The Age Of The Understatement
In the lottery, right, and what’s the first thing you do? You book all your mates on the first flight to Mauritius, buy a speedboat full of beer and spend a month living like James Bond’s layabout twin brother, obviously. And so it was for Alex Turner, his musical numbers having resoundingly come up. As frontman with Arctic Monkeys he can do whatever the hell he wants, so naturally he grabbed his mate Miles Kane from The Rascals, phoned up Strings-U-Like to order their finest 22-piece orchestra and buggered off to France for a fortnight to make a half-hour Scott Walker record. Who wouldn’t?
On first impressions, the entire Last Shadow Puppets concept seems like a right good lark; a throwaway wheeze or a flippant vanity project from an indie star presented with every opportunity rock has to offer and keen to give a mate a leg-up, an extravagant wine-tasting holiday well spent. Certainly, the record boils over with the sheer fun of its own making: galloping violins sweep and swoon as if they’re auditioning for the Las Vegas production of Phantom Of The Opera, producer James Ford hammers out stampeding lounge beats on the drums and Alex’n’Miles swap harmonies like Eurovision lovebirds from 1972. Charming and cheesy in equal measure, having eagerly glugged down the breezy pop bluster of the title track – a natural progression from the Monkeys’ ‘Do Me A Favour’ that seems to have jumped out of ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ eager to stretch its string wings – you wonder if they’ll get away with stretching their Yorkshire Bacharach shtick to a full album.
Thrillingly, it turns out they do. What could have ended up as a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of late-’60s orchestral lounge pop zips, rattles and crashes by like an impassioned and über-modern homage to St Scott’s stately showmanship and Ennio Morricone’s trembling spaghetti western tensions. Widescreen, billowy and bombastic these arrangements may be, but there’s no room for camp orchestral flam. Most tracks are kept to a trim two and a half minutes and are delivered with a brittle bite and energy rarely heard in such antiquated styles, last handled with any sort of flash, ferocity and threat by early period Tindersticks. When the likes of Marc Almond, Elvis Costello or (ugh) The Divine Comedy try this sort of class-grasping trick it sags and sours into a mush of copyist nostalgia; here, dotted with nods to Bloc Party’s ‘Banquet’ (‘Only The Truth’), The Zutons’ ‘Havana Gang Brawl’ (‘Black Plant’) and the parpy organ sounds that The Horrors nicked off The Sonics (‘Separate And Ever Deadly’), it sparkles afresh. Possibly smirking mischievously, Kane and Turner have clambered inside their parents’ favourite records and spray-painted their names into the liner notes; for old music, it sounds remarkably, ridiculously new.
It’s scratched out most boldly on ‘I Don’t Like You Any More’, ‘…Understatement’’s defining track. A grandiose classical refrain full of weeping strings gives way to a brooding verse of wobbly sinister synths before the fuzzbox cranks up and Miles – the hungry, snarling apprentice to Alex’s assured master craftsman – spits a bilious punk bastard rock chorus of fatally fractured romance (pretty much the over-riding theme of the album) that feels like an out-of-control oil tanker crashing through the Royal Opera House stalls. If this is TLSPs’ most blatant pissing over the red ropes of the lounge pop museum, elsewhere they debase their materials more reverently. ‘Black Plant’ flick-knifes between skating Avengers strings and slicing organ blarps like a vomiting Mysteron; ‘Separate And Ever Deadly’ is locked in a tango to the death with Jacques Brel’s ‘Jackie’; ‘Calm Like You’ paints a sneer across the rousing chops of ‘Delilah’ and ‘My Mistakes Were Made For You’ is what ‘Scott 2’ would have sounded like if they’d hired in the funky drummer bloke from The Charlatans.
Having run rampage through pop’s most velveteen vault for 28 minutes, however, it’s on the closing salvos of ‘Meeting Place’ and ‘The Time Has Come Again’ that TLSP most perfectly recapture the grace and glory of their influences. The former’s a taut and refined ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ for the post-new rave generation, full of angelic choirs with violins and trumpets floating down waterfall-festooned spiral staircases; the latter a plaintive ballad, Turner strumming and plucking his way through the fallen confetti and sodden streamers at the ballroom party’s end. “You stood between a fraying scene” he mutters mournfully, like the last extra left to clean up after a Busby Berkeley movie. Incredible.
For a two-week lark between mates, The Last Shadow Puppets is an awesome achievement – a modern reinvigoration of an archaic, dead musical language. We pray TLSP don’t turn into Alex’s Raconteurs – a second album in the same vein would be utterly superfluous, maybe do skiffle next time lads. With news of a new Noel/Weller record on the horizon, the lack of self-indulgence and predictability displayed here is a beacon of good sense in the arse-sniffing world of ‘collaboration’ ego-wanking. But an ‘…Understatement’? Oh, anything but.