Matt Helders is a damn good drummer. Not great—like the rest of Arctic Monkeys, he's only been playing for a few years, hardly time enough to attain instrumental mastery. But he drives the 12 songs on Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino) with a command of nuance and dynamics that transcends mere competence. Granted, his charms are often subtle—sometimes to the point of apparent quaintness. What use does vaguely punkish pop-rock have for a drummer who swings, as Helders does on "Still Take You Home"?
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Plenty, especially given that he knows when to turn it off. Like the rest of the band, Helders stiffens up a little during the first part of the song's midtempo middle bit, a delightfully incongruous faux-funk bauble filched from Britpop's mid-'90s heyday and plopped in for cartoon contrast. But after Jamie Cook's plinky guitar solo, the drummer's timing re-elasticizes under a call-and-response session that finds the rest of the band answering frontman Alex Turner's "Wo wo wo/Wo wo wo" with a snappy unison "Da-da-da-da/Dadada-da/Dadada-da-da-dada." Less than two minutes long, the interlude is the only thing on the album even vaguely reminiscent of Oasis.
Still, people—writers, anyway—have been comparing the bands, especially since Whatever nearly doubled Definitely Maybe's first-day debut-release sales record in the U.K. But as with much of what's been said about the younger band, the comparison's salient elements—youth, alleged lack of couth, and a meteoric rise to stardom—have nothing to do with music. Oasis' allure was largely vegetal, their songs perfect fodder for cow and sauropod alike. Arctic Monkeys are pure animal, to the extent that in a slightly crueler universe, the quartet's members might already have been renamed Sparky, Perky, Feisty, and Frisky.
While Turner's persona on the album partakes of all the above, Horny might be a more apt moniker. His lyrics aren't exclusively about the trials of trying to get laid; he also explores difficulties with cops ("Riot Van"), industry types ("Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But . . . "), a cab driver ("Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure"), a bouncer ("From the Ritz to the Rubble"), and a hooker's scary potential john ("When the Sun Goes Down")— exactly the sorts of adversaries you'd expect a kid (he just turned 20) from suburban Sheffield to confront on an album about his life in nightlife. But the singer's libido never leaves the picture completely. Even when talking about guys who stuff their pants in their socks, he's an orgone bomb, hurling chi and prana like shrapnel through the nerves of anyone within earshot.
Turner's knack for capturing late adolescence's essence looms large in the band's success story, but the group's business instincts play an even bigger role. If, as many suggest, Whatever's sales potential was primed months in advance by the band's placement of demo MP3's on their MySpace page (and the files' migration to various P2P networks), Arctic Monkeys are the avatars of a new model—one that flies in the face of the music industry's anti-peer-to-peer campaign. Actually, their tactics are only new to music. Any good drug dealer knows that you should keep the supply free and easy till the sucker is hooked and ready to pay.
Even we Yanks—traditionally suspicious of U.K.-birthed phenoms—have been shelling out. Whatever sold nearly 34,000 copies in its first week of U.S. release, landing at No. 24 on Billboard's album charts and outselling every indie-guitar-band debut before it. Critical response here has been mixed to the point of replacing old rockist vs. popist critical controversies with that of gushers vs. shushers. It's not surprising. The British press not only had no choice in hopping on the bandwagon, it luxuriated in the opportunity to report on a real explosion instead of having to artificially create one. We can afford to be more discriminating.
But enough about critics. Let's get back to "Still Take You Home." Apart from the aforementioned digression, the song is all high-velocity slap and tickle, Helders and Turner (playing Johnny Marr–meets–Paul Weller rhythm guitar) pushing and pulling on the beat, approaching a shuffle at points, then snapping back. Everybody shares the spotlight: Cook first, on a fuzzed-up opening solo that's all the flashier for happening completely in the lower-to-middle register. He lays low during the first verse, deferring to Turner, Helders, and the song's root chakra, bassist Andy Nicholson, whose rubbery bounce emits a faint whiff of Northern Soul before snaking into a chorus that could make elephants pogo.
"Fancy seeing you in here," Turner half-coos at the start of verse two, accompanied only by Cook's newly introduced humpy-pump rhythm. The rest of the band crashes in just as the singer's tone gets a little snotty: "You're all tarted up and you don't look the same/I haven't seen you since last year and surprisingly you have forgot my name/But you know it and you knew it all along/Oh you say you have forgotten, but you're fibbing, go on tell me I'm wrong."
Granted, he's no Sherlock Holmes. But Turner's deductions ring true to his subject and situation. Plus, like the rest of the song (save for a single "Topshop princess" toward the end), they're framed in refreshingly non-gender-or-preference-specific language. He's perfectly gregarious, too, for a realist. "What do you know?" he warbles at the chorus' beginning, laying his melodist's bent aside just long enough for a gang-chanted "You know nothing!" before slithering through the imagined compromise: "But I'd still take you home/I'd still take you home." It's a situation familiar to anybody with hormones— man, woman, gay, straight—who's devoted any time at all to hanging out with intent, and Turner depicts it with all the ambivalent humor it merits.
Is the song great? The band? Will they last? Who knows, or cares? Like the here-and-nowness of their subject matter, Arctic Monkeys' career trajectory has been so disorientingly vertical, it's almost impossible to get a handle on anyway. The trouble with most of what's been written about them to date—pro and con—is that it hinges on grand proclamations that simply don't work for the situation. Whether their fame is justified (always a tricky question in pop music) is as immaterial as discussions of their future. For now, Arctic Monkeys work just fine.