Just as the Internet has arrived to bring nations together in one big e-mailed chorus of “It’s a Small World After All,” the American record biz has entrenched itself in a phase of Brit-phobia more severe than in any other pop period since the one before the Beatles came over to snap us out of post-JFK-assassination depression. While Sweden pens pop ditties more mellifluous than our own and fluke Eurodance hits keep flying out of Denmark and Italy, England’s still-mighty electronica and indie scenes routinely hit a Yank wall of UNI/WEA/BMG/EMI resistance. It was prerelease Internet buzz that catapulted Radiohead to instant number one, not Total Request Live, not test-market-research radio. Why look for the next big aesthetic when we can keep on backin’ up that billion-dollar boyband bizkit industry?
Yet even as we snub art-house Brit rockers and bliss-crazed clubbers, the Internet lets us keep closer tabs than ever on what remains the world’s trendiest pop scene—a country where the singles chart is overtaken by new records every week and the album chart by bands known only to their mothers a few months ago.
We look to Carson Daly to tell us what to buy, while in England, the music press still calls the shots, building ’em up and knocking ’em down with an authority both hilarious and enviable. While we were just getting a taste of that year-old Travis album—the most accessible English rock record since Oasis cloned all accessible English rock records before them—the newbies in Coldplay topped the U.K. album chart upon release last July of their Travis-y debut, Parachutes, which finally reaches American shores this week. You could anticipate the backlash brewing in NME‘s review: “The criticism most often leveled at Coldplay (certainly round these parts) is that they will never be the saviors of rock’n’roll. They will never cause front-page tabloid sensation and they really like their parents.”
Such sweetness is tantamount to sellout in a country continuously pining for the next Sex Pistols to come along and piss on the queen, so although reviews were uniformly favorable, the loo doo-doo hit the fan when the band found itself the instant 3-to-1 bookie favorite to win England’s critic-determined Mercury Prize. Alan McGee, head of the newly dissolved Creation label that all Brit-crits worshiped, whined that his veteran band Primal Scream didn’t get a nomination “because they don’t suck corporate cock,” and declared Coldplay “bed wetter’s music.” Despite guitarist Jon Buckland’s firm denial (“I’ve never wet the bed. I once did a poo under the table when I was three, but that’s about it”), Coldplay and their guitar-band allies, Doves, lost to multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Badly Drawn Boy.
These three acts face off for Best New Band and Album of the Year status at the Q Awards, the next English-press-fueled contest. Unlike the Mercury nominations, which do try to reflect the scope of British music, the Q’s solely reflect its sponsor. Q magazine focuses on the commercial end of Anglo art-rock, which, in the wake of Brit-pop’s decline, nearly all sounds like Radiohead. It’s easy for us to be condescending about this—unless we cop to the reality that most of our big rock acts offer similarly slight variations on Rage, Pearl Jam, Green Day, and Hootie, none of them exactly a hotbed of innovation or variation. Call me an Anglophile, but given the choice between bands modeled after oddballs who went way out on their recent ultraconfrontational Saturday Night Live appearance and bands cloned from the genes of the doofus who scaled the scaffolding during the MTV Music Awards, I’ll take the bed wetters any day.
Like Radiohead, Coldplay, Doves, and Badly Drawn Boy employ predigital instrumentation, then mess with it as a dance music producer would—not to push the groove higher, but to reflect their souls’ unease and struggle for release. Their proximity to European club culture is akin to the hip-hop effect on American bands. We wanna get paid, represent, and chill. They aim to re-create those Ecstasy-addled peaks of emotional clarity and openness.
Manchester’s Doves began as Sub Sub, a house act who scored a diva-driven, M People-ish smash called “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)” in 1993, then went back underground until a studio fire jarred the trio into dubby guitar melancholia. Fellow Mancunian Damon Gough, a/k/a Badly Drawn Boy, like the bedroom DJs he resembles, creates home-recorded, self-overdubbed arrangements with a little help from his Doves pals. Coldplay lean closer to classic rock, but value otherworldly melody as highly as any European trance DJ.
It’s easy to bully twee Coldplay leader Chris Martin, who obviously spent a few private moments alone with Jeff Buckley’s quivering tenor. “Shiver” sports all the Buckley trademarks—rollicking 6/8 time scheme, swoony falsetto swoops, dual-guitar interplay that alternates chiming verses with charging choruses, shadowy poetry reveling in romantic submission. Quieter tracks like “Sparks” come closer to what makes Travis pleasant background pop. A plunking bassline broods under a swirl of acoustic strums, jazz piano, twinkling vibraphone, and understated crooning. There’s little on Parachutes that demands attention or punctures the pensive spell, and, unlike Travis’s, Coldplay’s hooks are slight. These indistinct London lads might as well be Canadian (and they are, indeed, signed in North America to Canada’s Nettwerk, label home of kindred spirit Sarah McLachlan).
Doves’ Lost Souls offers more substance, even while fixating on a more distant nova. For the first seven tracks, twin brothers Jez and Andy Williams and bassist Jimi Goodwin drown distorted sighs with a gently lapping groove-based variant on the guitar-pedal-pumping shimmer of bygone Brit shoegazer bands Ride and Slowdive. Then on “Catch the Sun,” Goodwin’s cry suddenly reaches the surface, reverb melts away, and the band rocks out with an urgency that lives up to the song’s central metaphor of fleeting spiritual illumination. It’s painful, startlingly perfect, fucking gorgeous. And the album continues in that clear, emotionally naked vein until bonus tracks loop Lost Souls back into abstraction.
The Hour of Bewilderbeast doesn’t boast anything so fully realized, and that’s part of Badly Drawn Boy’s humble charm. Instead it putters here and there across 18 ditties and doodles gracefully arranged, but played with two left feet and recorded to match. As the cello and French horn in the opening cut, “The Shining,” announce, this is European chamber music realized as indie rock. While the members of Coldplay and Doves submerge their individual identities beneath the leveling anonymity of ensemble performance, Gough suggests a prematurely whimsical loner reading his musical diary entries aloud. His lyrics aren’t particularly confessional, but his fragile low-fi delivery is. This English Elliott Smith’s got a plainspeak voice that compels with repeated listenings, and the subtle tunes are likewise sneaky, enlivened by all sorts of quirky bits, like the pitch-tweaking slide guitar of “Everybody’s Stalking” and the homemade classical gas of “Stone on the Water.” His lost-love song cycle isn’t a body record: Unlike Parachutes and Lost Souls, Bewilderbeast loses its power as it’s played louder. It makes you feel like you’re trapped in Gough’s cramped apartment, sandwiched between the instruments and piles of dirty laundry left by the latest in a series of ex-girlfriends who vanished without warning or explanation. It’s got that musty smell, that sense of familiar mystery.
Ultimately, the most striking thing about these records is their denial. They spring from an indie scene now collectively embarrassed about Brit-pop, a movement that generated more stupid rivalries, stupid Union Jacks, and stupid rock star behavior than smart records. Coldplay and Doves suggest U2 or Echo and the Bunnymen without leaders, while Gough’s messy Badly Drawn Boy shtick rebels against today’s sleek, factory-designed idols. Unwilling to give up guitars but fed up with the blank bravado that’s gone with them, these unassuming craftsmen have yet to fill the hole left by their consciously avoiding charisma. There’s beauty, bliss, and soul-baring, but no buzz. It’s as if England’s lost the knack for its greatest export—hype. And that’s not a good thing.