New Wave (1993) ***1/2
The actual contents are about as "New Wave" as the cover, which is to say not very at all - no, the cover (Lenny Bruce dragged up as Valentino) gets it right: velvety dark, swishily arch, velly veddy British glam rock. Too self-consciously "smart" for their own good, this was the first-wave '90s Brit-pop band that couldn't, and had to sigh & pine as the equally self-conscious, but more crassly vulgar (hey, it's glamtrash - not necessarily an insult) Suede shook the reconstituted Ziggy Bowie mantle. But same as Suede, Luke Haines suffers one teensy problem that could turn into a major fault if you let it irk: he's sanded his formula to such perfection that the word variety never occurs to him. Which is to say that this resembles a classic T. Rex album moreso than '70s Bowie. The formula, however, is intoxicating: a swoony mixture of measuredly slicing electric and breathily strummed acoustic guitars lay a lush but crisp bed of sound for Haines' wispy vocals ruminating as the tunes trot on at a briskly energetic mid-tempo pace. At first it's difficult to tell the good songs apart from the bad, or even if there are any bad tunes at all - Haines could literally cover the Take That! songbook and still come out this side of charm (barely) with this formula of sound. But is it the uniformity of sound or something deeper and more problematic that makes this an album that I like but don't like like? I finally figured out that it was the vocals. Haines comes across as an urbane, literate English gentleman bohemian, a starstruck scion of showbiz parents (as he puts it in one song) fronting a rock band - all of this is good. Imagine the Go-Betweens penning songs for Oasis. (No, no, that's all wrong - that would imply that this is much better than it actually is - but you get the gist of the idea.) The problem is that his wispy vocals lack any sort of force or presence. One can imagine a more soulful or commanding of a singer actually putting some of these intelligent and parochially cosmopolitan lyrics across with enough vim and vigor to elevate these tunes to a plane beyond the cool and pleasant plateau they all more or less rest upon. In a typical one-sentence "review," Robert Christgau gave this album an A- as the Pet Shop Boys gone guitar rock, and that's a hard summation to disagree with. But while coolly detached ultra-British vocals work fine for the PS Boys' urbane dance-pop, they don't quite work so well for the Auteurs' urbane glam-rock. Playing devil's advocate, it's likewise difficult to extricate the vocals from the words - a Daltrey-esque bellower to Haines' Townshend-songwriting would mangle the subtle, wispy charms of his tunes. Oh feathers - I've spent too much time in this review fretting and frittering over the vocals. Tunes? Yes, we have them, and as I said, the formula is so winning that it's hard to detect a bad one - so I guess that makes them all good songs, then? Some do stand out as better than others, and I'll list them: the brisk & breathy opener, "Show Girl," (ah, but they are all brisk & breathy, aren't they?) and the nearly six-minute showstopper, "Idiot Brother," are the twin highlights - make an excellent A/B-side combo. Three tunes stand out as close-to-almost-as-good as well: the crunchy crush-with-eyeliner "American Guitars,"; the disgruntled employee-of-the-month "Valet Parking," (didn't the Go-Betweens pen a tune on the same subject once longdaysago? :>} ); the semi-autobiographical "Starstruck" (on a good day, better than the Kinkstune of the same title). The other seven tunes are fine and dandy as well, but since this entire album's worth of tunes palm off as rewrites of each other, they're not worth mentioning. Anyway, I'm sure you'll like it. But develop a starstruck-smitten crush on it like a 1920s flapper on celluloid hero Valentino? Doubtful.
P.S. From the Youtube commentary: "The Auteurs lost by a single point in the Mercury Prize to Suede's debut in 1993. Their lead singer Luke Haines punched a window at the after show party and was hospitalised for it. Took it well then!"