Art Brut - Bang Bang Rock & Roll
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.
The recent trend of U.K. post-punk/new wave revival comedy bands is an odd development and at least culturally interesting. I have not heard the entire Arctic Monkeys or Test Icicles albums, though one would certainly guess that the Test Icicles album is easily perceived as a comedy record. And Arctic Monkeys is certainly a silly name and they appear to have more “yobbo” humour—like the Streets or something? I have, in any case, listened to the entire Art Brut album, so here are some thoughts on that.
The emptiness of postmodernism (particularly that of these “one-shot art-punk” bands) gives post-punk/new wave revival groups’ records a trashy, throwaway quality. It perhaps follows, then, that records that are even trashier and more throwaway because they are freaking comedy records are perceived as being more cutting edge! Thus, last year, Art Brut was somehow more new ‘n’ exciting than Bloc Party’s Grand Debut or Franz Ferdinand’s Sophomore Effort.
Of course, Art Brut’s whole concept would not have worked if they didn’t have their postmodern signifiers properly in place. The name “Art Brut” works, naturally, because modernist high art references function as mere post-punk signifiers. “Art Brut” is a more obscure choice than say, “Futurism” or something; the grand depth of such a gesture surely appeals to “the kids.” Art Brut also have a song about modern art in which the group’s singer visits the Pompidou Museum in Paris. Thus, we have Europe itself as a significant signifier, as well, which Art Brut follow up with a number of non-sequitur references to Italy on the album. (Actually, “Art Brut” itself refers to Jean Dubuffet, so Paris/Europe as mere signifier figures in there also.)
The non-sequiturs are at least somewhat funny because they are silly, like Wesley Willis’s use of advertising slogans. At the end of “My Little Brother,” for example, Eddie Argos randomly tells listeners to “Stay off the crack!” Ridiculous non-sequitur humor also figured in late nineties American postmodern rock and roll satire records released on the Bulb label by artists such as the Pterodactyls, 25 Suaves, and Andrew W.K. Test Icicles’ aesthetic of cartoonish rock posturing done as comedy is indeed quite comparable to the Bulb artists, and Art Brut figures in here, too, with an album that includes a number of songs about rock and roll, two songs about sex, one partly about drugs (Argos also sings as if he were drunk on at least part of this album), and even one about fighting!
“Formed a Band” is supposed to be the group’s “D.I.Y. punk statement” a la the Desperate Bicycles’ “The Medium Was Tedium.” In his year-end, Top Albums of 2005 blurb praising the album for Pitchforkmedia, Scott Plagenhoef states that this track, originally released as a single, “felt like a complete manifesto.” (Plagenhoef is playing into Art Brut’s postmodern signification here by using the term “manifesto,” which connotes the same radical early twentieth century modernist art movements as the band’s name.) The track is such an utterly obnoxious and empty signifier, however, that it can only be interpreted as so-stupid-that-it’s-funny humor.
Whereas all of the aforementioned Bulb Records artists and the Test Icicles used heavy metal as their silly, empty reference point for rock and roll satire, Art Brut parody indie rock itself as the domain of sniveling, obnoxious twenty-somethings. One of the funniest tracks on the album is “My Little Brother,” in which Argos glories in how his younger sibling has come of age by discovering of rock and roll, poignantly tempered, perhaps, by a bit of familial concern that the little guy is getting out of control (“Why don’t our parents worry about us?”). Unlike the corrupted teenager of heavy metal, however, Argos’ “little brother” is already twenty-two years old: “My little brother just discovered rock and roll/He’s only twenty-two and he’s out of control.” Funny stuff! The insertion of the twenty-two year-old late bloomer into the teenager’s place makes the rock n’ roll paradigm fall completely flat here, but the late bloomer caricature plays into the album’s satirical portrait of the indie demographic.
Argos himself is the central figure in this satire, fussing in the songs over mundane topics and acting as though his mediocre rock band is somehow really important (“Stop buying your albums from the supermarket / They only sell records that have charted / And Art Brut, we’ve only just started”). The utter emptiness of statements about how awesome it was that they actually formed their own band, how they’re going to be on Top of the Pops, etc. is indeed amplified by far emptier and more hyperbolic statements such as “We’re gonna be the band that writes the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along.” In these latter cases, one is presumably supposed to laugh at the idea of the dopey twenty-something indie rocker making bad jokes.
Rob Mitchum’s initial Pitchforkmedia review focuses somewhat on the idea of the album as humor-oriented. Mitchum, however, seems to view the actual subject matter of the songs as being witty in and of itself, rather than seeing the songs as being intentionally dumb and thus perhaps kind of funny. Is anyone really going to assert, however, that the actual content of songs like “Formed a Band” (which Mitchum refers to as “a sly origin story”) and “My Little Brother” (praised by Mitchum as “hilarious” because of a line about how the little brother makes mix tapes consisting of tracks from single B-sides and bootlegs) is itself genuinely witty?
Unlike the Pterodactyls, 25 Suaves, and Andrew W.K., the humor in Art Brut is not just intentionally dumb but also intentionally annoying. Thus, I would argue that this album’s humor is actually fairly conservative in nature and more in line with the now fairly well established trend of annoying characters on television shows (Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, etc.) than with the more revolutionary raison d’être of pure silliness in records by the Bulb bands.
If there is one track on which Art Brut at least partly transcend the doldrums of this approach, it is “Emily Kane,” wherein Argos’ stupid pronouncements are not as annoying as on other songs and are at least close to being obfuscated anyway by the only bit of truly post-punk signifying musical transcendence on the album, the band sounding briefly like a really good Television Personalities song.
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