02 June, 2008

Album Review - The Last Shadow Puppets' "The Age of the Understatement"

US Release Date: May 6, 2008
Label: Domino Recording Co., Ltd.
No. of Tracks: 12

I'm not sure if the world was in need of the next Damon Albarn yet, but lo and behold, we have him already. Alex Turner and his band Arctic Monkeys have been a revelation in the post-punk revival world. Hailing from the dingy industrial town of Sheffield, England, they stormed to fame via rabid MySpace support in 2005 with their aggresively melodic sound and precociously observant lyrics. Now, Alex has teamed up with his friend Miles Kane of the Liverpool-based band The Rascals to form a new project called The Last Shadow Puppets. If you are expecting to hear something similar to Arctic Monkeys, you are in for quite a shock upon your first listen to this record.

The Last Shadow Puppets defy categorization at almost every turn, so I will lump them into the very broad and loosely defined genre of chamber rock. What the heck is chamber rock? Well, that's a good question, but the best definition is a sub-genre of alternative rock in which bands and artists incorporate classical instruments in addition to the standard guitar, bass, and drums of rock music. Some other artists who have been tagged with this style include Arcade Fire, Stars, The Dears, Sufjan Stevens, and Feist. But neither Alex nor Miles play any classical instruments, you say? True, they don't. But the 22-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra does, and they lend their considerable talents to the recording with a violin section, viola, cello, stand-up bass, trumpet, and various percussive flares. Owen Pallett, a Toronto-based violinist who also has worked with Arcade Fire in the past, was brought in to arrange the music for and conduct the orchestra. James Ford, who produced much of the Arctic Monkeys' 2007 release Favourite Worst Nightmare and the Klaxons' Myths of the Near Future, produced the album and also plays drums for the group. Alex and Miles, both guitarists, are considerably subdued in comparison with their other groups, but still manage to bring the whole thing together with very well-conceived albeit simple chord progressions and well-placed guitar effects that add a massive helping of etherealism underneath the lively strings. The end result to all of these twists and turns is simply breathtaking.

The record kicks off with the title track. The song is introduced by a brief squealing from the violin section before the entire orchestra explodes with utter joy while a galloping drum beat propels the music forward. Alex repeatedly holds out his distorted notes while Miles plays rhythm. The lyrical content, like many of the songs contained within the album, is a cautionary tale about an irresistable though conniving woman as evidenced by the line "And she would throw a feather boa in the road/If she thought that it would set the scene/Unfittingly dipped into your companions/Enlighten them to make you see." "Standing Next To Me" follows and manages to remind the listener of early Neil Diamond and Tom Jones songs of all things. "Calm Like You" omits the string section, but brings in a full compliment of horns including trumpet and tuba. It is also during this song one realizes that Alex Turner's songwriting is getting markedly better and even deeper than that heard so far with Arctic Monkeys. One notable stanza sung is "Summertime made promises it knew it couldn't keep/The fairytale was climbing up a mountain far too steep/Colouring the pictures with your loyal hand/Now I am craving heartbreak while you're making your demands." "Separate and Ever Deadly" is a startling song about the narrator's torment as he encounters his ex with another man. "Only the Truth" sees the orchestra incorporate every element found within the record on one song with strings, brass, and percussion dancing around the biting guitar distortions and shifting tempos before the horns and drums take complete control to whisk away the song. "My Mistakes Were Made For You" is in my opinion la chanson la plus belle of the record. I can't quite place why, but it has something to do with the spacey surf-rock guitar chords, the cadence of the lyrical delivery, and the swelling violin arrangements. The outro for the song has a touch of muted jazz trumpet, jazz drums, and a distorted country-western guitar that brings to mind early-Portishead guitar stylings. "I Don't Like You Anymore" is kind of creepy honestly despite being the most aggressive song included and the only one that omits the orchestra altogether. Alex's voice is also distorted ala Favourite Worst Nightmare, which only adds to the poltergeisty (ghostly doesn't quite capture it) quality of the song. "In My Room" is the only track on which the orchestral arrangements completely steal the show and will no doubt be considered the musical masterpiece of the album to many. Alex and Miles also trade lines throughout the song to the point where you can no longer tell who is who as the strings grow in strength and numbers. "The Time Has Come Again" sends the record out on a very sombre note with a lone acoustic guitar slowly carrying the song until dreamy strings join in to accompany Alex's tender vocals reflecting on lost childhood love.

This is without a doubt the most engrossing album I have heard so far this year, and it serves as yet another reminder that Britain is light years ahead of America when it comes to musical knowledge and ability. The album also debuted at #1 on the UK music charts upon its release, a testament to how important a role the listening public plays in encouraging and nurturing quality musicians. The tension created between the melancholy lyrics and uplifting strings keeps you listening intently as your heart is pushed into the depths and slowly pulled back to the surface. If you are already a fan of Arctic Monkeys, you absolutely must listen to this record as Alex will no doubt take what he has learned during this process back with him to Sheffield. If you aren't, you should still listen simply for the musical voyage.

The band plans to start touring in support of the record in October after Miles is done with The Rascals tour in support of their debut album due out later this month. The plans at the moment are to have a 12-piece orchestra in tow. While no dates have been confirmed as of yet, it is rumoured that there will be a few select North American dates. That most likely means Atlanta will be excluded, but we can still hope for the moment. To listen to a few of the tracks from the album (and a very good cover of David Bowie's "In the Heat of the Morning" not on the album), visit the group's MySpace page at http://www.myspace.com/thelastshadowpuppets.

Essential Tracks: "The Age of the Understatement", "Calm Like You", "Separate and Ever Deadly", "Only the Truth", "My Mistakes Were Made For You", "In My Room"

Overall Album Rating (out of 5): 4.7

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