Simpatico - Charlatans

A childish and vapid point, but some bands make it really easy for childish and vapid reviewers to have a go at them when they first come up with their names. Back in the day there was Dodgy and Garbage - both appropriate. Do you see what I did there? Also back in the day, and, astonishingly, lingering on to this day, there's The Charlatans. The image of fraudulent peddlers of photostat tat is as apt today as it was then.

The fakery started from their inception in 1990, with the band explicitly identifying as one of the first "Madchester" crew. Most of the band were from the West Midlands for a start. Not a crime in itself I might add. In recruiting pouting pretty boy Tim Burgess as their singer and figurehead however, the band seemed to think this placed them well and truly in with the Roses and Mondays in the authentic Manc stakes, because Tim came from Northwich. Northwhich is not Manchester. They may as well have recruited someone from Aylesbury and instead claimed they were all proper gorblimey cockney geezers instead.

Snide jibe this may be, but it does hint at the wider flaw in the band's integrity. Think of all the Mancunian frontmen, great and not so great. Mozza, Mark E, the Gallaghers, Shelley, Devoto, Shaun, the Ians Curtis and Brown, Tom Hingley from the Inspirals, shit, even the little sods who were in Northern Uproar and Northside. To say they're not all classically beautiful vocalists is a dramatic understatement, I'm not keen on all of them myself. But what they all somehow manage or managed is to meld at least a slice of their accent to their vocals, to sing with their own voice. In doing so they avoided the dreadful cod-Yank strain which is still sadly the default setting of rock and pop vocals on both sides of the Atlantic. Not so Tim. There may be the tiniest hint of Cheshire there, but in Burgess's weary whine we find among the very worst examples of "rawk", a lazy, pie-eyed reverential aping of some mystical rock'n'roll arcadia resulting in distilled drear for the modern ear.

It's not as if the band hasn't had ample inspiration for drama to ignite its sodden muse. Keyboard player Rob Collins was first convicted of bank robbery, and then tragically killed in a car crash in their mid-90s hey-day. Yet still the vague, meaningless, turgid, Mid-West-of-a-country-they-don't-come-from lacksadaisicallity trudged on. You only need to look at the titles to see the level of invention involved. "Jesus Hairdo", "Tellin' stories", "Crashin' In"........You know what these are going to sound like before you hear them. And you're right.

Does this album dramatically change the mind of a sceptic such as myself? No. Its not abysmal, quite. Single "Blackened Blue Eyes" has both a good intro and a pleasant piano seguing into a thrillingly punchy guitar riff. Then the vocals come and swamp it. "For Your Entertainment" is by far the stand-out track, carrying a stately groove in a subtler echo of their one really decent song ("The Only One I Know"), with a pretty neat staccato vocal effect. But after that the record just trudges on, and on, with its mid-paced guitar hovering between the early 70s and early 90s, springing along with all the sprightly aplomb of a gout-ridden yak. This is damning them for lack of innovation but tragically, when they move away from the stale indie-rawk formulae it just gets worse. "City of the Dead" is that dread creature, the white rock band's "exploration" of reggae. The Clash pulled it off. The Charlatans sir, are no Clash. It reeks. As for the album's lyrical standard, I will quote just one song, "NYC (there's no need to stop)"

You half alive, Like Dr Jeckal and Mr Hyde You'll never see what I seen You do last night

New York...say what!! I love you, I tell you, There's no need to stop!

I beg to fucking differ.

You may have noticed this has been a spiteful, mean-minded and bad-tempered review. But it's about time. The Charlatans have always had their essential mediocrity under-written by a seemingly blank critical checque from the music press at large. A time-serving gubbins turn. In years gone by, there are dozens of uncool, none-spectacular bands, laughed to sniggering scorn by the self-same rock press tossers, but who have produced far better work than this. Take the late Shed 7 for instance. No, really. Challenge your smirking perceptions and play any Shed 7 album after this or any other of the turgid piss the Charlatans have put out over the decades. And then ask yourself, in the great words of J Lydon, "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2006] Back