Burgess in Wonderful
Funk RockBy Erik Blankinship
The Charlatans UK, a mainstay of Britpop, have just delivered their seventh album, Wonderland. Wonderland marks their first serious change in style, an important shift. For the last ten years the Charlatans have been close to, if not at the core of, the British sound. Long after the Stone Roses split, the Charlatans were still rocking, delivering their authentic sound throughout the 90s and sidestepping Oasis’ regressive Beatles covers. Cite as evidence lead singer’s Tim Burgess being the first to join forces with dynamic dance duo The Chemical Brothers on their debut album Exit Planet Dust, which brought rave culture to homes in album form.
The Charlatans’ sound for 2001 is funk rock. Wonderland has the swanky feel of a Jamiroqui release unfortunately matched with a rock band beat, a combination that sounds flat. The band plays most of this album on the beat, when they should have been playing just behind the beat to secure a laid back groove.
In a marked departure from previous work, Burgess sings falsetto À la Prince and the Power Generation on most of the album. Burgess enters this new vocal territory with pizzazz and flare. It sounds cool, but it’s also a shocking vocal change considering the band’s shoe-gazing origins.
The band’s new musical terrain is best represented by “You’re So Pretty, We’re So Pretty,” to which a heavy, swanky bass line provides a nice kick. Even with the added energy, however, the song comes off as being slightly disjointed. While the bass establishes a deep sound, the piece introduces bridges to the repetitive chorus (“Show me the money”) without tying them into the rest of the new sound.
In an attempt to place the album on the musical spectrum, friends of mine in England placed the first single, “Love is the Key,” in the U2 category. Too upbeat, too silly and too broad seems to hit the target, as the band has never strayed much into this emotional register.
“The Belle and the Butterfly,” an outlier on the album, capitalizes on some of the Chemical Brothers’ dance sound and techniques. Burgess’ new hobby is scratching records as a DJ; “Butterfly” is evidence. “The Ballad of the Band” samples a woman nearing orgasm while lead singer Tim Burgess sings “Keep on listening / You will find your beat / You’ll find all the pretty women dancing at your feet.”
My favorite track, “Right On,” exploits the band’s best assets: Burgess’ lyrics and vocalization, which speak directly to the listener and roll over the guitar melodies like a friend telling you how it is. “Tonight I saw a shooting star and I thought of this / You’re turning all of your good ideas into doubts / Through the darkness there is a pure vision / Keep it keeping on / Right on.”
Wonderland is a leap toward optimism, happiness, and pleasure for the Charlatans. This attitude is a positive change for the group, which simply needs to work harder at tying new sensibilities into a more coherent musical package. Their upbeat B-side Sleepy Little Sunshine Boy marks a more refined step in this new direction.
The Charlatans usually put on a good live show, characterized by a frenzy of crowd surfing and high fives from the band. Their scheduled appearance in Boston this weekend was cancelled in light of travel restrictions; an unfortunate decision, since reviewers of their British gigs were gushing over the band’s new enthusiasm. Fans can only hope that The Charlatans keep up the positive attitude, and make it to Boston some time soon.