October 26, 2006

You're Not The Boss Of Me

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I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.
Wait, that wasn’t me. I didn’t see anything. That was music critic Jon Landau, and he said it in 1974. So, what’s the deal? Why is everything that came out this month trying in vain to sound like the Boss?
Damon Gough, whose alter ego is the indie-folksy-singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Badly Drawn Boy, staked his claim to fame in his uniqueness and inability to be categorized. Best known for his sophomore album, the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, he samples in musical onomatopoeia (“River, Sea, Ocean,” “Silent Sigh,”) and instrumental experimentation to put out some of the most innovative music out there — indie or otherwise. Occasionally he’ll craft a ditty that sounds a bit like Bob Dylan or his countryman Donovan, (“A Minor Incident”), but overall there’s no equivalent to Badly Drawn Boy’s eclectic sound.
So where did this crap come from? Over the last two months, I’ve watched my dance rock favorites the Killers grow mustaches and let frontman Brandon Flowers run wild and talk the group into oblivion, invoking the words “Bruce Springsteen” between every breath in their interviews. They’re gettin’ back to the heart of it all, they want us to believe. Thanks to that group’s big disappointment, October’s new releases therefore did not start off swimmingly as hoped. Being the optimist that I am, I expected something more from Badly Drawn Boy. I expected innovation. I expected that tingly feeling great music evokes. The last thing I expected when I unwrapped the latest Badly Drawn Boy LP was a poor man’s Springsteen complete with a cockney accent.
I took the disc out of the case. I put the disc into my computer. I clicked on the first track. It sounded familiar. “Swimming Pool,” although just about a minute and a half, is a false start to the album in the way that it actually sounds kind of like previous Badly Drawn Boy. Born in the U.K really gets down the point. Okay, I ventured on.
The second track: my jaw dropped. I waited a painful two and a half minutes for the third song to raise my spirits. I cocked my head to that my ear would be closer to the speakers and Badly Drawn Boy could redeem himself more conveniently close to my hearing organs. Alas, I was only more and more disheartened as the pseudo-heartland rock continued.
First off, Born in the U.K. is a strikingly odd concept album to make. The Boss’s music is so deeply rooted in American working class culture that it strikes me as awkward to attempt to apply it to a British landscape. Props to Badly Drawn Boy for trying to do something different, but did he put any thought into what he was going to do to change his musical course? Did he put on a blindfold, put his forehead on a baseball bat, spin around several times and pick whatever rocker he was going to emulate by pointing at the wall of a poster store in that state of wooziness?
The second song and title track is way more electric guitar than we’re used to from BDB, and though it sounds like Springsteen, it sounds like village idiot Reginald Springsteen from Sussex. The song opens with the graduation march, the significance of which eludes me. Then it adds the piano layering the Boss is known for. Basically, the song is far from Badly Drawn Boy’s best; it doesn’t’ have a lot of musical key variation so it ends up sounding boring.
The lyrics of the songs sound artificial too, like when he asked us to “be his Sandra Dee” and when he calls himself “[our] Troy Donahue,” in the song “One Last Dance.” It goes beyond forced really, and it enters the realm of ridiculous since out of any British singer today, Gough has one of the heaviest accents while singing.
The bright spots of the LP are when Badly Drawn Boy leaves the farce of a concept out of the studio and simply records what he’s good at. “Without a Kiss” is a despondent piano ballad that showcases the usual Badly Drawn Boy style. Also, “The Long Way Round” is not so much classic Badly Drawn Boy sound, but it doesn’t feign Springsteen either. It too is mainly a piano ballad but has a prolongued trumpet accompaniment to distinguish it. That two song respite ends promptly with “Walk You Home Tonight,” where he picks up right where he left off, unfortunately.
There is one song, though, among the many, many bad ones, that is just about perfect. The penultimate song, “This Is the Time of Times,” complete with strings, acoustic guitar, piano, tambourine, and even a xylophone, made it worth the time I wasted listening to the others. I wish the entire album were in this style.
Telling everyone you are trying to be Bruce Springsteen and not sounding much like him at all, a la the Killers, is pretty weak. However, using all of Bruce Springsteen’s instrumentation with a sound that does not lend well to bluesy heartland rock like Badly Drawn Boy has done leads inevitably to cacophony. I can only just appreciate the simpleton Sam’s Town sound by ignoring the band’s blabber, but with few exceptions, Born in the U.K. is not enjoyable no matter how much I pretend I don’t know who Bruce Springsteen is.