Wild Mercury Sound
The Last Shadow Puppets: "The Age Of The Understatement"
Yesterday, I watched a DVD of “Love Story”, a documentary about Love and Arthur Lee. It’s not the most elegant piece of film-making I’ve ever seen, but the research and the storytelling of Lee, Johnny Echols, Bryan Maclaine, Jac Holzman (who should have a film devoted to him and Elektra, I think) and many others make it compelling.
One of my favourite parts sees Lee ruefully exploring the Castle, a sprawling and ornate LA mansion that Love somehow came to occupy for a while in the mid ‘60s. Needless to say, the standards of hygiene and interior design weren’t quite as high during their period of residence. Nevertheless, it’s evident that the place had an atmosphere of baroque importance; perhaps, eventually, it contributed to the way Love’s music sounded.
I mention all this because, over the past few days, I’ve been listening to the debut album by Alex Turner and Miles Kane’s new project, The Last Shadow Puppets, and there are one or two tracks on there (“Standing Next To Me”, especially) that remind me of Love; not just in the lavish orchestrations, but in a nebulous sense of grandeur.
Consequently, “The Age Of The Understatement” doesn’t superficially sound much like the Arctic Monkeys, nor – perhaps mercifully – like the little I’ve heard from Kane’s day job, The Rascals. Besides those echoes of Love, the much-vaunted references to Scott Walker (well, the first four solo albums, I should say) prove correct, though yesterday we were also talking about Barry Ryan and “The Days Of Pearly Spencer”. Owen Pallett’s fulsome string arrangements are the most obvious throwback to that era, but it’s also evident in the galloping pace – think “Jacky” - set by the drumming of producer James Ford.
That said, if you were to strip back all this musical extravagance, I suspect you’d find that the essence of Turner’s songwriting remains much the same as it always has been. I think there’s a comparison to be made between the sort of elaborate sentences he favours – not least for bandnames and album titles – and his melodic sense; the way tunes wander quixotically around, sometimes seeming to head off tangentially on a whim.
So “The Age Of The Understatement” itself flies off at a frantic, bombastic pace – very studious allusions to Morricone here, too - but there’s a definite similarity between the opening orchestral flurry and the crashing riff that begins “Brianstorm”. The breakneck clip-clop of “Only The Truth”, the languid stutter of “Chamber”; with a few tweaks, these could comfortably work as Monkeys songs. The buzzing “I Don’t Like You Anymore”, frankly, wouldn’t need much work on it at all.
Turner might be able to change the packaging, but he isn’t yet quite capable of changing the essence of his art. Only the sashaying, Bacharach-esque “The Meeting Place” really breaks the mould. Looking for genetic traces here, you could feasibly spot something of Kane’s Liverpudlian forebears The Pale Fountains in this one (Mick Head not being averse to a bit of Love himself in his time, of course).
Two points to make about all this, I suppose. One: it’s probably no bad thing that Turner’s melodic idiosyncracies survive the transition, when he’s still coming up with songs as swaggeringly excellent as “Calm Like You”. Considering the standard of so much over-reaching indie that’s aspired to precisely reconstruct those Scott albums in the past, we should be grateful. Two: I figure we shouldn’t ascribe all of this to Turner and consequently underestimate the input of Kane. There’s a distinct parallel between The Last Shadow Puppets and The Raconteurs, not least in the way Turner and Kane swap vocals and, at times, are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
If there’s one more major difference between this and the Arctic Monkeys, though, it’s that, for all its paciness and supposed poppiness, “The Age Of The Understatement” is nowhere near as immediately striking as much of those Monkeys albums. On first listen, it struck me as a meticulous, gilded object, blessed with some lovely music (the brooding orchestral coda to “Black Plant”, say), but lacking truly great songs.
Half-a-dozen listens on, though, I’m won over. These songs are baroque, bejewelled puzzles that reveal their charms slowly, a little like some of the denser stuff at the rear end of “Favourite Worst Nightmares”. It’d be easy to presume that Turner (oh, and Kane) had over-extended himself here; tried to grow up too quickly, perhaps. Surely, he couldn’t be critically involved in another set of strong songs so soon? Well, he has. A fine record.