The Courteeners are not, as regular readers could probably guess, the sort of band I like much, and I generally try not to let the existence of groups like them bug me. Occasionally, though, I’ll become passingly outraged by something – like, say, the constant and wildly optimistic comparison that keeps being drawn between the Courteeners and The Smiths.
Comparing anything to The Smiths can be treacherous. But what galls me is the idea that anyone vaguely northern who writes a bit about a certain kind of life and imbues their pensées with a certain kind of volatile self-esteem is automatically anointed as the new Morrissey. The thing is, when Morrissey was writing at the top of the game, he painted vignettes that could easily be prosaic, but somehow became transcendent; something I’ve not spotted Liam from the Courteeners pulling off (though admittedly, I haven’t studied his work all that assiduously). The Smiths, I guess, achieved transcendence through the chiming power of their music, and the way in which Morrissey exploited the whimsical possibilities of the English language; excruciatingly self-conscious, for sure, but brilliant, too.
I don’t want to ruin a young band’s career by lumbering them with a ‘New Smiths’ millstone. That way lies Raymonde. But playing Wild Beasts’ debut, “Limbo, Panto” every day for the past week or so, I’m struck by how much that desperate, poetic straining for everyday epiphanies reminds me of The Smiths. It’s a wonderful record, I think, better even than the singles “Assembly” and “Through Dark Night” promised; lavish, fragile, expansive, funny, and quite annoying if you can’t deal with Hayden Thorpe’s gravel-spattered yodel.
Those two singles, riskily, aren’t included on “Limbo, Panto”. But the song titles that are here reveal a band wallowing in the quaint peculiarities of their mother tongue; “Vigil For A Fuddy Duddy”, “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyant”, “Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye” and so on. They’re trying terribly hard, quite clearly, but there’s a charm which allows them to get away with so much arcane English camp. It’s not always easy to work out what Thorpe is singing when you’re listening to Wild Beasts in the office, but there’s a marvellous moment in “Please Sir” where he gargles,”Take these chips with cheese/ As an offering of peace.”
Previously, ad nauseam, I’ve compared the band’s sound to Billy Mackenzie singing with Orange Juice, which I’ll stand by here. Now, though, it strikes me that a propitious cross between The Associates and Orange Juice might feasibly resemble the more opulent, awkward moments of The Smiths, and it’s that which becomes fixed in my mind as I listen to “Limbo, Panto”. “Woebegone Wanderers” in particular, a tempestuous and quite shockingly beautiful tale of non-league football, might just about sit well on “Meat Is Murder”. As might “The Old Dog”, come to think of it.
Wild Beasts are vigorously odder than The Smiths, mind, and it’s hard to see their clip-clopping excursions finding that kind of mainstream audience, not least because the vast majority of listeners (or those of a certain age, at least) will find Thorpe’s idiosyncratic falsetto uncomfortably reminiscent of Frank Ifield having a seizure.
The Kendal quartet, however, have a secret weapon to try and smuggle their delirious music a little closer to the masses. A couple of songs here – including, critically, the first single, “The Devil’s Crayon” – are fronted by Tom Fleming, who sings in a comforting, constant tone rather like that of Guy Garvey.
He’s good, too. But there’s a devilish pleasure in “The Devil’s Crayon” when, just as Wild Beasts start seeming to be, well, a little tamer, Thorpe barrels in, rambunctious and thrillingly unsteady. “We are so much mouldy dough,” he announces. It’s a fantastic, absurd moment on an album packed with them. Not sure all my long-suffering workmates are quite so smitten, mind. . .