March 02, 2006

Beatnik Filmstars "In Great Shape"

The Beatnik Filmstars were not only a quintessential band of last decade’s “lo-fi” explosion, but also one of my favorite British bands of all time. From 1993 to 1998, they released a steady stream of albums, EPs and singles that fused the brevity and tape hiss of Guided by Voices, the lackadaisical hooks of Pavement, the Sprechstimme of the Fall and the guitar abuse of Sonic Youth into a cohesive, singular sound. They recorded five sessions for John Peel, and released their last two albums on the esteemed American label Merge. Despite all of this, they continued to live on the dole, and broke up just as they had eked a small following on both sides of the Atlantic from their efforts. This is why I don’t mention them as much in my reviews as I do Boyracer and Guided by Voices. (The mediocrity of the band members’ post-Beatniks projects didn’t help matters either.) That’s all about to change, though.

In Great Shape, the Beatniks’ first album in eight years, represents front man Andrew Jarrett’s return to music and his victory over the depression that partially caused the band’s breakup. Although four other members are credited in the liner notes, Andrew wrote all the songs and played a large portion of the instruments; thus, the album feels a bit more like a personal statement than a collaborative effort. One could even consider it a concept album about Andrew’s ascent from the depths. The crotchety man responsible for the noisy pessimism of 1994’s Astronaut Houseresurfaces often on this album. He complains about getting harassed by religious crackpots and drugged-up teens on the street (“Sha La La La La La La (No Rok)”), and makes fun of people who use odd diets and plastic surgery to boost their self-esteem (“…And Here’s One I Made Earlier”). He criticizes his homeland for becoming too Americanized (“I Thought I Was Shot at in a Drive-By Shooting”), and laments our obsession with bland pop stars and untalented celebrities (“I Eat Healthy Food”). On the hilarious “The Radness of King Anders,” he even writes about getting dissed by his own shrink! Fortunately, the last decade has given Andrew a maturity that has widened the emotional palette of his songwriting. Sincere love songs like “Ocean Breeze” and “When You’re Dead” would have been anathema to the Beatnik Filmstars of 10 years ago, and even the crankiest songs are sung and played with a bounciness that keeps them from being bummers.

In Great Shape is the Beatniks’ cleanest album yet. Andrew still puts the vocals and bass through a light blanket of distortion, but nowadays he’s more willing to leave space in the mix. There are just as many keyboards and samples as there are guitars. There’s even turntable scratching! (Yes, you read that correctly.) The cleaner sound is matched with some of Andrew’s most straightforward and infectious songs ever. With a younger singer and a Matrix-style production job, “It’s Not What You Know” could be a radio hit --- which is ironic when you consider that the lyrics are about the fickleness of pop audiences. “The Greatest of Minds” is a jaw-dropping slice of punk-pop that makes me turn up my stereo every time I hear it. The fact that “Supremer Queener,” an improved remake of an older Beatniks classic, isn’t even the best song is a testament to the album’s overall quality.

Of course, the band’s appetite for subversion hasn’t completely disappeared. There are one or two moments on In Great Shape that will test the strength of your stereo (the grinding drone that ends “Sub D-D-D-Disco,” the wah-wah solo on “I Eat Healthy Food”), and a number of criminally brief songs that end after a verse and a chorus. Out of 23 tracks, only five reach the three-minute mark. There are also a few songs that betray the band’s Fall fetish. “Hipshakers and Acrobats” is what The Wonderful and Frightening World would’ve sounded like if Mark E. Smith could sing, and “Seven Years” pays tribute to the dub-influenced cacophony of Levitate. On the latter song, Andrew admits what we already knew: “Seven years is a long time to be absent on leave.” Well, I’m glad that he came back, and I hope that he sticks around for a very long time. The Beatnik Filmstars are In Great Shapeand they’ve given us a second chance to jump on the bandwagon!

--Sean Padilla

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