Archive for April, 2008

The Indelicates- American Demo

April 13, 2008


A fierce, discriminating intelligence is always a turn-on. Especially when backed by tense, propulsive, tight-trousered, soaringly melodic, minor-key rock n’ roll. Which is why, despite sometimes coming across as uptight posh kids holding rock music gingerly at arm’s length, with equal degrees of anthropological fascination and bemused disgust (or maybe because of that?), The Indelicates are still a very sexy band.

So what do they sound like? Most obviously, The Indelicates recall The Auteurs, and Luke Haines in all his many misanthropic guises. Less obviously, but accurately, in that they constantly question the cliched conventions of the rock medium while happily using its greatest strengths (also cliches), and in that they always bite the hand that feeds them (but only after making damn sure they get fed), they recall The Sisters of Mercy, The Sex Pistols, The Psychedelic Furs, early Manic Street Preachers, and the John Cooper Clarke of ‘Beasley Street’. They’re the latest twist of the knife that began turning when Dylan first asked ‘how does it feel?’  and which continued through Johnny Rotten’s ‘ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated?’, via not only the self-conscious artifice of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but also the voracious, politicised self-empowerment of post-punk and riot grrl, yet without the paranoia and self-righteousness that ultimately resulted in said scenes being forever marginalised and impotent (In those terms, The Indelicates favour the entryism of Scritti Politti over the deliberate alienation of, say, The Pop Group, but without losing any of their genuine subversiveness or their neo-situationist critiques of the consumer media in which they operate. That their stated philosophy often seems closer to libertarianism than anarchism only further illustrates the degree to which they refuse to toe the party line).

The Indelicates hark back to a time, not that long ago, when it was taken for granted that a song would be about something, and music critics engaged with it and interrogated it on that basis. It was an approach that died out round about the mid-nineties beanfeast blandly labelled ‘Britpop,’ and perhaps it’s for this reason, as much as the band’s average age, that more than anything American Demo seems rooted in the indie and college rock of the earlier part of that decade; possibly the last stand of alternative music as a genuine outsider force, that did actually attempt to offer a constructive alternative to a stultifying status quo. It was the tail end of a noble tradition stretching back beyond punk, that a few years later was cheerily sold down the river in return for a few nosebags of cocaine, corporate major label sponsorship and the keys to number ten. But I’m getting off the subject…

For the sake of convenience, if not accuracy, The Indelicates are a Brighton band. The creative and songwriting core are a young couple, Simon Clayton and Julia Laird-Clowes, who moved to nearby Lewes precisely in order to avoid being labelled a Brighton band by lazy writers like myself. It was a fine, if futile gesture. Although having said that, they hardly ever gig in Brighton, aren’t on every guest list in town and don’t drink in the Heart and Hand, so they probably have a point. Ahem. Okay, The Indelicates are not a Brighton band. Simon and Julia were both Brighton poets for several years though, back when Brighton had a poetry scene that was worth being involved in, when it was good. Julia was also in The Pipettes, who are a Brighton band, back when they were worth being involved in, when they were good, when they still did that song about loving a boy in uniform (school uniform!), and had an edge that a few months later was cheerily sold down the river for… oh, hang on, I’ve already done this bit…

One criticism is that sometimes with The Indelicates, it seems as though the music comes second to getting their message across. American Demo is accomplished yet deeply conservative, musically, and Julia’s high, cut glass vocals, while note-perfect, can grate, while Simon’s range is limited to a Luke Haines / Rep Butler whispered sneer. One could be tempted to wonder whether the band have written these songs because they love music as such, or whether it’s merely the sugar coating to help the unpalatable medicine slip down. Are we being cynically manipulated into agreeing with statements just because they come wrapped in exhilirating rock n’ roll that stirs up the emotions? It’s an old trick, but it’s one that The Indelicates openly acknowledge. From Nazi propaganda to modern-day advertising, our unconscious emotional responses are constantly manipulated by those with an agenda, and The Indelicates expose and comment on these deceptions as they use them- the equivalent of the stage magician pulling back the curtain and showing us exactly how the illusion works, while knowing full well that we’ll still be fooled and impressed by the trick the next time around.

This is The Indelicates’ main theme: the dangers of romanticism in appealing to our buried, irrational impulses and allowing them to overwhelm any clear and logical, reasoned argument. This is how rock music works, they say; it’s insidious and deadly. Look, you see what we just did? And you fell for it. Watch out next time- oops, we did it again…  

 The Indelicates are also harsh realists; American Demo is so called because that’s what all British indie debut albums ultimately are. Yet there’s nothing in the least fawning or apologetic about this record. The cover features Simon, Julia and a can of white paint, engaged in the act of ‘drawing the line’ (faces straight, tongues in cheeks), while the opening overture, an orchestral, instrumental arrangement of the anthemic ‘New Art for the People’ (again, faces straight, tongues in cheeks…) announces their ambitions early, before Ed Van Beinum’s stomping drums herald the opening song proper, ‘The Last Significant Statement to be made in Rock n’ Roll’ (faces straight, tongues… oh, you get the picture).

If you’re still with me this far, then you’ll doubtless agree that an opening song called ‘The Last Significant Statement to be made in Rock n’ Roll’ is a great thing purely on the strength of its title alone.  That it’s every second the sardonic, post-modern, twisted glam anthem with a heart of bitter, beating darkness that you’d hope it would be just makes you realise the woeful lack of ambition in what passes for pop songwriting these days. ‘Everything that follows is a footnote,’ Simon insists, ‘that we can cling to when we are old.’ Rock n’ roll is over- the myth is over- it’s time to grow up. Rebellion is just a commodity and a tool of cultural imperialism. Rock n’ roll, once a thing of vicious beauty, must be killed by those who love it, before it can be corrupted and demeaned any further- before it can do any more harm. So The Indelicates begin their debut album by writing rock’s epitaph, its final word. Where do they go from here?

Well, if anything this incredibly strong opening is topped by Julia’s ‘Our Daughters Will Never Be Free.’ This is what The Pipettes should have sounded like: handclaps like slaps across the face and a burbling Lieutenant Pigeon moog sound that producer Brian O’Shaughnessy probably last used on the last Denim LP. ‘Our Daughters…’ brilliantly skewers the ridiculous (but oft-repeated) claims that The Spice Girls, laddette culture and post-ironic soft porn are somehow empowering women rather than betraying every advance that unfashionable, intellectually demanding, hard feminism fought tooth and nail for throughout the 1970s and ’80s (before being cheerily sold down the river for… you know). The fear expressed is that the history books really have been re-written, and that nobody under the age of thirty (and precious few over it) even remembers a time when you didn’t have to, would never want to, and wouldn’t dare suggest that you should, get your tits out in order to get on in life. In fact, ‘Our daughters…’ is a wider indictment of a culture built on vacuous, self-serving stupidity (‘I think it’s fine to make people smile, I think it’s fine to force people to smile… let’s just be pretty, it’s more fun that way’), as much as it is a specifically feminist tirade. 

This theme continues in the wonderfully catchy and pop-tastic ‘Sixteen,’ which satirises the tendency, particularly in the so-called creative media, to wilfully retard one’s mental and emotional growth in the name of fun and profit. Note the way the climactic countdown (‘I wanna be 16, even though I’m 23, 24, 25…’) stops just short of mentioning the dreaded 30, in much the same manner as The Clash’s ‘1977’ stopped just before the equally significant date of 1984. Clash fans, however, may quail at ‘Julia, we don’t live in the 60s,’ in which Simon dares to suggest that ‘we never had it so good- life is sweet,’ in our modern, liberal, cosmopolitan and conspiciously wealthy society. His thesis is that protest has been rendered meaningless because too many people choose to protest purely as a self-gratifying lifestyle accessory- ‘the war at home has been betrayed by too many boys on barricades.’ 

One could argue that there’s a whiff of ‘let them eat cake’ about The Indelicates’ position here; for a lot of people, both at home and abroad, life isn’t sweet at all. There’s evidence that all of our western affluence and freedom is actually making most of us unhappier than we were fifty years ago, and this can’t all be put down to a generation of spoilt, ungrateful malcontents. Plus our own high standard of living is directly maintained at the expense of those living under extreme poverty and/or oppression in less well-off countries. Yes, we may never have had it so good, and radical chic may never go out of fashion, and young men do like to have causes to fight for, worthy or not, but some people do make a stand out of an old-fashioned sense of morality and justice, too.   

Still, it’s easy to blandly like records that say nothing; it’s more enjoyable to engage with those that you may sometimes deeply disagree with, but which at least provoke you to think. The reflective ‘It’s Better to Know’ recalls Suede, or even These Animal Men’s more elegaic moments (specifically the magnificent ‘You’re Not my Babylon’ in its dying coda). ‘The truth can make you bitter, even when it sets you free,’ Simon admits. And yet, ‘the pursuit of liberty is still a noble cause.’

The disquieting, anti-romantic epic ‘Stars’ is a stand-out, possibly the album’s centrepiece, building from pastoral orchestral balm to a wall of squalling guitar noise and stabbing violins. ‘I’m in love with the boy next door,’ Julia sings, ‘he treats me like a filthy whore.’ What follows is a perfect, self-contained kitchen sink drama of unfulfilled lives and potential betrayed, in which ‘the stars don’t shine for me and you,’ and increasingly threadbare and tawdry dreams are clung to at the expense of real accomplishment or happiness.

 It’s followed by ‘New Art for the People,’ a kind of companion piece which opens with the rather marvellous line, ‘But for the cum in your hair, the cocaine on your teeth…’ delivered over melancholy piano chords as though it were the most romantic sentiment ever uttered by man. The Indelicates’ world is full of mutually destructive relationships, girls who take up with unsuitable, abusive men just to upset their fathers and martyr themselves, and sensitive bewildered males running away from reality and responsibility through drugs, sex, romantic illusions and solipsistic, self-deluding ‘art,’ dreaming of ‘the dark days ahead and the blood on the bed and the front page of the NME.’

Taking these themes a stage further, ‘Unity Mitford’ is a love song to Adolf Hitler that manages to be disturbingly universal. ‘These people don’t even think like we do, you and I we’re a different species… I love it when you speak so passionately…’ It deconstructs romanticism to reveal the death wish and latent facism lurking beneath, while revelling in a Luke Haines-like fascination with the darker chapters of English history.

Some of the later songs don’t quite work: ‘Heroin,’ with its forgettable tune and flimsy conceit of ‘my heroine takes heroin,’ is the sort of idea that Chumbawumba might run with, and while ‘If Jeff Buckley had Lived’ is an improvement, and rises above being just an obvious criticism of the posthumous sainthoods conveyed on flawed human artists who just happen to die young and full of potential, thanks to lines like ‘there’s a flicker of religion in the chances you take,’ it still struggles to stand up to repeated listening, especially when Simon decides the pudding really needs a few more eggs and so rams the point home with a blunt instrument on the final chorus.

Be thankful then, for the brilliant single, ‘America’: a song you can headbang to, thanks to a big, culturally-appropriate riff that’s the equivalent of cruising into town in a beautifully clumsy, unsubtle, fuel-guzzling Pontiac Thunderbird. ‘This little England, it’s dingy and it’s mean,’ Simon begins, not so much embracing the current American regime as damning the state of Britain in favour of an ideal of America, and that reluctantly: ‘When they pin me to the wall, I’ll say I’m with America, with Godless America I’ll stand and I’ll fall; and though it cuts me to the soul that it must be America, it must be America, or nothing at all.’

Note that it’s godless America; stout rationalists and militant athesists that they are, The Indelicates have no truck with the fundamentalist Christian right that are behind the Bush administration. Indeed the song makes no excuses for the military adventures of the present government (the responsibility for which equally lies with the UK, after all), but merely points out how ridiculous and hypocritical it is for anyone involved in rock music to take a knee-jerk anti-American stance. The America that The Indelicates embrace is the America that gave us jazz, blues, rock n’ roll, hip-hop, civil rights, gay rights, feminism and a stated commitment to liberty, equality and freedom of speech that, while often flaunted and contradicted, remains unique among nations. The harsh truth is that, as a reigning super power, America is a lot better than any of the other alternatives around at the moment, and while she may be the neighbourhood bully, we’ll all be only too glad to hide behind her skirts when real trouble comes looking for us. Of course, that real trouble has most likely been provoked by America’s actions in the first place… 

The album closes with ‘We Hate The Kids,’ a bookending companion piece to ‘The last significant statement…’ in which the band bemoan their generation’s apathy, their art and their music, concluding that it’s just the same as what’s gone before, the same cliches churned out over and over again, to the same predictable emotional response. ‘Every generation gets fooled again, and I’m sorry that I can’t join in anymore.’ It’s all a con trick, and they even apologise for their part in it. Completely dissillusioned with everything that they tried to believe in, The Indelicates leave the party, front door swinging open behind them, having pissed in the canapes and vomited on the carpet.

Hell hath no fury like a romantic forced to accept reality. And while I don’t agree with everything The Indelicates have to say- no-one is as clever as they think they are- better this than another protest singer singing protest songs we already agree with. I said before that American Demo was a sexy record, and it is- because sex is the business of adults and grown-ups, and a record with intellectual as well as visceral and emotional content will always be more exciting than the petulant thrashing of whinging children, or re-heated, vacuous prog noodling. If you crave songs that accurately express your own bitter disgust with the state of the world, that engage with their culture with style, intelligence and dignity, then you need this record. The bar has just been raised.

American Demo is out tomorrow (April 14th) on Weekender Records