Now more than ever, Britain's hype machine works overtime, cogs spinning on a predictable wheel of buildup and breakdown. Propelled by a Pitchfork–meets–Us Weekly editorial>"/>
Now more than ever, Britain's hype machine works overtime, cogs spinning on a predictable wheel of buildup and breakdown. Propelled by a Pitchfork–meets–Us Weekly editorial fickleness, bands are born and busted in the public consciousness before they even have record deals—which brings us to three survivors of this process. What makes them unique is their scrappy passion. Liverpool's Ladytron have thrived as a highly stylized act that might've gone out with the electroclash trash were they not so multifaceted. Hard-Fi and the Editors are from the burbs and industrial Birmingham, respectively. Playing Seattle next week, they're all up against some of the most discriminating audiences this side of NME. Here's why we think you should—attention span permitting—work their diverse sounds into your showgoing schedule.
HARD-FI With Mountain Con. Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., 206-324-8000, www.chopsuey.com. $15. All ages. 8 p.m. Mon., April 24.
THE EDITORS With stellastarr* and Monsters Are Waiting. Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., 206-324-8000, www.chopsuey.com. $15. All ages. 8 p.m. Thurs., April 27.
LADYTRON With the Presets. Neumo's, 925 E. Pike St., 206-709-9467, www.neumos.com. $18. 8 p.m. Wed., April 26.
Hard-Fi frontman Richard Archer is propelled by the same documentary spirit that drives his countrymen Dizzee Rascal and Mike Skinner of the Streets. He wants to chart the daily experience of the young English everyman in warts-and-all pop that doesn't scrimp on detail. On Stars of CCTV (Atlantic), Hard-Fi's debut, he sings about coming up short at the ATM, getting into "unnecessary trouble," and receiving interesting results from his girlfriend's pregnancy test. Unlike Dizzee and Skinner, Archer plays in a proper rock group, one with a guitarist and a bassist and everything. The music on CCTV—titled after the closed-circuit surveillance cameras peppered throughout London's public spaces—isn't as straightforward as stuff by the Strokes or the White Stripes, but it certainly beats with a live-band pulse.
"The original idea was mine," Archer says of the outfit's beginning in 2002, when he formed the group in suburban London Staines with guitarist Ross Phillips, bassist Kai Stephens, and drummer Steve Kemp. "Hard-Fi is a band, though, and it's always been a democracy. If you're in a band, you have to live and die for it. We're all equals."
CCTV seems to back him up on this. Archer's vision dominates the material, but his bandmates give the music its vital push. Stephens might be the album's MVP: He anchors "Cash Machine" with an irresistibly funky bass line just waiting to be sampled by some MC (maybe Dizzee). Phillips layers fuzzy stun-gun guitar throughout "Middle Eastern Holiday," threatening to derail the track into a pure-noise gutter. Kemp never seems satisfied with just one beat per song, repeatedly leading the band into dub-reggae breakdowns right in the middle of hard-charging post-punk tunes.
Like music by Gorillaz or "Song 2"–era Blur, Hard-Fi's rock is constantly nodding to other, more elastic forms: "Hard to Beat" erupts into a sweet disco chorus; "Move on Now" is a tender piano ballad; the title track wants to be a spaghetti Western overture. "Music in the U.K. crosses over quite nicely," Archer says by way of explanation. "People won't just listen to guitar bands or just listen to urban acts. If it's good, it's accepted by everybody."
And Hard-Fi are being accepted. A bona fide hit at home, where the band was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize last year alongside Coldplay and M.I.A., Stars of CCTV has been making headway in the U.S. of late as well— always a milestone for English bands intimidated by how enormous our country appears to someone mapping a tour route. Archer acknowledges that American interest in Dizzee and the Streets, as well as in young English rock acts like Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys (both of whom share in the singer's quest to spotlight the mundane), might have eased Hard-Fi's way here. "They have a very British sound," he admits, "so that could have opened things up for us a little." MIKAEL WOOD
"Men and mascara . . . they both run at the sight of emotion," reads the female-targeted copy on a Lambrini ad. Tell that to the Editors—whose platinum-selling indie debut, The Back Room (Kitchenware), has brought them success via bleeding hearts, though they're still drinking swill.
"The money hasn't come through yet. Maybe it will never, I don't know," laments guitarist Chris Urbanowicz, who creates the tremulous, shimmering canvas for singer-guitarist Tom Smith, bassist Russell Leetch, and drummer Ed Lay's somber hues. On tour with New York's We Are Scientists recently, "we introduced them to British lifestyles, to the shittiest alcoholic drink you can possibly get," Urbanowicz says of Lambrini. "You can buy a liter and a half for about 2 pounds. It's hideous—it takes like crusty lemonade and wine and gives you a high that's almost drugesque." Sparks, anyone?
Once based in Birmingham, the quartet now live "out of a bag," a situation that's given them the tag of "Europe's hardest-working band" in some of their overseas press. Touring aside, detractors will say that it's not hard to modernize strategic pieces of Echo and the Bunnymen's back catalog, but the Editors aren't sore that critics stall out at easy comparisons. "We understand why it happens, and we're not offended by it," says Urbanowicz. "Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen are amazing bands, so it could be a lot worse."
Like saying that The Back Room, just released in the States, is the sophomore album Interpol should've made instead of Antics. Both offer cryptic, annoyingly memorable lyricism—"You don't need this disease" (over and over) from the Editors' "Bullets"—propulsive whorls of sound, and a darkly compelling frontman. But The Back Room, for all its melancholy and mystery, has patches of clever, sexy optimism ("I'll keep your eyes wide open tonight/Keep the car on the road, now/Feel love bite") that make it enjoyable where Antics is obtuse. Ironically, while achieving the larger fan base that BBC radio provides, the Editors aren't yet enjoying the champagne-and-caviar decadence of their American counterparts.
After its members graduated from college in 2003, the group refined its sound in Birmingham while courting A&R scouts. Being removed from the U.K.'s rock and roll cities might be what's kept the Editors so down-to-earth, despite their brooding public poses. "We're not from rock and roll circles, and our reputation has always gone on what we did musically and never what drugs we took or didn't take," says Urbanowicz. "We get up to shenanigans once in a while, but we don't really talk about them." Except for the occasional flirtation with fortified wine, of course. RACHEL SHIMP
Genre is a four-letter word. Ask Ladytron, whose first EP, Commodore Rock, and long-player 604 got the internationalist Liverpool quartet lumped into the nascent electroclash movement. With no one bandying the E-word about anymore, the band's third album last year, Witching Hour, had some listeners marveling at its new neoshoegazer bent. Only trouble is, many of the disc's presumed guitar sounds weren't.
"To be honest, there's not as many as people think," says Ladytron founder and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Hunt from a New York hotel room. "A lot of the time, it's just synths. We had the same thing with the last album. If you overdrive anything, people assume it's a guitar, like if you've got an overdriven organ or an overdriven monosynth or whatever."
People don't often recognize an electric guitar as the machine that it is, Hunt agrees. "This is our attitude with guitars as well—once you stick guitars through modulation and drive and delay and everything, it's a synth anyway. Especially if you're playing it with an E-bow, it's just a tone generator."
Hunt says the group resists definition even within the ranks. For instance, they won't make a distinction as to whether they're a pop band or a rock band. He does allow an interviewer's comparisons with Blondie and Siouxsie and the Banshees, who also resisted formula. "Maybe not stylistically," he says, "but in that kind of place where you can make a different kind of sound track on track. We'd be happy to be in that position."
Hunt also "just got the parts to about five Blondie tracks, 'cause we're doing some remixes for them." He's at his most passionate and excited discussing Debbie Harry and band, who are his first musical memory. "So strange to root around in those multitracks. It's like archaeology, strange demo guide vocals by Chris Stein and things like that."
Blondie's meld of style and substance resonates in Ladytron tracks, even if some observers miss the levels of humor and thought in something like "Seventeen," which examines the human cost of aging and changes in fashion. "I think it's fair to say that if we gave one of those songs to another band on the sly and they did a version of it, it would probably be taken a hell of a lot more seriously in some quarters," Hunt says. "Another thing is—it sounds pathetic—but it's a female vocal as well. There's so many people who don't listen to any music with female vocals."
For a while, it seemed female voices had disappeared from American "modern rock" radio. Though that's not necessarily the case anymore, a lot of the action for women has been in R&B. If so, that's a loss for modern rock audiences—especially as long as Ladytron push against pigeonholes, insisting on cutting their own path to the dance floor. RICKEY WRIGHT