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Art Brut - Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! Music Album Reviews

After a seven-year absence, a band whose quest for rock’n’roll fame always mixed a piss-take with genuine aspiration return in charmingly humbled fashion.

On Art Brut’s 2005 debut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll, Eddie Argos made gaming the system look so easy there was almost no sport to it. These were the early years of the indie rock bubble, an era when NME was still anointing new kings every week. Argos took advantage: He formed a band, immediately wrote a song about forming the band, and became the critical favorite he never doubted they were destined to be almost overnight.

During that breakout single, the loudmouthed Argos declared his intentions to write “the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along.” But 13 years later, underground-indebted rock is no longer much of a commodity. On Art Brut’s charmingly humbled fifth album, Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out!, Argos’ ambitions are decidedly modest. He’s traded youthful delusions of grandeur for dispatches about the indignities of being a nearly middle-aged rocker with no avenue left for world conquest. “Cult band!/Cult band!/Kultfigur!/Don’t snigger/It’s not about making the audience bigger,” he sings, channeling Mark E. Smith’s agitated caw. On “She Kissed Me (and It Felt Like a Hit),” which is neither a Spiritualized cover nor another modern attempt to reckon with the weight of the Crystals landmark, he’s surprised to discover that romance scratches the itch he once assumed only rock stardom could, likening his partner’s peck to an appearance on “Top of the Pops.”

Wham! Bang! follows the Frank Black-produced Brilliant! Tragic! by seven years, a gap that Argos chalks up to circumstances beyond his control. He was hospitalized, for instance, for nearly a month with a life-threatening bout with diverticulitis, a torturous experience he jubilantly vows never to repeat on “Hospital!,” even if better health requires precautions as dull as eating greens and drinking water. The brush with death renders him unusually agreeable: “They tried to make me go to rehab,” he bellows, “and I said… That is probably a very good idea!”

In the interim, guitarist Toby Macfarlaine and the Wedding Present drummer Charlie Layton joined the band. They’re ace players who understand the band’s trick of breathing life into music that’s not nearly as one-note as they’d like you to believe. Taking advantage of the talent, Art Brut shamelessly dial up the pop, constructing hooks with a cheeriness usually reserved for songs about birthdays. Elated horns and backing bah-bahs kick off the opener “Hooray!,” while dreamy harmonies sweeten “Veronica Falls.” It’s a lovely lament about a platonic relationship that could have been something more. Argos saves his less-wholesome admission for the final reveal: “This is a song about longing, wishing I’d done wrong, and missed opportunities to be bad/It’s a song about not cheating on your girlfriend/When you wish that you had.”

On Art Brut’s last two albums, Argos’ act soured a bit, as he lashed out at a world that was buying less and less of what he was selling. Wham! Bang! is good-hearted in a way those records weren’t, and the newfound humility flatters him. On “Too Clever,” he even holds a mirror to his signature wit, conceding that being a smartass isn’t the happiest way to lead your life. As always, Argos’ speak-sing delivery lends an air of disingenuity to his lyrics, implying satire even when he’s being honest. To the extent he is joking around, though, he’s learned the joke is funniest when he’s his own the target.

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