Brad Mehldau Trio

Who said subtlety can’t smack you around? The pianist has built a career on making sure nuances walk tall and whispers resound. He and his band are known for perpetually bringing dynamic savvy to the next level, and the fact they’ve done so while feeding a youngish audience treats from Radiohead, Oasis, and Soundgarden helps explain why it might be tough to get a seat this week. Hard to beat a mix of killer chops and songbook savvy.

May 5-10, 9 & 11 p.m., 2009


A Deeper Shade of Shoegaze

Afro-geek rockers Apollo Heights are recognized on the Lower East Side for their “soulgazing” wall of guitars and lo-fi grit; on their debut disc, White Music for Black People, frontman Daniel Chavis seems to be as influenced by the falsetto flow of Donny Hathaway as he is by Cocteau Twins aural angel Liz Fraser. Even though a generation of boho folks unfamiliar with the tragic tension of Hathaway’s voice might argue, anyone who’s ever listened to the quiet-storm heartache of that particular ’70s soul suicide victim will hear the similarities. As Chavis’s haunting voice wrings every drop of doomed romanticism from the depths of the deliriously explosive “Dankini” and the symphonic guitar textures of “Everlasting Goppstopper,” these songs serve as a reply to anyone who thinks that soul is missing from the indie-rock scene. Imagine if A.R. Kane had done the soundtrack to Super Fly and you’ve got an idea as to what Apollo Heights represents.

Like the Kinks and Oasis before them, the band is led by constantly squabbling siblings—in this case, identical twin brothers from South Carolina named Daniel and Danny. (Danny plays guitar and bass.) “Ain’t that the most country shit you ever heard?” laughed the friend who took me to see Apollo Heights five years ago in some forgotten East Village dive. “Who would name their kids Daniel and Danny?”

Having come of age during the CBGB/Knitting Factory scene—when Black Rock was the rage and groups like Living Colour, Eye & I, and 24/7 Spyz were blazing an underground-railroad trail with electric guitars and brazen Mohawks—it was cool watching Apollo Heights blare away at their own brand of black noise. Whereas Vernon Reid, Melvin Gibbs, and Jimi Hazel had a muscular, furious sound more in line with Zeppelin or AC/DC, the Apollo Heights crew pays homage to the 4AD dreamland posse that once included the Pixies, Lush, and, of course, the Cocteau Twins, whose chief auteur, Robin Guthrie, produced four tracks on White Music for Black People.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, “the twins” (as everybody calls the Chavis brothers) were formerly members of the Veldt, whose Afrodisiac (1994) marked the genesis of the Apollo Heights sound. “It was during that period that we first worked with producer Diamond D, who introduced us to looping and programming,” says Danny. “To me, the Cocteau Twins always sounded like Schoolly D with guitars, and we wanted that sound on our records.”

The AH lineup includes bassist (and LES party animal) Micha Gaugh on keyboards, guitarists Honeychild Coleman and Monk Washington, and programmer
Hayato Nakao. Favoring what Danny describes as Hayato’s “pristine but still raw” programmed beats to live drums,
the resulting monster-movie soundscapes have more in common with RZA than Eno. But there’s plenty of the latter. White Music for Black People wasn’t the first title the group considered. “I was sitting around one day with Honeychild, and we were just throwing out titles,” Daniel recalls, surrounded by his bandmates in his downtown crib last month, with a picture of Jimi Hendrix staring down from the wall. “White Noise and AC Outlet/DC Guitars were two of our rejects. People shouldn’t read too much into the title.”

Thinking back to my own memories of listening to Kiss in my Harlem apartment, I can clearly remember my brother taunting me for listening to “that white-boy music.” Certainly it’s a dilemma Apollo Heights can relate to. “Guitars went out of style in the black community a long time ago,” says Danny. “Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack had been replaced. With Apollo Heights, we make soul songs for people that hate our music.”

I wanted to believe that the band is named after a made-up mystical land, but Daniel tells me that Apollo Heights was the housing project where he and Danny’s grandmother once lived in North Carolina. I like that even more. Indeed, it’s that Southern element of blues and gospel, soul and funk that supplies the band’s foundation, and it makes me smile to know they aren’t ashamed of those origins.

And unlike their homeboys TV on the Radio (whose David Sitek produced the art-funk delight “Disco Lights”), who sometimes come across as a bit cold and existential, Apollo Heights radiate with heat and emotion. “Sometimes when we’re playing ‘Everlasting Goppstopper,’ I’ll look up, and people will just be making out,” blurts Honeychild, the only female in the group. “Other times, there will be these lesbians checking me out. Girls love me because I have an air of mystery.”

Without making a fuss about the extent of their experimentation, Apollo Heights deliver an organic hybrid of jangling guitars, soul-powered vocals, and breakbeat science that works smoothly without being rhythmically pretentious. Though I could’ve lived my entire life without hearing guest-star Mos Def scream fake-punk raps over guitars, as he does on the not-entirely-wack “Concern” (one day John Lydon is going to slap the shit out of him), White Music for Black People digs deep. Through a storm of feedback and distortion, these guys have no problem exposing their electric souls. Indeed, there aren’t many artists who can make oceanic r&b (in this case, the “r” stands for rock) that would just as easily fit into a surreal David Lynch film as it would a back-lit bump ‘n’ grind scene from a blaxploitation flick.

Apollo Heights play the Annex November 14, 152 Orchard Street


Well Regulated

Some famous dude once said, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but in this fast-changing, trend-chasing
city, burnt-out folks desperately cling to the opposite. Situated on a
placid stretch of Columbia Street that feels like the inverse of the hectic
and trendy Smith Street scene a few blocks over, Lido Bar (200 Columbia
Street, Brooklyn) rests comfortably between the yuppie hangout B61 and the
scummy-chic Moonshine, striking a balance between the two with its low-key

On a recent Tuesday night we wandered through the establishment’s garage-like, retractable door that effectively erases the boundary between bar and sidewalk (though the smoking crowd would disagree). Stepping over the threshold into the ocher-colored room was like breaking the fourth wall on a stage set. We quickly performed the mandatory dive test: Dim lighting? Yup. Pool table? No doubt. Dusty beat-up board games? Bingo.

There was no crowd to speak of—that’s the beauty of dives-—just some dudes in cargo shorts shooting stick in the back and a gentleman sipping merlot at the bar with his pooch in the next seat. Yet, unlike some bars that strain to achieve the same insouciant mood (here’s looking at you, L.E.S.), the pieces all fit. The spot just has that slow, scruffy charm of a stoner pal: “Hey buddy,” it inquires amiably, “How you been?”

In one corner sits Big Buck Hunter for your blood-lust fantasies, while decorations from various holidays gone by dangle from the ceiling. Twin television sets frame the bar like single quotes, and the jukebox is loaded with go-to standards like Oasis and Dolly Parton, as well as homemade mixes with their tiny hand-scrawled track-listings. Nothing new perhaps, but counterculturally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Things stayed mellow as folks drifted in and out, a starving artist type clearly taking a creative break dropped in to kick back a few while chatting with the barman. Taking a cue from the lazy atmosphere, we settled in. For $5 we selected our personal soundtrack for the evening—T. Rex, Avalanches, The Clash (twice)—and planted ourselves at the bar. There are no surprises (we like it like that) to be had in the generic draft selections: Red Hook IPA, Brooklyn Lager, and Harpoon—although they did come in mug and pint sizes ($4 and $5 respectively). Inspired by the warm weather, I opted for a can of Tecate ($3) doctored up with a bit of salt, a spritz of lime, and a few dashes of Tabasco. It tasted just like Spring Break, minus the sunburn and mysterious bruises.

The evening unspooled at the same leisurely pace. We enjoyed the end of the 2-4-1 Happy Hour, which stretched from 5–8 p.m. The bartender greeted newcomers like regulars and even comped a couple rounds—that’s just what friends do. By the way, it was Mark Twain who said that thing about familiarity and contempt, but he bankrupted himself, so what the hell did he know?


Nickelback U.K.

Fact: Denizens of the U.K. are completely inept at gauging the artistic merit of their pop groups. A band can’t just be the Biggest—it also has to be the Best. In America, we don’t have this problem. Nickelback, though Canadian, is the biggest band in the States, and everyone knows they suck.

Which brings us to Arctic Monkeys’ Favourite Worst Nightmare, the follow-up to last year’s chart-splattering, word-count-shattering debut. For the Brits, Arctic Monkeys are the Greatest Rock Band of All Time Right Now, the latest in an esteemed lineage that includes the Beatles, the Clash, the Jam, Joy Division, the Smiths, Stone Roses, Blur, Oasis, and finally, [The New Band, a/k/a Futureheads, Bloc Party, Babyshambles, so on and so forth]. Do they ever remember that for every Oasis there’s about a dozen Menswears and Bluetones and Sleepers? No, they do not.

So, Nightmare: A perfectly decent rock record. “This House Is a Circus” does in three minutes what Trainspotting did in two hours, as the band’s trustworthy herky-jerky guitars underscore frontman Alex Turner’s daft (ha!) observation that “We’re forever unfulfilled/And can’t think why/Like a search for murder clues/In a dead man’s eyes.” The basslines? Why yes, they do sound nicked (zing!) from the Jam. And those drums? He surely does drum fast and furious, like every Brit rock drummer before him. What this album isn’t: All Mod Cons, Meat Is Murder, etc. What this album is, and should be perfectly comfortable with being: Supergrass’
I Should Coco. There’s nothing wrong with singing witty lyrics fast and loud; there’s just nothing very special about it.

But since NME is practically insisting on it, let’s compare these blokes to a truly great U.K. band: Blur, which followed up its hugely successful debut with 1993’s
Modern Life Is Rubbish, one of the best Britrock LPs of all time. Blur was a versatile band that could drop punk, disco, and all other kinds of weirdness into its sound, a band that could rule the dance floor, then step outside to examine a back alley or a country house. Arctic Monkeys have yet to show a smidgen of that kind of versatility. They’re playing at being rock stars, and doing a helluva a job at it, but a band for the ages? Bollocks.

Arctic Monkeys play Hammerstein Ballroom May 15,


Bring on the Backlash

“Hype” is probably the nastiest of all four-letter words these days, and no band on earth right now has more of it than the Arctic Monkeys. Over the last seven months, the Sheffield quartet—none of whom are of American drinking age—has been lauded as 2005’s Best Breakthrough Act at the Brit Awards. Their sound and/or lyrics have drawn comparisons to such monsters of Brit rock as the Clash, early Elvis Costello, the Jam, Blur, Pulp, and the Smiths. Furthermore, they’ve been declared the most “important” British band since (pick one) Oasis, the Sex Pistols, or, it has even been dared, the Beatles. The fuckin’ Beatles, man!

And unlike so many other NME-anointed savior-of-rock flops (Sigue Sigue Sputnik, anyone? Gay Dad? Libertines? Hello, is this thing on?), the Monkeys have backed their hype with feats, at least in Blighty. On the week of its release, the band’s debut LP, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, outsold the other 19 records in the top 20 combined. Even before they signed with Domino, their U.K. shows sold out quicker than one-dollar Pabst Blue Ribbon at a Pixies reunion gig. For once, the hype took.

And inevitably, the backlash has begun. On the title track of Who the F*ck Are the Arctic Monkeys?, the band’s spanking-new EP, the band acknowledged as much in grand fashion, with a defiant taunt from raspy-voiced singer Alex Turner: “Bring on the backlash!”

Bold, kids. “Very bold indeed,” laughingly agrees Monkeys drummer Matt Helders over the phone from a tour stop in Munich. “It does ‘appen to everybody, dunnit, in England especially. And I think it kinda has started in a way—people not likin’ us because it’s not cool anymore or whatever. There’s no denying things like that do ‘appen, and I guess we anticipated it and we’re letting everybody know it’s gonna ‘appen. It won’t be a surprise. One step ahead. Reverse psychology to stop ’em from doin’ it.”

Yep, he’s right about it having happened—already reviewers are lining up to claim that the Monkeys are so January, or that they aren’t as good as any number of similar bands, or they whip themselves up into a frenzy of left-wing indignation decrying the white-male paternalist media power structure that anoints pasty guitar rock bands as saviors at the expense of East London dubstep grimecore acts or whatever. Bollocks to all of that. The Arctic Monkeys are a fucking great band. No, they don’t have some earthshakingly original sound—in the broadest terms, it’s much the same funk-tinged postpunk we heard from bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, and Kaiser Chiefs, albeit with occasional fuzz-rock passages that recall the White Stripes.

So no, it’s not the Arctic Monkeys’ form that sets them apart; it is, rather, their content. There’s a furious drive to all of their songs (as opposed to just the singles), a righteous energy that can come only from utter self-confidence. Band lore has it that both singer-guitarist Alex Turner and Jamie Cook received guitars for Christmas in 2001, and it’s readily apparent that the two of them learned to play guitar with one another, as it’s rare to hear such precise and intricate interplay between a band’s two guitarists even in acts 15 years older than these guys. The rhythm section—especially Helders—more than maintains the often ferocious pace right behind them. The drummer cites a somewhat surprising source as a band-wide influence: “We were rap fans more at school more than now, but yeah, it’s still there,” he says. “It still influences in some ways, like for me, it’s the drummin’. The groove element, like foon-keh music.”

And it is perhaps from American hip-hop and British slang/accent-driven grim that the band nicked the concepts of taking on the haters (see “Who the Fuck . . . ” above) and reppin’ their ‘hood. They sing in the broadest of Yorkshire accents, where words like “tough” and “fuck” rhyme, respectively, with “hoof” and “book.” In the band’s single “Fake Tales of San Francisco,” Turner sideswipes Brit bands with put-on Yank accents and attitudes: “Yeah I’d like to tell you all my problem /You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham / So get off the bandwagon, and put down the handbook.”

“At first it weren’t like that – it were a bit like an American accent; I think that ‘s what everybody does when they start a band because that’s what they’ve ‘eard and that’s what were popular,” Helders says. “But then, like, it doesn’t really make any sense – when you talk between the songs at a gig and you’re speakin’ English in our normal accent, it seems a bit strange when you burst into song like you’re from California or summat. We saw that ‘appen to other bands and we thought we would avoid that. They looked a bit daft – they were probably saying words that they wouldn’t even say just because they were speakin’ in a different accent. And it’s easier, if anything, just to sing in your own accent.”

That aspect of the band, and even more their letter-perfect descriptions of hedonistic pursuits in decaying red-brick British steel towns, would appear to dim the band’s prospects for making it big Stateside. From the days of the Kinks through the Jam and the Specials and on down to Pulp and eventually the Streets, the better an act has been at describing British life, and the more defiant their English accent, the worse they have translated here. In the beginning, the Beatles cracked America by emulating Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers and Little Richard; Mick Jagger channeled Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And while Noel Gallagher did often sing in the clipped, guttural voice of his native Manchester, the songs that made Oasis famous here were Bic-waving, bong-scented anthems about champagne supernovas and wonderwalls and such.

The Monkeys don’t trade in such sweeping musical statements or lyrical generalities. They wax beerily poetic about the mundane details of provincial ennui, the lack of romance to life in a second- or third-tier English city in the British Rust Belt, a town equivalent to Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Buffalo here.

“Red Lights Indicate Doors Are Secure” is full on-poignant to those accustomed to riding big black cabs to and fro their nights on the town, but downright mystifying to Yanks who drive themselves or ride trains or subways. And then there’s “When the Sun Goes Down,” a touching, near-documentary sketch of prostitution in Northern England. There, almost everybody from the middle class on down – and certainly most British Monkeys fans — personally knows somebody who is or has been “on the game,” as they say. In places like Sheffield, there are scant few jobs for poor and uneducated women, and not many massage parlors, tanning salons and/or strip clubs, so many more women are forced into full-on streetwalking, and thus subject to the curb-crawling “scummy man” with the “driving ban, amongst some other offenses” of the song.

My wife is from Preston, a northern English city much like Sheffield. I lived over there for a couple of years, so I saw these things first-hand. But what of the general American public? Sure, prostitution’s prostitution, so we can relate on that level, but most Americans view streetwalkers as some horrific, crack-addled other viewed mainly on Cops, not the mousy girl from their algebra class gone astray.

These days, most British children’s TV shows are dubbed with American accents and shorn of all British slang, and the Harry Potter series is likewise edited for Yanks. “That is a bit of a risk,” Helders says. “We’re not trying to isolate anybody, but we’re not gonna adjust what we do so other people can understand it easier. And it doesn’t really take that much, you can kinda relate wherever you’re from I think. Even if whatever you think about it might be a completely different perception to us, as long as you’re getting something from it, I don’t mind.

“It’s not like we’re singing and we want people to know exactly what we live through,” he continues. “We want people to listen to it and take summat from it to where they live – whether they’ve done it, or something similar to it, or are just interested in it. We always say we listen to rap, but I have no idea what it’s like, really, to live in Compton. I just find it interesting to listen to rap music. ‘Cause we’re tellin’ people about our lives, like the rappers are, but we’re not tellin’ people that they should live their lives like us. We’re not preachy.”

The Arctic Monkeys play Roseland Ballroom Wednesday night with We Are Scientists. $25, 6:30.


Romance or What

The band most recently deified by the English music press, the Arctic Monkeys—four very young Sheffield men—likely do not care about expectations, as you’d venture from their debut album’s title, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not: a neat little summary of hype and alienation. One must strike with the hype, but these Monkeys are getting down to some cagey redressing in the process: If you really want to like us, sort us out. Properly.

The comparisons, from fans and a&r types alike, have been myriad, as if the Monkeys can only be understood in reference to something else: Manics, Libertines, the heartbreak of Ray Davies’s busted-down Britannia dreams, and the Stone Roses, whom the Monkeys resemble in a fondness for the oxymoronical moniker. But this is a band that realizes grand dreams are in some measure predicated on maintaining a certain aloofness about those same ambitions. Disaffection leads to an odd, almost extra-musical perception: the outsider looking in and having more to say about any given scene than the scenesters themselves milling about.

Songs like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Fake Tales of San Francisco” have been Net-available for ages as demos because the band was savvy enough to leak them, escorting us into Stone Roses “She Bangs the Drums” territory: would-be anthems pitched to introspection rather than the yobo-sensibility of fists pumping in the air, though you can dance your ass off to this stuff. Alex Turner’s no vocal giant, and everyone’s bound to liken him to Jarvis Cocker—the wry observer signposting with his cleverly enunciated bits. But on tracks like “Mardy Bum,” Turner’s voice betrays a coy hedonism, an observer cracking himself up with the almost sad specificity of his observations. Lager chronicles, if you like. There are no gargantuan Oasis-isms here, and heed the prattle about “the band you’ve always been looking for” at your own risk. The Monkeys may sing about keeping everyone entertained, but come on—anyone who’s ever heard a classic debut album understands that’s got nothing to do with it. Tricksters.


Uncool It Now

The United Kingdom is of the unanimous opinion that Art Brut is uncool. Word’s still out, though, on whether or not this makes the band cool. Last January, the Guardian‘s David Peschek gushed that jocular frontman Eddie Argos and his crew of Wire-weaned faux-Fall three-chorders were “coolly uncool.” In those same pages, just months later, Caroline Sullivan countered that soon echoed phrase with the assertion that “There’s uncool . . . and there’s uncool,” implying that the band’s debut, Bang Bang Rock and Roll (Fierce Panda), was, in fact, the latter and that this was most certainly not cool. All of which was a roundabout way of asking: How does Argos measure up to Jarvis Cocker?

That’s certainly a less pressing question in the U.S., where the Pulp frontman never epitomized “coolly uncool” as he did at home. And though Yank ears can detect in Argos a canny (not un-)similarity (not mimicry) with (not of) Cocker’s brogue, Art Brut’s lyrics don’t so much flaunt geekery as flex candor. On the laddish “Fight,” Argos sings, “Some people like things left unspoken/I just want to get things out in the open”—far from the revolt of misshapen outcasts that Cocker threatened. And where Jarvis saw the master bedroom as a battlefield for class war, Argos has simpler needs and issues: On “Good Weekend,” a “brand new girlfriend” stokes his puppy lust (“I’ve seen her naked! Twice!”); on “Rusted Guns of Milan,” his love lies limp (“Don’t tell your friends!”).

As for social criticism, Argos relies on snap (and snappy) responses to a younger brother’s budding record collection and the NME. Resigned to irrelevance (“Popular culture no longer applies to me”) and bored with trendiness (“I can’t stand the sound of the Velvet Underground”), he might respond by “Moving to L.A.,” where he’ll swig Hennessey with Morrissey and buy new clothes with Axl Rose. A freewheeling sensibility and yet, “it’s not irony,” as Argos intones on his sharpest bit of rock crit “Formed a Band.” So sincere is his desire to bring peace to the Middle East with a song “more universal than ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” he implicitly big-ups not just DIY bootstrappiness but also the grandiosity of Oasis, of Coldplay . . . and of Pulp. Maybe Argos doesn’t necessarily count himself among the common people. But he for sure identifies with the ordinaries, and he knows what we deserve—hot sex, good jokes, and the ability to accept our own eccentricities.

Art Brut play Mercury Lounge November 10.


Through Being Cool

Were Oasis ever cool? Even in their mid-’90s heyday, when their skill at bashing out killer rock songs was actually rewarded by a worldwide fan base eager to receive them, it’s hard to remember any wide-eyed American critics frantically waving the Union Jack in support of Manchester’s finest. Pundits here were always more comfortable lauding the considerable but decidedly less immediate pleasures of the safely hip, moderately popular crews of the Blur and Pulp stripe.

For that reason, it’s kind of hard to stomach the glee with which some critics have twisted the knife into Don’t Believe the Truth, Oasis’s sixth record of new material. It’s rightly described as a continuation of the rapidly deteriorating creativity the band has exhibited since 2000’s Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, but where was the peak they were supposedly sliding away from? For all we’ve been told, this is their sixth bummer in a row rather than the culmination of some grand artistic collapse.

Truth be told, Oasis were making some of the best no-frills rock music around all the way through the B sides of 1997’s bloated but unfairly maligned Be Here Now. Their dedication to two-sided singles, harking back to the Smiths in spirit if not sound, meant there were all sorts of would-be hits floating around, from the enormity of “My Sister Lover” to the lazy charm of “Alive,” that didn’t make it to the albums—which, therefore, even in the beginning, weren’t the end-all distillations of Oasis’s talent.

What was then a bounty of shiny, instantly accessible songs turned to crumbs with Giants, and the drought continued through 2002’s dismal Heathen Chemistry. The only bright spots were the Noel Gallagher–penned-and-performed stompers “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” and “Force of Nature.” On the former, Noel bared his fangs at all the plastic people around him while trying his best to fashion the question in the song’s title as an accusatory lash rather than a paranoid lament. On the latter, he reads the riot act to the would-be pillagers of his cocaine and money with all of the “stop feeding off me!” disgust of Cool Hand Luke.

So wouldn’t you know that the best moments on Don’t Believe the Truth, wherein Noel’s iron grasp on songwriting is loosened to include not just Liam Gallagher but faceless bassist Andy Bell and rhythm guitarist Gem Archer, are his alone. “Mucky Fingers” rides the “I’m Waiting for the Man” guitar riff for all its worth as Noel berates no one in particular, and the harmonica freak-out toward the end brings the whole ordeal just one jug-blower short of a proper hoedown. “Part of the Queue” is a dark, dusty dark number that builds more tension with an acoustic guitar and a piano than any Oasis song ever has, while “The Importance of Being Idle” is a flashback to the focused bombast of the band’s 1998 B sides.

Elsewhere on the album, things are only marginally brighter for the Liam-sung material than they have been for the past five years. “Love Like a Bomb” and “Turn Up the Sun” are the half-assed filler we’ve become accustomed to, weighted down by clumsy rhymes (“You turn me on/Love’s like a bomb/Blowing my mind”) and an utter lack of momentum. “Lyla” is the same sort of flailing attempt at an anthem as “The Hindu Times” from Heathen Chemistry, and only gets props for a winning, but wasted, vocal from Liam.

In the end, it’s Oasis’s attempts to capture former pinnacles, from trying to re-create the simple sunny-side-up pleasures of “Live Forever” to trying for another album-ending mountain like “Champagne Supernova,” that keep their latter-day output so entirely forgettable. Those were singular glories, and five years of mostly lifeless retreads does a number on an audience’s tolerance as the band continue its slooow ride to the end of the tunnel.


Look Back in Anger

Noel Gallagher was once fond of telling this story. It was July 1997: The monobrowed guitarist of the British band Oasis was at his home, swirling on acid, when his mail slot spit forth a magical letter with the return address 10 Downing Street—it was from the prime minister’s house. Gallagher had been an avid supporter of Tony Blair’s campaign; as a show of thanks, he was invited to a cozy reception of party elites and supporters at Blair’s new residence. The evening yielded an unbelievable photo opportunity: the young, cherubic, and eminently trustworthy face of New Labour meeting the young, cocky rock star amid a huddle of bureaucrats. Gallagher asked Blair how he managed to stay up the entire night to watch the election results. “Probably not by the same means you did,” Blair replied, gently nudging Gallagher about his famous cocaine habit. Gallagher thought it was hilarious.

Oasis’s third album, Be Here Now, was released the next month. On the heels of the Downing Street encounter—and building on the band’s colonization of the U.K.’s pop charts—the record’s release became a national event. Here was the record that would push the homegrown, in-progress musical revolution known as Britpop to new heights. Here was the soundtrack to “Cool Britannia,” a faddish term that renewed British identity as more than bad teeth and world affairs also-rans. Unfortunately, Here was the sound of a bubble bursting. It was an exercise in cocaine vanity, replete with multi-multi-multitracked guitars, too much treble, and really, really long songs. Oasis would spend the next seven years shuffling in and out of the U.K. music tabloids; they had become old news without ever reaching maturity. We know, more or less, what happened to Blair. As time passed, he seemed to have less time to meet Gallagher in the middlebrow.

Outside of a few out-of-contexthits from Blur and Pulp—as well as the universally familiar loutishness of Oasis—the core of Britpop had little effect on the American pop imagination. But in the U.K., Britpop and the idea of Cool Britannia it inspired brought forth a fascinating shift in what it meant to be young, British, and more often than not, white. It was power to the people in four minutes or less, it was uplift without the aid of America, and it was going to be bigger than the Beatles and God. Britpop is the subject of two wonderful retrospectives: journalist John Harris’s keenly researched Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo) and a hilarious documentary entitled Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of Brit Pop. Each attempts to convey this moment of extreme promise, and each pins the moment’s failure on the one man who was supposed to make everyone’s dreams come true.

Britpop as a unified idea emerged around 1994. There were two main commandments: Thou shalt love the Beatles, the Jam, the Smiths, Blur, and/or Oasis; thou shalt love them more than anything from America.Often the artists themselves were aware of this zero-sum nationalism—Blur nearly named their second album England vs. America,before settling on the no less Brit-sounding Modern Life Is Rubbish. Wittingly or not, pop stars were doing the work of the ruling class: They were making it all right to care. Even if you didn’t like the music, the synergistic coupling of pop and patriotism offered a reason to keep your head high.

In the mushy discourse of charisma, the Tony Blair of the mid 1990s had given many young Britons the greatest reason for hope. Part of this was due to the well-manicured ties Blair and his made-over New Labour camp kept with the nation’s most credible pop stars—one of the most entertaining characters of Harris’s book is a plucky Labour aide who turns up at every gig wearing a suit. But much of it was just a general effervescence, a sense that something was in the air. In one particularly poignant scene of Live Forever, the journalist Jon Savage recalls seeing Oasis on Top of the Pops performing the heartening “Some Might Say” in 1995, right after Labour had trounced the Tories in the council elections: “I remember watching them and I just cried. Somehow, by accident, by design, somebody captured the mood of the moment with a song.”

The proudly working-class Gallagher was the kind of apathetic young person that 18 years of Conservative rule had created. In February 1996, Blair attended the Brit Awards. When Oasis sauntered onstage to accept an award, a blissful Gallagher exclaimed, “There are seven people in this room tonight who are giving a little bit of hope.” He named all five members of the band, the president of their label, and Blair. “If you got anything about you, you go up and shake Tony Blair’s hand. Power to the people!” (Gallagher later revealed that he was on two drugs at the time of his impromptu speechifying.) You could not manufacture this kind of publicity, and Blair ran with the baton. Later that year, Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, wrote: “Something has shifted, there’s a new feeling in the streets. There’s a desire for change. Britain is exporting pop music again. Now all we need is a new government.”

In April 1997, Blair won the general election. He had remade Labour by calling it “New” but moving it toward the center. And he had revitalized it by aligning himself with the hard-playing working-class lads and the by-thy-bootstraps dreams of their pop idols. Though the ideas were inherently conservative, it wasn’t until years later that the photo op came into full view. The lightning of youth collided with the needs of the elected, and all the kid got was a gracious handshake.

Today, Downing Street signifies a far more serious scandal. The recently leaked Downing Street memo contains the minutes of a secret 2002 meeting of high-ranking U.K. officials. One of the items discussed was the American attempt to “fix” intelligence data on Iraq to conform to military objectives. The story hasn’t exactly made waves stateside, but in the U.K., it became a symbol of the nation’s tumbling prestige and a sad remark on Blair’s pliancy.

There is nothing worse than the relinquishing of cynicism for idealism, only to return to cynicism. One hears this slow retreat toward disappointment in the latest album from Oasis, entitled Don’t Believe the Truth. It’s a surprisingly great record that alternates between Liam Gallagher’s rainbow-chasing love songs and Noel’s middle-aged tales of disappointment. It is hard to imagine a band known for such corny, infinite cheer as “Live Forever” and “Wonderwall” sounding so deflated. “The Importance of Being Idle” struggles to find peace of mind in loneliness, while the Velvet Underground-riffing “Mucky Fingers” wonders about all “the lies you’ve learned.” The twirling “Part of the Queue” finds Noel escaping to the city, only to find that the city isn’t so great after all.

According to Harris, there was one thing Gallagher wanted to ask Blair that day at 10 Downing. “I did ask him about the Liverpool dockers,” Gallagher remembers, referring to a group of striking workers who were dismissed for refusing to cross a picket line in 1995. “His words were ‘We’ll look into it.’ And I said, ‘Yes, you probably will, won’t you?’ And that was the end of that.”

Hua Hsu is a student in the history of American civilization at Harvard. He writes for Slate and The Wire.


Brits Not Quite as Silly as Their Moniker Suggests, For Once

This Manchester trio had the misfortune of queuing up between the Music and the Kaiser Chiefs at the Wack-Ass U.K. Band Name Factory a couple of years ago. Their place in line at the School of Received Brit-Rock Wisdom was significantly better: On their self-titled second album, I Am Kloot punch up strummy acoustic pop cribbed from mid-period Beatles albums with the sort of haphazard bar-band detailing that gave the Kinks and the Faces their special kick. Drummer Andy Hargreaves winds up “Life in a Day” with a rolling tom pattern that sounds like Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” after a winter spent indoors; singer John Bramwell smears enough post-Oasis guitar reverb over the beat to support his mild-mannered sneer. With their debut, Kloot found themselves drafted into Britain’s short-lived New Acoustic Movement (a product of the Wack-Ass U.K. Trend Name Factory) alongside more mealymouthed acts like Alfie and Turin Brakes. Yet here they don’t sound restrained by the reactionary ideology that always sinks trends in U.K. pop; “A Strange Arrangement of Colour” sports a cool continental swing, and all “Here for the World” is missing is the sleepy sax solo they can’t afford. They are Kloot; hear them snore.