[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
The Dome, Brighton
TO THE FIVE BOROUGHS
A GHOST IS BORN
DOES ANYBODY ELSE recall hearing, as a child, the folk tale of the man who cooked soup from a stone? To trim a shaggy dog story down to the pelt, this enterprising fellow charmed curious onlookers into adding ingredients, one by one, and succeeded in brewing an ever richer and more appetising broth. There's The Charlatans for you.
If I say they've made a little go a long way, I mean it as a sincere compliment, not a backhanded one. From rudimentary beginnings, they have at every step extended but never overreached themselves. Disdained back in 1990 as insubstantial, one-note also-rans to the Stone Roses, they didn't bolster their cause with such early songs as Indian Rope (as in money for old. . .) and, aptly, The Only One I Know.
But they steadily augmented their primitive garage pop, stretching their range and repertoire, drawing on country-rock long before it returned to fashion - until, seven years later, they were able to release an album, Tellin' Stories, that trounced the Roses' second, delayed effort. The supposed journeymen were making thrilling music. 2001's Wonderland merited that title, adding Curtis Mayfield and Paul Simon to a list of lovingly exploited influences. Only The Jesus And Mary Chain rival The Charlatans for their blatant but effective magpie proclivities.
The Charlatans also accumulated a following. Even now, touring to promote their latest album, Up At The Lake, they can command both excited crowds and a support slot to Bob Dylan at next Sunday's Fleadh festival.
I've seen The Charlatans be electrifying, and I've seen them be dismal. Now I've seen them be middling. It takes nerve to open with a swathe of new material; you need to be confident of both your audience and your form. The former justifies that confidence, the latter does not. It doesn't help that the sound is too muddy to be this loud. Tim Burgess exudes, as always, a daffy naivety, but he seems a little sluggish and subdued.
There are still flashes of pure joy to be had here. One To Another, the Chemical Brothers collaboration that so perfectly caught its moment, thunders and judders irresistibly. How High rises like a whirlwind. The Charlatans have developed something unusual and not always desirable in a rock band: authority. It sits well on them; whatever weighs them down this evening, I don't believe it's that. Experience suggests that, frustratingly, I've caught them on an off-night.
I can't take much pleasure in reporting that another old favourite, Beastie Boys, also sound out of sorts. To The 5 Boroughs, their first album in six years, is a paean to their native New York in the wake of the Twin Tower attacks. Understandably, they've chosen to deliver it via the Old Skool hip hop so closely associated with the city. The trio's goofy, raucous rhyming style is famously Old Skool itself, so you'd think that this return to their roots would invigorate them. But it coincides with a post 9/11 solemnity that pervades the whole record. While unquestionably heartfelt, on tracks denuded of their uniquely crazed psychedelia the results feel stilted and forced.
There's a handful of firecrackers on here - An Open Letter To NYC, Right Right Now Now, Rhyme The Rhyme Well - that assuredly do add something to Beastie Boys' story; and MCA's sandblasted vocals have acquired a deliciously gruff timbre; but all the same I can't shake the unwanted feeling that their superb Ill Communication LP represented a high water mark, and now the tide is slowly receding.
If Beastie Boys ignore Thomas Wolfe's admonition that you can't go home again, Wilco live by it, straying ever further from the hopped-up country roots revivalism with which bandleader Jeff Tweedy made his name in Uncle Tupelo. A Ghost Is Born comes over as both intimate and, fittingly, spectral. Its predecessor, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was so startling and eerie that it was bound to be hard to follow; but this remarkable record is no mere echo.
Wilco are an Americana band - one of the definitive Americana bands - but they play like bebop jazzmen, circling in close, then spinning almost out of earshot. Ghost is often a difficult album (at times truculently avant-garde), and it is also often a beautiful album. The two things are not always simultaneous, but they are impossible to separate.
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