Thursday, September 16, 2010

Black-Eyed Soul

Originally published in the New York Press on May 16, 2006

The second time I saw the Charlatans, I drank in the street, made out with two different girls, and handed singer Tim Burgess a string of beads, which he wore throughout the show. Next time around, I was a little bit older, though certainly no wiser, and I made out with my date before passing out in the street from drinking too much. Though she had to force me into a cab, help my roommate drag me up a flight of stairs and find her own way home through the dark of night, she wanted to go out again. As much as I'd like to think it was my boyish good looks or my stellar taste in music that made the poor dear long for more, I've come to realize it must have been the awesome healing power of the Charlatans.

Their story is legendary. Despite often being lumped in with early '90s Madchester bands like fellow countrymen the Stone Roses or Happy Mondays, the Charlatans outlived them all. Perhaps because of their continued existence, music nerds like me are forced to look upon the band's ever growing body of work as opposed to that one shining moment before they brilliantly flamed out. In the face of death, embezzlement, nervous breakdowns and a thousand other tragedies that would have killed lesser bands, the Charlatans have hit the mark more often than not, continually reinventing themselves. 

Over eight prior releases, the Charlatans have dabbled with Dylan, dripped sleaze like the Stones and merged the soul of Curtis Mayfield with the disco of the Bee Gees. On the just released reggae-inflected Simpatico, the Clash's sprawling three-record Sandinista is the jumping off point, though the Charlatans have managed to condense that vibe into a single cohesive album. “Well, it's my favorite Clash record,” Burgess admits freely. “I love the variety of it. It's kind of like a carnival.”

The Clash are definitely there—witness Burgess' “Magnificent Seven”-style vocals on the equally funky “NYC (There's No Need to Stop)”—but uncharacteristically dark lyrics tread more personal than political ground. “Some of the lyrics are quite harsh for the Charlatans,” explains Burgess. “Though not by Social Distortion's standards.”

Perhaps the greatest comparison between the Charlatans and the Clash has been in the former's mix from the very beginning: It would be fair to say that bassist Martin Blunt and drummer Jon Brookes are rock 'n' roll's most underrated rhythm section.

According to Burgess, along with deceased keyboard player Rob Collins, Blunt and Brookes have always aspired to greatness. “I guess they wanted to be like the white Booker T & the MG's” he says with a laugh. “They wanted to sound like Stax Records.”

That undeniable beat first made its mark with the band's third album—1994's Up to Our Hips, Simpatico's closest relative in the Charlatans' back catalog. In tunes like “Jesus Hairdo” and “Can't Get Out of Bed,” (both of which have recently found their way back into the band's live set), the bass and drums are insistently soulful, but never intrusive. 

“Blackened Blue Eyes,” the Charlatans' anthemic lead single from their new album, doesn't sound at all like the Clash. What it does sound like is four-plus minutes of everything that makes the band so essential after all these years: Burgess' breathy vocals and that fabulous rhythm section that includes the keyboards of Tony Rogers and a stabbing guitar line from Mark Collins, the Keith Richards to Burgess' Mick Jagger. 

When performing live, the Charlatans are in an enviable position. Unlike most bands with nearly two decades under their belt, there isn't a mad dash for the bathroom when a new song gets aired, a testament to their staying power as an evolving force. “Even with the Stones, you want to hear the older stuff” says a clearly flattered Burgess. “I think our audience is genuinely interested in what we do now. We do a lot of thinking on our feet, and people like to see what we'll do next.”

“Even though we enjoy what we do, we try and better it every time,” adds Burgess. “We're still searching for that perfect note.”