Life in wonderland

The Charlatans UK love American music.

THE CHARLATANS UK, STARSAILOR

Showbox, 628-3151, $15 adv. / $17 8 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 17

IT'S ALMOST CRUEL that a mid-'60s San Francisco band had dibs on the moniker "the Charlatans," forcing the English outfit with the same name to add "UK." Because of all the groups born from the Manchester scene of the late '80s (Happy Mondays, Stone Roses), Tim Burgess and company took the most inspiration from the States. "I've always loved American music," says the singer, 12 years after their debut, Some Friendly, featuring "The Only One I Know," topped the British charts.

That influence is especially evident on the quintet's seventh album, Wonderland (MCA Records). The title is a nod to Los Angeles' Wonderland Avenue, which led to the studio where preliminary recording was done. "We wanted to make a modern-day, '70s L.A. rock record," reveals Burgess, who relocated permanently to the City of Angels in 1999.

But don't panic, fans. Nobody is likely to mistake these tunes for Eagles outtakes. What the group has done is infuse its swaggering mix of Rolling Stones- influenced rock, spiraling keyboard lines, and chunky dance beats with a streak of classic soul. Buoyed by Burgess' newfound falsetto, the mesmerizing "A Man Needs to Be Told," one of the Britpop essentials of 2001, conjures up memories of vintage Curtis Mayfield and Al Green sides.

"I'm getting better at it the more I do it live," Burgess says modestly of his new singing style. He hopes to explore its possibilities further on the next LP. "When you discover something, you don't just throw it away; you cherish it for a while. So I'd like to continue on this trip with the falsetto, but doing it better. I wouldn't mind getting some strings and brass in, too. We've not done that yet."

Burgess' passion for American music is also reflected in the DJ sets he spins in his spare time, which incorporate not only classic rock, the odd "hands-in-the-air anthem," and soul floor fillers from Ike and Tina Turner, Prince, and Barry White's Love Unlimited, but also obscure favorites such as Merry Clayton and the Undisputed Truth. Country stalwarts including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely also take up shelf space in his record collection.

As much as the Charlatans UK love America, that affinity has never been reciprocated with the same enthusiasm here, as it has elsewhere in the world. Still, as they embark on yet another U.S. tour, Burgess remains ever hopeful. "The great thing with our band is we've always been allowed another chance, and not everyone gets that. And everyone always thinks we're just one song away from our big hit record." Listen to Wonderland, and you'll hear why.

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