Taking their name for the French term for outsider art, although the ironically playful band will have you believe group members met at a conference for German scientist Arthur Brut, the South London band Art Brut has been making waves for their unique blend of simple, arty-punk rock. Think of the Velvet Underground (despite having a song which claims to hate the Velvet Underground) mixed with The Clash. That’s the obvious starting point for the band. Unlike those other two bands, who took themselves much too seriously, the very very British Art Brut, desisres for something a little less serious and a little more deprecating, a tad mocking, and very ironic.
Now Glynnie over at Greater Freedom of Movement told me Art Brut wasn’t really his cup of tea, but that after seeing them in concert their high energy performances won him over. Consisting of singer Eddie Argos, guitarists Chris Chinchilla (who has since left the band and been replaced by Jasper Future) and Ian Catskilkin, bassist Frederica Feedback and the drummer Mike, from their names alone it’s easy to understand just how seriously they take themselves.
But it’s really the songs and craftsmanship of their 2005 debut album “Bang Bang Rock & Roll” for which they’ve earned their reputation as punk comedians. The album landing on just about everyone’s year end lists.
But me I first heard of them from sadly, The Gilmore Girls. I think it was the episode where Zack was showing off his mandolin and Lane asks him what he’s written. Of course, the writers strain to sound hip so they name check every single band from The Decemberists to R.E.M. to Art Brut to god knows what else. It was a vomit moment for the usually stellar pop culture savy show. And so, after recognizing every band he name checks with the exception of Art Brut I felt like I should look into that. And then I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, yup you’re pretty lame.
The album kicks off with the ragged “Formed a Band,” in which it sounds as if singer Eddie Argos is making up the lyrics as he goes. “Look at us, we formed a band!” he shouts. “And yes, this is my singing voice, it’s not irony, it’s not rock and roll. We’re just talking to the kids,” he implores in a deadpan speak-singing voice. And just when you think this is the work of a retarded outsider artist, Argos hits listeners with lines like “I want to be the boy who writes the song that brings Palestine and Israel together. I want to write a song as universal as Happy Birthday.” Grand intentions indeed. With the chugging guitars and thumping baseline it’s clear that though their songs sound as if they were written by amateurs there is more going on beneath the surface.
One review claimed that song both celebrated and killed rock and roll at the same time. It’s not hard to argue that Art Brut writes conventional rock songs, but their lyrics deconstruct the meaning of being a rock and roller. Though the irony and comedy could cripple an album, lyrically it’s greatest strength is from Argos’s storytelling style. On the lament “Emily Kane” where he pines for the love of his life, a love developed in adolescents, a love where he claims “there’s a beast in my soul… I never thought I’d love again. I want school kids on busses screaming your name!” That earnestness should be on display more. It’s the side of Art Brut that should keep listeners coming back for more.
Unfortunately the album drags on and the screeching guitars and droling singing of the songs eventually bleed together into one lump of music. A shame for the album comes out of the gates with a full head of steam.