Saturday, January 06, 2007

In Its American Debut, a Band Stays Close to Home

“We were offered a chugging competition last night, because we’re Scottish.” So said Kieren Webster, more or less. He was onstage at the Mercury Lounge with his band, the View, which made its American debut on Tuesday after generating an unreasonable amount of excitement in Britain. The room was full of guest-listed industry professionals, all trying their best to decipher his Scottish brogue. (Thus, “more or less.”)

This is a band known for neither modesty nor temperance, so what came next — the conclusion of a short story about a long night in a downtown bar — was doubly surprising. “We lost,” Mr. Webster said, with a shrug.

A voice in the crowd celebrated the Scots’ defeat by striking up a familiar chant: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” But Mr. Webster had heard that one before. “That’s what they said when they won,” he said. And soon the band was hurtling through “Wasteland,” a bratty but affectionate ska-punk song about the lifestyles of the young and bored and Scottish.

The View is young: Mr. Webster, the bassist, and Pete Reilly, the lead guitarist, are 20; Kyle Falconer, the lead singer, and Steve Morrison, the drummer, are 19. They come from Dundee, near Scotland’s east coast, and they have been a proper band for a bit more than a year. (Before that, they were a cover band.) But “you’d be amazed at what you can achieve in a year,” as one of their songs says. After their second real concert, they signed to an indie label, and then signed again, to 1965 Records, a new label distributed by Columbia and run by James Endeacott, known for his work with the Strokes and the Libertines.

Soon the band’s reputation spread far beyond Dundee. Two rousing singles, “Superstar Tradesman” and “Wasted Little D.J.s,” both reached No. 15 on the British pop chart. The British press piled on. (NME, the excitable rock weekly, called the band “bloody marvelous.”) And now, with the anti-View backlash in full swing, the band is preparing to release its first album, “Hats Off to the Buskers,” which arrives in British shops on Jan. 22. The American version isn’t due out until March 13, but a pirated version made its way online sometime last month.

As more than a few Internet-accessing fans have already discovered, the album is scruffy and quite likable. Mr. Falconer knows how to evoke teenage heedlessness. (Especially in the giddy, pig-Latin chorus of “Wasted Little D.J.s”: “Asted-way ittle-lay eejays-day/I wish everyone could dance like them!”) But at other times, he sounds like a weary barfly twice his age. In “Don’t Tell Me,” a sobered-up troublemaker hears about his “late-night shenanigans” for the first time: “Refuse to believe what you just told me/Refuse to believe, till you tell me slowly/Or bring me down gradually.”

Part of the View’s appeal is songs that sound familiar and exotic at the same time. Familiar because the band’s influences (the Beatles, the Clash and Oasis, for starters) won’t surprise anyone, and neither will the band’s obvious debt to the Libertines. (Pete Doherty — formerly with the Libertines and currently with Babyshambles, Kate Moss and/or the police, depending on the day — was an early supporter.) Between the band’s bright melodies and Mr. Falconer’s gloriously rolled r’s, many listeners have detected hints of another cult band: the Undertones, from Northern Ireland, who were responsible (among other things) for the sublime 1978 hit “Teenage Kicks.”

As for exotic, well, non-Dundee listeners are likely to be perplexed (and, with any luck, charmed) by the group’s Scot-centric lyrics and thick accents. Mr. Falconer sneers at the notion of getting “a house in the Ferry” (presumably that’s Broughton Ferry, a Dundee suburb); he sings about “standing at the Dryburgh shop” (referring to the housing developments that the members call home); he sings about meeting a girl at the Campbell Town bar, a Dundee pub. Compared with the cool, cosmopolitan young bands that regularly turn up in NME, the members of the View seem hopelessly — that is, appealingly — provincial.

Which doesn’t mean naïve. On the contrary, the members have cannily traded on their reputation as local boys made good; in a recent interview with The Times of London, Mr. Morrison half-jokingly referred to his band as merely “some gadgies from Dundee.” (“Gadgie” is one of those not necessarily disparaging, not quite translatable, regionally specific terms that the British use in place of “guy” or “dude.”) And in songs like “Posh Boys,” a b-side that isn’t on the album, Mr. Falconer not-so-subtly emphasizes his working-class identity.

If all of this sounds exotic in London, it sounds downright alien in America. Here rock bands aren’t expected to have street credibility, and singing punk songs isn’t usually seen as a good way to get out of the projects. Rappers routinely flaunt their hardscrabble upbringings, their tatty neighborhoods, their regional slang. But ambitious American rock bands tend to separate themselves by genre, not by class or geography. America’s most tribal rock scenes (like 1980s hardcore punk) tend to be underground, and America’s most popular bands tend to avoid tribalism. Fans probably know that Panic! at the Disco comes from Las Vegas, and Hinder comes from Oklahoma City, but neither of them sounds like a local band.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss the View without also discussing the Arctic Monkeys, the Sheffield band that took Britain by storm a year ago. (They achieved only cult success in America; no doubt the executives at Columbia think the View can do better.) Like the Arctic Monkeys, the View is a young, scrappy band enjoying swift success, but that’s where the comparison ends.

Whereas the Arctic Monkeys are known for sharp, detailed lyrics, many of the View’s songs rely on gesture and sentiment. (One couplet from “Skag Trendy,” about a heroin addict, goes, “I wish somebody would love him/He doesn’t have a home.” This is, apparently — and alarmingly — not a joke.) And whereas Alex Turner, from the Arctic Monkeys, found ways to distance himself from the teenage culture he sung about, Mr. Falconer eagerly joins the fray: “I’m gonna go to the disco in the middle of town/Everybody’s dressing up, I’m dressing down.”

The band played twice at Mercury Lounge, on Tuesday and Wednesday, and neither show was as likable as the album. The playing was often careless (especially Mr. Webster’s plink-plonk bass), and it was hard not to pine for an audience of screaming teenagers (preferably Scots) in place of the grown-up skeptics who packed the club. The band members had traveled to America from Dundee, fighting illness with treatments both medicinal and recreational, only to sound like — well, like a shambling local band. That might be the whole idea, though it’s hardly an idea likely to thrill American listeners.

One of the best songs on the album is “Gran’s for Tea,” which wasn’t part of either set. It’s a playful little song that’s even more localized than the others, and it begins in a fish-and-chip shop:

“There’s a milelong queue at the chippy, I wish I was at my Gran’s for tea/These people call me their friend but they don’t think the same as me.”

These Dundonians are developing a reputation as one of Britain’s hardest-partying young bands, but sometimes you get the feeling they just want to go home.

by By KELEFA SANNEH, New York Times
Published: January 6, 2007


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