Hyping new indie bands to the skies is becoming as much of an English trait as drinking tea and getting sunburned on Mediterranean beaches every summer. This year, four frighteningly young lads from Sheffield, the Arctic Monkeys, have sent the U.K. music press into the sort of frenzy last seen when two then-unknown American groups called the Strokes and the White Stripes first started getting headlines. If anything, the rise of the Arctic Monkeys has been even more dramatic: Their second-ever single reached No. 1 in the British charts, and though armed with an entire recorded output of only five tracks, they're selling out every venue they play.
After Tuesday's show at New York's tiny Mercury Lounge -- their debut U.S. appearance, reportedly packed with eager label-types -- the Arctic Monkeys stayed in the city to play to a packed Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday night. As the four Monkeys shuffled onstage, it wasn't immediately obvious what all the fuss was about. The Strokes -- and the wave of nouveau garage types who followed in their wake -- came equipped with good looks, a sexy band name and great clothes. The Arctic Monkeys, bless them, are never going to be the subject of a Hedi Slimane photo book: Their dress sense is more soccer hooligan than urban bohemian; their acne scars have nothing to do with "heroin chic" and everything to with puberty. (The band members are all either still in or barely out of their teens.) While the band clearly owes a sonic debt to Franz Ferdinand post-punk, their sound -- the choppy clarity of the guitars, the pots-and-pans minimalism of the drums -- is about creating simple, good pop tunes, not following the fashionable trend of the moment. It became increasingly clear as the foursome barreled through the first three songs of their set -- including the gloriously dopey chart-topper "I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor" -- that they are just a very good, very English pop group.
Singer Alex Turner has a little of the Ian Curtis vibe about him -- jerking to and fro, with a look of earnest uninterest on his face -- and while he was all effusiveness between songs, apologizing meekly for a mid-song snapped guitar strap, he displayed the thrilling arrogance of "Definitely Maybe"-era Oasis in songs like "Fake Tales of San Francisco." The gorgeous "Mardy Bum" wickedly captures the frustration of male-female communication from a male perspective with its plaintive refrain of "you're all argumentative/ And you've got the face on," while the night's rollicking set closer, "A Certain Romance," is a devastating portrait of the grim bits of provincial England: "There's kids who like to scrap with pool-cues in their hands/ And just 'cause he's had a couple of cans/ He thinks it's alright to act like a dickhead." Cynics might be skeptical of yet another "Next Big Thing" coming across the Pond, but the breathless Bowery Ballroom audience seemed unmoved by such trepidation, as they bounced around in a most un-New York manner.
-- Matt Glazebrook