[B]The FUN LOVIN' CRIMINALS bring their party to Warrington - STEPHEN DALTON's there, but he doesn't feel like he's invited...[/B]
The smooth criminals of slicked-back slink-rap can do no wrong with Warrington’s partisan party posse. Led Zep guitar riffs, dapper zoot suits, nudge-nudge references to pharmaceuticals and urban mischief: it all makes sense to this capacity crowd. No matter that Huey’s mumbled monologues are barely even audible, his constant stream of De Niro smiles and hard-of-hearing hand gestures clearly connect on some universal level where stoned good vibes and laddish charm share a smouldering blunt the size of Manhattan.
So maybe it’s just the devil on my shoulder talking, but why does this all feel slightly forced – like watching someone else’s party instead of being invited in? Even allowing for your reporter’s chronic jealousy of Huey’s effortless good looks, there is something a little too cute about his manner. After he thanks us for coming for the umpteenth time, accompanied by his sickly Ross-from-[I]Friends[/I] puppy face, the ingratiating boy-scout routine starts to feel grindingly insincere and you find yourself hankering for some good old adversarial Brit-punk arrogance. And sorry, but the adoring rap about his dog is an obsequious stunt too far, especially when contrasted with the strutting machismo which lies just below the surface of the FLC’s cartoon-gangster schtick.
Never trust exaggerated politeness in a musician, policeman or politician. Maybe it’s because these platinum-selling wiseguys are obsessed with (yawn) ‘keeping it real’, but there is a relentless sameyness to their well-heeled grooves which begins to grate after three or four numbers. Behind the charm, trickery and showmanship lie just two basic formats: the laid-back, semi-whispered pimp-rollers and the revved-up, rock-funk chuggers. Both tend to be as linear and monotonous as a drive across Essex, and are generally unadorned by anything as potentially stimulating as a chorus or key change. Which might be understandable if the Criminals were genuinely a dance act, surfing frequencies and building moods through repetition, or even old-skool soulmen, finding oceans of emotion in the slightest melodic shimmer. But Huey’s crew are neither: they are old-fashioned rock boys at heart with bludgeoning drums and huge steaming dollops of face-pulling, fart-sniffing guitar.
In fact, so loud and overbearing is Fast’s drumming that it effectively obliterates all delicacy from the FLC repertoire. Combined with Huey’s muddy mumbling, this clumsy imbalance does the band no favours at all, frequently reducing them to bar-room plodders. All of which is doubly frustrating because the trio undeniably have some fine ideas and some terrific raw material. Like, among the tracks from their subtly titled new album ‘100% Colombian’ being road-tested on this tour is a beautiful, husky-voiced ballad entitled ‘We Are All Very Worried About You’, the most tender and crafted FLC composition yet. We also get recent single ‘Love Unlimited’, a velvet-lined smoocher with a similar plot line to Space’s ‘The Ballad Of Tom Jones’ – Barry White mends broken marriage, essentially – but bags more [I]panache[/I].
Then there is ‘Up On The Hill’, a cool breeze of a tune about kicking back and sparking up. All suave creations, but all bludgeoned into smudgy self-parody by ham-fisted drums and half-baked presentation. Admittedly the older stuff fares better, perhaps due to familiarity, or because its rockier format better suits the trio’s live limitations. ‘Scooby Snacks’ is now a rollicking mass moshfest, ‘The Fun Lovin’ Criminal’ a horn-blaring pogo carnival, and ‘Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em’ a goofball singalong anthem. The new headbangers also receive a hearty welcome, from the balls-out axewank bluster of ‘Korean Bodega’ to the Beasties-style garage-rock of lurid murder fantasy ‘Southside’. And, to their credit, the Criminals are relating to big crowds much better than at their early British shows; shame they apparently need to milk the lowest common denominator of football-style chants to do so.
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Believe it or not, your correspondent is an FLC fan. They give great interview, their attitude is impeccable and their genre-busting blue-eyed soul can only be healthy for pop. It’s just disappointing that, after only two albums, they appear to have settled into so formulaic a style. Because, despite frequent comparisons with their Brit buddies Black Grape, the Criminals fall miles short of Shaun Ryder’s soul-stirring mania, profane wit and explosive unpredictability. They are smooth-talking tailors selling bespoke suits: sturdy and timeless but ultimately conservative. For all their surface danger and slippery charm, the FLC are peddling something which is safe as houses. And that is criminal.