The Charlatans (UK)
dvance word on the new Charlatans (UK) album Simpatico was that the band had gone reggae, a disconcerting thought, not because reggae diversions are always outright failures (i.e. Sinead O’Connor’s recent post-retirement outing) but because reggae brings with it, like a cloud of smoke, a strong whiff of heart-on-sleeve earnestness (i.e. Matisyahu’s entire oeuvre). Worse, there is the distinct danger that along with gated drums and melodic basslines, reggae dilettantes will try for the trademark patois of Marley or dearly departed Desmond Dekker. There is little more cringe-worthy than a white boy chanting down Babylon.
So it seems fair to approach Simpatico with a modicum of apprehension, even if it turns out that these dogs are too old to get particularly carried away with new tricks. There is a natural affinity between baggy and reggae (I foreswear the term “baggae” for this review, but I demand royalties for its re-use). The Charlatans native cockiness is a fitting stand-in for the moral certitude of reggae, while the unmitigated up-beatness of reggae fits well with baggy’s instinct to see the party potential in any lyrical situation. And that’s without even starting on the shared proclivity for chemical recreation.
The reggae bender does little to dampen the Charlatans trademark bombast and bluster. The first half of the album owes approximately as much to reggae as it does to propulsive 70’s pop. Lead single “Blackened Blue Eyes” opens the album with a barreling piano figure that must have been a Billy Joel bridge in a previous life. Revived as a continuous loop, it propels the track’s nonsensical euphoria into the non-sequitur minor-key chorus. The multi-tracked density of “Blackened Blue Eyes” bears a strong relationship to the overstuffed latter work of Oasis, but (instead of surliness) the Charlatans leaven their work with a welcome dose of humor.
Which is not to say that Simpatico doesn’t fall fantastically flat in places, but that the lapses seem more forgiveable. The Charlatans rarely settle for less than sweeping statements even when their lyrical content has all the weight of a cocoa puff. Thus the creeping, campy silliness of tracks like “NYC (There’s No Need to Stop),” which sounds like a cover of Sister Sledge, and will get the party started at the city’s next gay pride parade: “Underground, counterculture / Eats you up like a hungry vulture / Look at you, half alive / Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Worse still are the po-faced ballads “Road to Paradise” and “Glory Glory,” which were written to accompany a medical soap montage of someone sobbing next to their deceased uncle in pancake makeup. The band redeem themselves with the instrumental “Sunset & Vine,” but it takes a while to rinse the Splenda out of your ears.
Mostly, the band sticks to their strengths, making music for a party that ended sometime in the 90s, with the occasional reggae inflection to differentiate it from previous albums. But even at its most reggae-fied, Simpatico still sounds like The Charlatans (UK). “The Architect” tootles along on gated drums and choppy guitar, but never makes the white boy reggae error of trying to outskank the originals. Tim Burgess keeps his own accent and scrupulously avoids all references to Jah, Babylon, and, thankfully, I and I. In fact, building on the mock-eerie keyboard line, the track gradually morphs into a regular Charlatans number, submerging any reggae stylings in sonic overkill. Turns out the Charlatans aren’t very good phonies.