What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?
he Noisettes do a pleasing line in slap-happy, anti-authoritarian riffs and growls, several of which might as well be Rolling Stones covers; certainly Mick would have fun with the naughty-nonsense lyrics: “And if I was you, I’d use the loo before the long drive / We complement each other just like Satan and Christ.” If you’d never heard rock and roll or punk before, What’s the Time Mr. Wolf? would be pretty rad. Apparently there’s a market for that these days.
The Noisettes follow in the pyromaniac footsteps of the Duke Spirit, gathering the twisted timber of discarded Stones licks as kindling to torch their witch-singer, an auto-da-fé of thumping, grinding, and wailing. But where the Spirit aligned their riffs with an Interpol-like sense of cosmic inertia, the Noisettes chosen alloy is production-friendly punk à la the Distillers, with occasional unwonted acoustic-guitar diversions, all underwritten by Shingai Shoniwa’s ample vocal wallop. Alas, the whole thing never coheres, as though the band haven’t quite settled on their sound—Mr. Wolf would be an auspicious demo, but is a rather lukewarm debut.
The album’s raison d’etre is Shoniwa’s Valkyrie voice, resplendent in laddered tights and muddy trainers. “The Count of Monte Cristo” employs a faux-cutesy patter that Shoniwa tears apart with evident glee, while the band builds something oddly like a hoedown behind her. Anyone trying too hard to find referents outside of rock and roll orthodoxy might even hear brief echoes of mbira music’s compound-rhythm catatonia in the coda. (Shoniwa is Zimbabwean; on “IWE” the band chants the title, which in Shona means “YOU,” in the sense of “Hey you!” But the album doesn’t belabor nationality, and one imagines it will be some time before their headlining gig at the Harare Gardens. Nonetheless, when Shoniwa sings, “The hierarchy, this monarchy’s going to fall,” you can’t help but wonder who she has in mind.)
The trouble is, Shoniwa et al. get mired in rock traditionalism. The hooting and hollering on “Don’t Give Up” is impressive, harking back even to Odetta in its deft textural slaps. But there are simply too few surprises. At their best, on the mock-epic “Bridge to Canada,” about a bitter, long-distance breakup (both romantical and musical), the band multitrack themselves to beef up their sound for something windswept, but still can’t conceal an essential thinness behind the chundering and squealing guitars (and the key change is a dead giveaway).
“IWE” hints at something more substantial beyond the posturing and by-the-numbers bombast, dialing back the verse to contrast with Shoniwa’s righteous shriek, but after the eerie chanted bridge, it’s as though the band can’t think of anywhere else to go. Dan Smith turns in a thoroughly adept solo that is nonetheless a prisoner of history, redolent of a strutting guitar heroism torn loose from the moorings of blues melodicism.
The band play tight and seamless, tumbling over words and riffs with the unflagging enthusiasm that is their greatest strength, like teenagers plundering the vinyl collection of a wayward uncle. For many, the enthusiasm will suffice, particularly because the songs seldom overstay their welcome. The rest of us can hope that a formally accomplished debut bodes well for the follow-up.