Last Saturday at Club Euphoria, Art Brut brought its distinct brand of art punk-pop rock to Ithaca. Opening for the British band was another foreign group, albeit one far closer to home: the up-and-coming Tokyo Police Squad out of Canada. While playing loud enough for two groups and showing an equal amount of enthusiasm, the music was mangled by the sound system to the point of futility. The vocals and melody were lost to the cacophonous drums and the sheer volume of the piano synthesizer. In the end, it was more interesting to keep track of the guitarist’s travails than try to make out the lyrics or melody. In a set that lasted less than an hour, he managed to break three strings, drop his guitar and meet a variety of other misfortunes that I probably missed.
The more professional — and more entertaining — Art Brut followed, and their irony-filled punk rock got the crowd jumping through the whole set. The band opened with the chords to AC/DC’s “Back in Black” which, sadly, they did not complete — this seemed like a missed opportunity, as it would have been the most unexpected and incongruous cover possible. Instead, they went into “Formed A Band,” one of the two best songs on their CD Bang Bang Rock ’& Roll. Chanting a chorus of “Formed a band, we formed a band. Look at us! We formed a band!” Art Brut (pronounced Art Brute for the phonetically challenged among us) quickly got the crowd jumping with their enthusiasm, particularly that of lead singer Eddie Argos, who commanded the stage like a heavy, drunken and somewhat less flamboyant Mick Jagger. The song ended with a brief snippet of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” This continuous use of songs from such disparate sources suggested two of the underpinnings of the Art Brut ethos, namely, a wide, variegated and inclusive musical taste and a genuine enthusiasm and joy in performing, both of which certainly came across over the course of their set. This enthusiasm was particularly evident in “Moving To L.A.” As one observer noted, “they sound like a cross between The Killers and Beach Boys,” and while she wasn’t too far off (Mr. Argos does sort of look like a cross between Brandon Flowers and Brian Wilson), the more apt comparison might be describing the Art Brut as a cross between the Sex Pistols and Violent Femmes.
The group’s style seems to fit that description nicely, and when performing live, they give the impression of a group that formed at a bar one drunken night and stayed true to their origins in both their music and performances. While adopting a punk style, the only social conscience that could be found throughout their performance was the admonition from Mr. Argos in the middle of “Bad Weekend” (with a chorus of “popular culture no longer applies to me”) that the audience must all form bands in order to escape the gaping maw of pop culture. Of course, he then quickly qualified that statement with an addendum, telling the audience. “don’t listen to people in bands, they’re idiots … and probably drunk.” This statement encapsulates Art Brut better than anything else, hinting at the strong overarching irreverence that suffuses everything they do. This is unsurprising, considering the group takes its name from a term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe “outsider art,” made without thought to societal strictures or cultural norms.
Examples of this ironic punk ethos are evident throughout Bang Bang Rock & Roll, particularly in the chorus of songs like “Modern Art” (“modern art makes me want to rock”) and the bubbly “Good Weekend” (“got myself a brand-new girlfriend”). Though the dueling guitars and howling lead singer suggest swaggering British punk like the Sex Pistols, these choruses are a far cry from “God Save The Queen.”
Although the group included a number of new songs and upcoming singles, it was their older material like “1800 Lira,” “My Little Brother” and “Emily Kane” that was received most enthusiastically. In the end, the stellar performance left the crowd waiting for more (there was applause for five minutes after the group finally left the stage) it also instilled a new excitement and anticipation for their next album. In “Formed A Band,” Mr. Argos sings about being on Top of the Pops. I wonder how he’ll feel when they actually get there. With songs this infectious, it shouldn’t take long.