Monday, August 17, 2009

Album Review: Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

It seems surprising that Arctic Monkeys, the music blogosphere darling band of 2005, is already on its third album.  After a meteoric start, it’s almost as if nothing the group can do will match its debut.

Considering 2006’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest-selling debut record in England, it’s unsurprising that sophomore release Favourite Worst Nightmare didn’t perform quite as well. And so, the group sets about the difficult task of living up to the colossal expectations with its third record, Humbug. Searching for a new spark, the band tapped Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme to produce.

These British boys have the rock star swagger. They have to, at least. How else could they have exploded into blog stardom when so many similar bands have faded?

With Humbug, that swagger mixes with Homme’s desert thunder to birth a surprising new sound. Oh, it’s still Arctic Monkeys. But lines like “What came first/The chicken or the dickhead?” from “Pretty Visitors” suggest Homme has been a bad influence on lead singer/songwriter Alex Turner, which signals good things for Humbug.

Homme and Favourite Worst Nightmare producer James Ford split production duties, each handling half of the Humbug sessions’ 24 tracks.  Only 10 of those tracks made it onto the final cut, leaving the listener to match each track to its producer.

Minor-key back-alley slinks like “Crying Lightning” bear the markings of Homme’s musical instincts: all fuzzed-out bass lines and bluesy reverb.  “Dangerous Animals” follows the thematic statement of “Crying Lightning.” In fact, there’s a predatory funkiness to the majority of the tracks on Humbug.

The guitars are meatier and the drums are heavier in comparison to the fragility of the band’s previous recordings. “Pretty Visitors” even has a dirge of a chorus that would fit perfectly on a Queens of the Stone Age tune. The brattiness of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” has grown into full-blown menace.

A few of the softer tunes recall pre-Homme Monkeys, suggesting the work of Ford. Turner’s snarky lyrical tendencies retain their zip even here. “Cornerstone” finds him asking a new lady friend “Can I call you her name?”

The nagging question about Humbug is whether any of the songs are catchy enough. Turner's nimble lyrics and the newfound heaviness make the album interesting, but there’s a danger that Humbug will be too easy to forget. Regardless, with its third record, the band manages to prove that it’s capable of evolution, which certainly bodes well for its longevity.

Hipster Rating: 7/10 (9/10 in the U.K.)
Actual Rating: 8/10
Download: “Crying Lightning,” “Dangerous Animals,” “Pretty Visitors”

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