Alfie – If You Happy With You Need Do Nothing
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
With all the talk recently about scenes and genres and the way both are often arbitrary and unreal (I'm thinking mostly of the Klaxons and Fall Out Boy), give a thought to poor Alfie. Just before the Strokes et al. hit and gave the UK press something to focus on, the NME started nattering on about some sort of “New Acoustic Movement,” and these guys got dragged in. Yes, they used to be Badly Drawn Boy's backing band (back before he was total shit). Yes, if you look in the archives you can find them tagged with such albatrosses as “dope folk” and “pastoral baggy.” And yes, they only managed one, underwhelming album after this before switching gears entirely, making two more albums and calling it quits when absolutely no-one listened. But this record, this is the reason reissues were invented.
If you knew of them at all, you may think they were some sort of hideous Belle & Sebastian/Stone Roses fusion (an idea more chalk and cheese than peanut butter and chocolate). Both of those bands, image aside, were intently focused and in their own way ambitious. Look at that title. Alfie are so lazy they can't even be bothered with grammar, people! They also can't, thank heavens, be bothered to remain focused on one sound or genre for too long or remain penned in the walls of any movement. It helps that If You Happy With You Need Do Nothing is a compilation of tracks from three EPs rounded out with two new tracks, but even the superficially similar songs inhabit distinctly different spaces.
The smacked-out lope of “It's Just About the Weather” and “You Make No Bones” initially seem like the beginnings of a cohesive sound, but the former is all drawl and slur to the world's quietest hoedown exhibited on the latter. “It's Just About the Weather” has a whine that is perversely enjoyable, whereas “You Make No Bones” and its exultation of sloth (exhibited everywhere from the album title to singer Lee Gorton's refusal to stand during most early live performances) is quietly joyous. And no album that holds, in addition to the aforementioned, the surprisingly potent schoolyard instrumental “James's Dream,” the grinding, churning “Talking Song” (which almost sounds like the Walkmen, for chrissake), the literally twinkling “Montevideo” and the marvelous “Check the Weight” (which moves from the autocritique of “I could never be what you wanted me to be” / “Stop clouding your mind with self-pity” into what sounds like the noises of the happiest farm robot ever with deftness and grace), could ever be one note. Or boring.
Gorton got saddled with Ian Brown/Liam Gallagher comparisons at the time, but distance lets us hear him not as the copycat he never was (and if he had an ego half as big as either predecessor, he keeps it subsumed in the music) but as a talented young man able to make his adenoids work for him. He may prefer to sit and his band may prefer to avoid anything too strenuous (their neatest trick is making even tracks like “Talking Song” sound like they just happened), but he's got more personality and charisma than four thick-veined shouters, and similarly the music benefits greatly from the band's forays into french horn and cello along with their rhythm section and acoustics, their establishment of a surprisingly roomy comfort zone and refusal to venture outside of it. They've got an easy, unforced interplay that belies the album's patchwork cover, and even on the beautifully still “Manor House Farm” there's not a note out of place.
Look at the video for “You Make No Bones.” Sure, Gorton looks like a little like Tim Burgess of the Charlatans UK, but that band even at their best seemed about two chart positions away from flop sweat. Gorton won't even stand up until a reindeer mugs somebody. And the rest of the band just relaxes and eases into the groove. The very lackadaisical nature of their considerable charm makes it easy to discount Alfie, but don't assume my praise is diffident or fairweather. I've reached for If You Happy With You Need Do Nothing far more often than a dozen other more lauded records from 2001—and, for the record, also more often than the Beta Band's The Three EPs; the sonic and career trajectories of both bands are eerily similar, but this record wins out slightly by dint of not having a godawful “Monolith” lurking in the middle. They were happy, and so they did nothing more; it's sad but not surprising that they weren't given the chance to chase their odd, gently fuzzy muse for longer.