Party at Boothy's," it's one that is likely to catch on. This is one band that's heavy on the pop but, thankfully, equally full of smart (and occasionally smart-ass) lyrics. And there to deliver the verbal goods is Jon Windle, whose swaggering, cocksure style makes him equal parts rock singer, crooner, and acutely observant storyteller. Oh, wait; there's the smart-ass part too, best exemplified by the self-explanatory "Man I Hate Your Band" a song Windle probably prefers to do without an audience sing-along.
7. The View: This group from Dundee, Scotland, gained a pretty important fan early on, when Babyshambles' Pete Doherty caught a live View performance in early 2006. Of course, it was both a blessing and a curse; drummer Steve Morrison was involved in one of Doherty's many arrests but only after Doherty got 'em the industry hookup, handing the View's demo to an A&R guy from Rough Trade. And it's a good thing too: The View is one of the few bands listed here that doesn't always have to prefix punk with post, as evidenced in "Posh Boys," a short, fast blast of minimal, two-chord fury. But it's still catchy as hell.
8. The Subways: Though not as overlooked as most acts on this list, the Subways are still likely to get a "Who are they?" from the average Yank and that just ain't right. This past summer's U.S. tour with Taking Back Sunday, Angels and Airwaves, and Head Automatica bolstered the Subways' trans-Atlantic popularity. But more important, it was good for their American audience, who got to hear something different from the usual alt-rock crap they're used to. And given the Subways' blend of jagged Brit pop and thick-riffed Detroit rock, they're the right Anglos for the job.
9. Buzzcocks: Sure, they've gotten plenty of credit for pioneering the first wave of Brit punk, and we've been reading about it for the past 30 years. But that's ancient history. The thing is, the Buzzcocks from 2006 didn't need to remind you of the Buzzcocks from 1976. They've been too busy doing new stuff to get fat on their laurels. Not only did Manchester's finest release Flat-Pack Philosophy this year (their fifth studio album since reuniting and eighth overall), but also their decision to join the Warped Tour proved they can still keep up with the kids and show 'em what real pop-punk is.
10. Paul Weller: Any Brit rock band worth a shit today will cite Weller and his long-defunct band, the Jam, as an influence. Those who don't are either lying or just not worth listening to, period. And in 2006, Weller's importance to British music was codified at the Brit Awards, where he received the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award (or what we in the States call a Lifetime Achievement Award). Still, America has yet to pay any real attention to the man known as the "Modfather." Maybe that'll change in January, when Weller performs a three-night, career-spanning concert in New York City. Either way, it's bound to be out-standing.
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