state of the union: does brit-pop rock matter?
  • WEDNESDAY, JULY 09, 2008

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Crowded, sweaty, massively hot, are all good ways to describe The Mercury Lounge one evening in June. The heat wave in New York City brought a ton of turmoil, little rainfall, and a visit from one the guys who don tweed suits, thick black frame glasses, and call themselves Young Knives. Of course radio play and chart toppers vary from country to country, and despite success in England, the Knives are not exactly a house hold name. Prior (and after) the show I hung out, drank, and generally ran amok with the three boys who got their start in Oxford. Besides being generally punchy and jolly, they had some insight into the question that ultimately fizzed in my brain by the end of the evening: does Brit-pop-rock mean anything anymore in America?

Years after Bloc Party made singing in British accents scene, many acts like the Knives are dismissed before they start, simply because they don’t screech like Health or No Age. Noise rock is the new chic, and instead of who can write the best foot stomping dance pop rock tune, the challenge has become: who can freak us out more with their eccentricities. Even straight pop seems to be out of its mind lately. MIA made one of the best records of 2007 and retired. Groups like Foals emerge from the ether and become huge overnight, even though they seem to be more like a one-bleep-trick pony than able to write a real pop number. And guess who found the boys from Foals and brought them to the attention of an Oxford label? The Knives did.
Amid leaky pipes and various insects, down in the dungeons of the Mercury Lounge, I was led to a backroom by tour manager Ed Hutchinson. There the guys resided, all in good spirits. Lead singer Henry Dartnall, brother and bassist/backup vocalist Thomas “The House of Lords” Dartnall, and drummer Oliver Askew all seemed very coordinated in their ties and suit pants. The geek-rock look (as it’s coined everywhere and anywhere on the internet) is an easy look to get into, or even imitate. In fact, I looked like part of the band with my glasses, collared shirt and tie (the standard young reporter/professional geek look I often embody). Henry almost had me feign being a part of the band for a photo shoot, a testament to the band’s playfulness. And this was a key moment for me in meeting the gents from Ashby-de-la-Zouch: they know how to have fun. Amid cries of mediocrity from the usual heavy handed favorite players, I listened to one track of Superabundance, and that was it. I wasn’t sure what to expect when the Knives took the stage. And it took about ten seconds for the show to floor me with its energy, its jump, and its volume of catchiness. In short, I found myself trying to sing along to songs I’d never heard before.

And labeling them “pop” wouldn’t be fair; the guys think of themselves as trying to make the genre “more challenging.” Henry didn’t compare the band to anyone else sound wise (minus wanting the appeal of legends like Hendrix); instead he admired the careers of guys like Led Zeppelin. “All in all, they wrote for themselves, what they wanted to do, what interested them.” Defying the beaten path is never easy, especially in today’s differentiation oriented landscape. They just want to be a “rock band,” which seems hard to grasp when music labels are so ubiquitous and interchangeable.
The label-makers of America, the media, may have something to say about the Knives, but they aren’t listening. “We’re not the type to go on-line the next day and look for ourselves.” They are determined to connect directly to the fans, the people who are out there mouthing every word at the show. Having fun is the bottom line, and connection is the best way. The guys told me about a show they played where almost no one showed. However, there were a handful of diehards who literally danced life into the show. It was the most fun bit of the tour yet.
And yet the night was promising, and the Knives delivered… after a lengthy discussion of the state of music, the industry, and the fickle popular-kid tendencies of the NME, I headed upstairs for their set. And they brought the heat to a packed house, each song jumping off the stage in a fury of guitar, bass and drums. The way rock music should. And I mean rock.
And most importantly, they have just as much fun as the crowd. Too much gets lost in the pretentious mix of talent today. This is no struggle for the boys, who never lose sight of the real point of putting on a show: to entertain, to lift spirits, to enjoy and be enjoyed. The question is not “does brit-pop-rock (the music) mean anything in America,” but rather, does the label “brit-pop-rock” have one overarching, viable meaning to us? If it points to things like passé, overdone, or nothing new, then it’s no longer appropriately defined. It’s just like the mess of people using words like “indie” and “pop” interchangeably or together, two words that are inherently opposite. The labeling should only serve as a guide, not as a death knell. And the labeling should not determine the level of chic. It’s about the music.

The real challenge for the Knives now is to spread their tune through the masses of the States, through the energy of solid songwriting and stage presence. Let’s hope a killer show in New York City will help, or at least start the grassroots process. Just in case, to quote the House of Lords himself, the Knives only have one thing to say to the Yankee people. “Buy our album, buy our album. Come on America, buy our album.” -joe puglisi

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