Baggy veterans go reggae on eclectic ninth album.
Death, embezzlement, nervous breakdowns – the first half of the Charlatans’ career alone packed in enough incident to send most bands fleeing for a desk in the Civil Service. If things have taken a more surreal turn recently, with drummer Jon Brooks’ unscheduled onstage appearance with Franz Ferdinand, and Tim Burgess’ role in light-hearted supergroup The Chavs (with Primal Scream’s Duffy, Carl Barat and Andy Burrows from Razorlight), think of it as therapy.
Having resolved their internal squabbles with 2001’s career best Wonderland, The Charlatans have clearly decided that if they’re stuck with each other, they might as well enjoy themselves. Gone, then, is the feisty if predictable Charlies-rock of 2004’s Up At The Lake. Instead, their ninth studio album is a sprawling mix of dub, loose-limbed boogie and weirdo guitar-pop which will leave newer converts scratching their heads and fans of 1994’s bleak third album, Up To Our Hips, reaching for the Rizla’s.
Opener “Blackened Blue Eyes” is a reminder that when they do funky, bar-room rock, there’s no-one to match them, and Tim Burgess’ voice is ever more an instrument of hope and resilience on lyrics like, “We all need a shoulder to cry on/Once in a while.” But after that, you can almost hear the rulebook flying from the studio window. A choir of rampaging Cossacks invade the chorus of The Specials-influenced “City Of The Dead”. “Sunset & Vine” is a synth-heavy Moroder-like soundscape, and mid-tempo skank “Muddy Ground” relocates The Stones’ “Waiting On A Friend” to a windswept Glastonbury Tor. The ever-present whiff of Camberwell Carrot, meanwhile, reaches a pungent peak on creditable dub-plate “The Architect” – a nod, presumably, to paranoiac’s favourite The Matrix.
Talk of Simpatico as the band’s Sandinista, is, in truth, wide of the mark. It’s better seen as a footpath linking the claustrophobia of their early work with the Black Country funk of Wonderland, whilst hinting at a way forward for this most durable and eclectic of bands. As Burgess sings gleefully in the raunchy punk-funk of “NYC (No Need To Stop)”, “We’re not here to educate/Only here to stay up late!” The Walsall pact remains inviolable.
By Paul Moody