Art Brut vs. the Theory of Diminishing Returns

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If you’ve heard Art Brut, you’ve already made up your mind about their shtick. You either love or hate the fact that the band capably bashes out standard rock riffs while Eddie Argos drops sometimes clever verbiage about whatever minutiae are drifting through his mind at the moment. Coming from a country where the Streets are considered hip-hop, this might go over well in the U.K. And people this side of the pond like it too, not least of them being Mr. Frank Black, who produced Art Brut’s new Art Brut Vs. Satan.

If you didn’t like Art Brut before, you still won’t and if you did, you still will. It’s the exact same modus operandi that they’ve employed on every single album they’ve ever made and, one gets the feeling, they’re not apt to change any time soon. Thing is, when I listened to their first album, I could kinda get behind “Formed a Band,” and that whole thing. It sounded ridiculous, but it was refreshing in its own right. Now, it’s just old. Eddie Argos is sometimes compared to Craig Finn because neither guy is known for their tunefulness , but what separates the two is that 1) Finn at least tries to sing and, indeed, on The Hold Steady’s last couple albums, he’s made great use of his very limited vocal range and 2) Finn doesn’t just write songs that are winking references to other rock albums or being in a band or being immature. Finn can actually write and there’s something other than superficial pleasure to be had from his work. Argos, on the other hand, is never gonna give you anything better than, “The record buying public shouldn’t be voting,” a good line to be sure, but you get the sense that he thought of it and went, “Oy, that’s a clever line. Better put that in a song.” And that’s it. You get nothing else from Art Brut… or, if you do, please explain in detail because I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Granted, Art Brut Vs. Satan, like its two predecessors, offers one or two pretty decent songs (on Bang Bang Rock ‘n’ Roll, there were three tracks: “Formed a Band”, “My Little Brother,” and “Modern Art”; It’s a Bit Complicated gave us two gems in “Direct Hit” and their best song ever, “St. Pauli”) “Demons Out!” contains the line about the record buying public and “Slap Dash for No Cash” chides bands that wanna sound like U2, but they’re surrounded with the same old shit that Art Brut has always done. It’s just that Frank Black produced this one and someone else produced the other two.

But don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate Art Brut. I don’t even really dislike them. I don’t want to listen to their albums all the way through, and Art Brut Vs. Satan didn’t change that, but I dig where they’re coming from. After all, it’s not as though Argos & company ever promised us Morrisseyish intensity (thank dog) or psychedelic Pink Floyd jams a la “Echoes” – in fact, they pretty much always promised us the opposite of that, and so I raise my glass to ’em on ethos alone. But liking everything about a band except their music pretty much means I’d hang out with these guys as long as we didn’t talk about their music. And, should Eddie Argos ever hear Radical Edward, he can decide the same thing about my band. And then we’ll go get hammered and listen to The Hold Steady.

Argos has said time and again that Art Brut is 100% unironic and not a joke band at all (which, yeah I know, the Darkness said too, but that didn’t change the facts on the ground, did it?) and while I agree on point A, I’m not entirely with ’em on point B. I don’t think Art Brut is a total joke band and I don’t think they’re having a wank at their audience’s expense: I think that they’re a rock band about how easy it is to be in a rock band these days (using “Formed a Band” as a blueprint). It’s almost like they’re daring you to start a band and do better. So it’s not really a joke, but a hilarious dare – I think Pavement had a similar thing going at times (and I don’t like all their albums by any means, but Malkmus shit-talked Smashing Pumpkins before it was cool to shit-talk them, so again, points on the ethos there).

So here’s what you do: find a friend who loves Art Brut (you probably have one) and borrow their CDs. Find the songs you like (and you will), rip ’em to your computer, and rock out to them when you need to do that.

Lest anyone feel like I’m bashing Art Brut too heavily, I’m gonna relate an awesome story about Eddie Argos. I saw Art Brut open for The Hold Steady in Los Angeles last year. Before Art Brut, there was a horrid band called The Blood Arm. The singer seemed to think he was some hybrid of Neil Diamond and Jim Morrisson (if such a creature should come to earth, we are, every one of us, legally allowed to chop off its head and set it on fire) and he went down into the audience on literally every song. And the audience wasn’t that into him, but there were a few people who faithfully mobbed around him every time he’d do it. So when Art Brut got up there, Argos one-upped the Blood Arm douchebag considerably – he went into the audience, started jumping up and down with all the kids and then disappeared in the crowd, heading back to the bar for a beer before returning to the stage. Also, they had a big projector that blasted the lyrics to their songs on the wall behind ’em, eight feet tall and luminous. It bears repeating: Art Brut, if nothing else, always gets the “A” for ethos.

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