The Charlatans U.K. have always been full of surprises -- not the least of which is that the band still exists. The English five-piece weathered the death of their organist, Rob Collins, an integral member of the band. Before that, they suffered when Collins had to leave the group to serve an eight-month jail term for armed robbery. They also survived the mid-'90s backlash that followed the modest success of their debut album and the early '90s Manchester scene that they belonged to.
With their sixth album, "Us and Us Only," the Charlatans confound expectations once again, downplaying the techno flourishes of their most recent work at a time when tons of other guitar bands seem desperate to inject a few samples and loops into their formula. The Charlatans were one of the bands that, along with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, helped meld rock and dance music by incorporating pieces of electronic music and strong rhythms. There are still electronic elements in the some of the songs, but they now sound more like the abstract digital drones of Death in Vegas or Blur's recent "13" than the makers of the accessible dance beats in "The Charlatans U.K." (1995).
On "Good Witch, Bad Witch 3," it's almost impossible to disentangle the keyboards from the guitars, or the electronic pulses from the drums. All of the sounds melt together in a hazy, strangely compelling dirge, a expression of ennui and frustration. Singer Tim Burgess echoes that feeling; his voice is so low in the mix that it's as if he's suffocating in the thick atmosphere.
But if that track suggests that the Charlatans U.K. are following Blur into complex art-rock territory, much of the rest of the record captures the band in a more traditional mode. The songs on "Us and Us Only" are more often flavored with mournful harmonica than with samples and dance beats. "Impossible," for example, is sung to a hard-to-please girl, which helps emphasize the deliberate timelessness of this little slice of mellow Stones/Dylan guitar rock.
Here's the strange thing: There have been hundreds of songs just like "Impossible" in the last few decades, and yet it sounds oddly fresh here. Perhaps that's because, having already been part of a movement that helped expand rock's perimeters, the Charlatans don't feel like they need gimmicks to make their music relevant. Songs like "I Don't Care Where You Live," another maddeningly catchy '60s-style guitar number, aren't innovative, but they're shot through with the world-weary confidence that comes from getting through rough times. Unlike, for example, the horrid Gay Dad, the Charlatans U.K. use old forms not out of lack of imagination, but out of a need to make them new again.