For Your Ears Only

This is still a good album, no question. But it should have been great.

When last we checked, Richard March and Mike Stokes were well on their way to becoming either the British Beasties or the Reeves & Mortimer of big beat.

Frustratingly, their second studio album seems to dodge both options, swapping jumble-sale amateurism and stoned music-hall surrealism for a kind of middling compromise. Some might even call this, gulp, [I]maturity[/I].

As ever, the detail is dazzling: snippets of woozy orchestral dinner-jazz, wibbly-wobbly pastiches of children’s TV themes and Rolf Harris-style wobbleboard sambas abound. The allusions to a lost England of [I]The Goon Show[/I], handlebar moustaches and [I]Chitty Chitty Bang Bang[/I] are Bentley touches [I]par excellence[/I], especially when combined with incongruous collage elements like the junglist calypso of ‘Summer Song Blue’ or the soothing tropical guitars of ‘Do The Christmas Rush’.

But in the fabric of the music itself, Mike and Rich seem to be running out of steam. There is an overall sense of water being trod – albeit to a soundtrack of mildly comic squelches and cartoon bubble effects.

Aside from two or three peaks, few of these tunes either refine or advance the BRA formula of gleefully unlikely skiffle-funk and Olde English pub-lunch clowning. If you’ll pardon the tortuous analogy, the Bentleys may still be the Vic & Bob of Britdance, but they have progressed from the inspired juxtapositions of [I]Shooting Stars[/I] to the slick but soulless retro-riffs of [I]Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased)[/I]. Oh yes.

Professionalism could be the problem. After all, the duo’s 1997 Skint debut and ‘FSUK’ mix album were stuffed with jarring changeovers and lurching continuity gaffes, but ‘For Your Ears Only’ barrels along as one seamlessly smooth beat collage. And perverse as it may seem to criticise a band for becoming more skilled, some of their eccentric charm has been lost in the process. The raw soul and reggae elements of previous releases have certainly been diluted, much like the [I]Viz[/I]-style celebration of crap English humour. Technique overshadows content and the result is Bentleys Lite – or not lite enough, depending on your taste.

Salvation arrives late in the form of ‘Barry Normal Eyes’, potentially BRA‘s answer to the Chemicals‘ cosmic show-stopper ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’, which opens with a mash-up of strangulated horns and moody piano before the beats crash in, meaty and tribal. But the finest five minutes features ex-Black Grape rapper Kermit, jabbering philosophical verse over the turbo-splatter techno-ska of ‘How’d I Do Dat???’. It’s a mighty finale and proof, perhaps, that Rich and Mike are only galvanised on to top form by a third-party Mr Motivator.

Maybe they have heeded their critics and toned down the gags, or perhaps they have simply succumbed to the soul-deadening notion of ‘proper’ musicianship, but the junk-punk cheekiness of previous BRA work is distinctly muted here. This is still a good album, no question. But it should have been great.